Business goes bananas

Business goes bananas


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Rob and Krista Watkins with their daughter Kate, 2.

Rob and Krista Watkins with their daughter Kate, 2.

Aa

THE inventor of the world's first banana flour is taking the gluten-free product to the next level.

Aa

THE inventor of the world's first banana flour is taking the product to the next level, with construction of a multimillion-dollar factory set to start in far north Queensland within months.

Second-generation banana grower Rob Watkins, the 2010 Young Australian Farmer of the Year, and his wife Krista, have spent the past three years developing Mt Uncle's Green Banana Flour, on Rob's family's 300-hectare property at Walkamin, west of Cairns.

Made from green Australian lady finger bananas, the flour is gluten free, one of the richest sources of resistance starch in the world, high in potassium, magnesium, dietary fibre and vitamin E - and has the scientific evidence to prove it.

While currently a cottage industry, Mt Uncle's Green Banana Flour has made huge inroads in its brief history on the market.

Having invested his life savings and two years of hard work in research and development, Rob believes his product will revolutionise the Australian banana industry, turning unsaleable products into profit.

Rob, a coeliac who has transformed his health using the banana flour in his diet, stumbled on the product by accident.

"I was dumping tonnes and tonnes of good fruit because the market was so-called glutted, but bananas were selling for $7 on the shelf," Rob said.

"I ran over a banana on the bitumen that had been dried by the sun and this dust came out.

"I tasted it and then we started looking into it. People in Africa, Jamaica use this stuff like wheat - there's zero bowel cancer, zero heart disease, they feed it to their babies, they use it in pancakes and bread."

The research continued to develop technology to process the green bananas - it takes 8-10kg of green bananas to make 1kg of flour.

Four prototypes and two patents later, the production line is about to go through the roof.

Construction of a pharmaceutical food-grade factory will begin mid-year, with production to be under way in October - all within three years of releasing a new product to the world.

"My original idea was if I was going to continue to be a banana grower, I was going to grow bananas for gluten-free flour production instead of fruit," Rob said.

"Some have laughed at us with this concept, as they know we are breaking out of the dictatorship.

"In a sense we have struggled to deliver the product because of the price, but I wanted to get it on to the market.

"We have proven that we can make this product naturally, without adding anything.

"And after discovering one thing, it opens opportunities in other products, including ointment made from banana flour that kills staph infections."

Rob's passion for the product goes 24-7. There's a website, cooking demonstrations on video and social media.

Rob and Krista enjoy the "one-on-one" relationship with their customers.

"It's something you don't have as a farmer."

The factory's custom-made equipment - sourced and made from around the world - can accommodate other 'products' under the family's paddock-to-processing formula.

"The technology in this factory will enable us to manufacture a less expensive, more hygienic and more competitive product compared to countries that don't have to abide by strict sustainable food practices," Rob said.

"It's about time the rest of the world plays ball like we do, as farmers and processors in Australia."

Rob is no newcomer to innovation, having invented the Banana Blankey, a polypropylene material carton insert for packing bananas in 2005, and more recently a banana bunch harvester which eliminates 80 per cent of the labour-intensive activities.

He is well supported by parents Bruce and Kem, who developed Mt Uncle Farms into a successful, multimillion-dollar family farming operation growing bananas and avocados, and was the biggest producer of lady finger bananas in Australia, until it was sold last year.

Victorian-based Costa Group has leased 300ha for banana production, while the Watkins family continues to own and operate the Mt Uncle distillery and cafeteria.

While the next chapter presents as a huge risk, Rob believes the sky is the limit.

"I believe banana flour in this form is more valuable to us as humans than it is in its right form," Rob said.

"That's a big call, but I know it's helping people.

"We have lived and breathed it.

"We have made everything in the world with this product - it's so exciting."

Aa

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