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Benz barters buses for bananas to break trade impasse

HOW MANY coffee beans or bananas would you need to purchase a new Mercedes truck or bus?

There is nothing silly about this question for the people at Debis, the financial services arm of Daimler- Benz, who have been stretching their minds round ever more unlikely ways to improve the miserable sales at Mercedes' commercial vehicles division.

And they hit the jackpot recently with a dollars 65m bananas for buses deal with Ecuador. For two years Mercedes had been negotiating fruitlessly to sell 1,000 buses to the country's two main cities, Quito and Guayaquil; there was never enough money. Then, last summer, help arrived from the unexpected quarter of Brussels and the European Union's new banana regime, which made imports much harder from Latin American countries.

Ecuador suddenly found itself sitting on a vast yellow mountain that risked going black and squidgy. The German population, Europe's champion banana guzzlers, howled in outrage at the EU decision and the Bonn government protested vigorously. But Mercedes had an eye for the main chance.

Debis offered to buy the bananas, in exchange for the buses, and enough have already been off- loaded in Russia and the Far East to pay for the first 100 vehicles. An eager Mercedes has since taken on further banana options. In these hard times, with many countries facing currency shortages, Debis' operations have become as assorted as the wares of a market stall.

There are honey melons coming out of Honduras and coffee beans from Nigeria, in exchange for Mercedes trucks. Dried Colombian pineapples are being bartered for AEG energy plants, while Chinese industrial products are being taken on to help shift a few Airbus planes for DASA, the aerospace subsidiary of Daimler-Benz.

As far as Debis is concerned, nothing is beyond the bartering pale as long as it boosts Daimler products. 'We can buy anything, because we know that somewhere we will get rid of it again,' says Klaus Haag, managing director.