players in Africa’s banana industry – from farmers to scientists – have
launched a plan to establish the continent’s rural poor as viable producers of
bananas. Objectives include enabling small-scale African banana farmers to export
to lucrative global markets and to produce more bananas for local use. International
agriculture organizations say this’ll ease food shortages in parts of Africa
where banana is a staple diet. They’re also encouraging large businesses and
African governments to become involved in the plan.
Dr. Fen Beed, a scientist with the International Institute of Tropical
Agriculture, says there’s “particularly encouraging recognition” from some
African governments that the “time is ripe” for the expansion and improvement
of continental banana production. This, he says, can’t happen without the
backing of state authorities.
“You have to bear in mind that the mandate and the control over
production within a country, and the opportunities that may exist within a
country, and also the diseases that may come into a country – all of this is
under the control of the national governments. So without their cooperation, we
can’t do much at all,” Beed states from his laboratory in Kampala, Uganda.
Those drawing up the plan to
boost banana output from Africa have praised the involvement of several of the
continent’s governments in the initiative. They say authorities from Kenya,
Uganda and Rwanda are especially interested.
“They showed not just their
willingness to support this particular initiative, but also to follow through
and communicate and to try to create an enabling environment to boost banana
production in Africa,” Beed tells VOA.
FARA takes the lead
disease specialist also praises the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa
(FARA), which oversees the development of agriculture across the continent. FARA
consists of representatives of government agriculture departments, leading
agriculturalists at local and global universities, African and international
research centers, farmers’ organizations and so on. FARA’s affiliated with the
New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).
pleased” that FARA has taken an “active interest” in cooperating with all concerned
to establish the banana as one of Africa’s top crops. He says FARA’s
involvement in the initiative is of particular significance.
“They would actually like to
be used as a vehicle through which strategies developed could be housed…. The
fact that FARA would like to take over the ownership of the strategy in the
future is more important than an individual organization, because it (the
initiative) does belong to Africa. And if FARA can take responsibility for
organizing the further development of the strategy, that’s more appropriate
(than international groups taking the lead),” he explains.
Beed emphasizes that “real
empowerment and action happen at a local level,” not through international
He also says it’s “very significant”
that the United Nations and regional economic blocs, such as the Economic
Community of West African States and the East African Community, are “reacting
with favor” and promising support for the continent’s banana industry.
This, he says, could
eventually ensure that bananas become an “economic driver” for Africa.
African governments criticized
African farmers have often complained that most of the continent’s governments,
even those flush with cash from mineral exports, aren’t investing in what is
the mainstay of African life, namely agriculture. They say African governments
don’t provide their farmers with capital, don’t improve crumbling transport
systems which make it very difficult for farmers to get their produce to
markets, and heap unfair
taxes on farmers.
Thomas Dubois is a Belgian
scientist working with Ugandan banana farmers to improve their yields. He says
it’s “unfortunate” that African governments aren’t willing to fund agricultural
inputs, such as equipment.
“Growing banana plants in Africa
is really plagued by the fact that there are no inputs available; if they are
available, they are very expensive. So farmers cannot reach the level of
productivity you could normally reach,” Dubois explains.
Beed says African
governments generally tend to concentrate development on “more saleable” cash
crops such as coffee, cotton and sugar, than on staple crops such as banana
that feed millions.
“And that’s because
governments consider them to be an internal issue. But the reality is (that)
the internal issue is a real opportunity for economic development as well,” he
Dubois, though, is convinced
that African governments are “coming around to the fact that the banana doesn’t
just have to be a subsistence crop…. There’s also a tremendous amount of money
that could be made from export revenue to exploit from bananas. I think that
government is slowly but surely moving towards accepting that there is
potential for banana; it isn’t simply a traditional backwater practice….”
big international conglomerates
The scientists say some of the world’s largest
banana companies are beginning to show a greater interest in investing in
Africa. A recent gathering in Mombasa, Kenya, held to discuss the future of
continental banana production, was attended by several representatives from major
international banana enterprises. They examined opportunities for small-scale
growers in Africa to participate in their supply chains.
five companies control the production of more than 90 percent of internationally
traded bananas, most of which is grown on huge plantations in Latin America.
The two biggest banana companies in the world, Dole Food Company and Chiquita Brands International, are based in the
Some African nations and
their farmers – their produce largely excluded from the world’s richest markets
for a variety of reasons – have often claimed that large international food
firms don’t want Africans to have access to these markets, because they want
all the profit for themselves.
But Dubois says the
operations of African farmers are mostly so small that they’re “no threat
whatsoever” to the big companies’ global dominance. In fact, Dubois hopes the
big global food enterprises begin paying more attention to Africa, and invest
more in the continent’s banana industry.
“I am not averse towards big
companies coming into Africa. To be fair, they are the only ones really that
can increase banana production and make it uniform and standardized, in order
to export it to, say, Europe, which is close to Africa, or the Middle East,” he
Dubois says without the
support of large banana companies, African production will remain small scale.
He says farmers in Africa don’t have the necessary capital to allow them to
export to places like Europe, but that the big international firms could help
them to do this. In fact, it’s already happening.
“There are a couple of the
big companies exporting bananas from West Africa. Chiquita is now coming into
Africa, trying to export banana from Mozambique and from Angola. There
definitely are companies that are using the fact that there are reduced tariffs
for export of (African) banana to Europe, which is a good thing.”