the first time, an assortment of role players in Africa's banana industry have
banded together to radically transform the way the crop is produced on the
continent. Farmers, buyers, donors, trade officials and scientists – among
others – are trying to improve production methods and to eventually link
smallholder banana producers to regional and global markets. These outlets
represent billions of dollars each year in banana purchases, and could provide
a boon to some of Africa's poorest food producers. But, as a result of serious
challenges, most African banana farmers currently can't access the potential
can't underestimate the importance of the banana to Africa. What rice is for
China and potatoes is for America, that's what banana is for some countries in
Africa," says Thomas Dubois, a Belgian scientist with the Consultative Group on
International Agricultural Research.
Dr. Fen Beed, a plant
pathologist specializing in diseases afflicting banana crops for the International
Institute of Tropical Agriculture, adds, "Bananas are part of the agricultural and cultural
landscape of Africa…. Bananas have been in Africa for over two thousand years
now – much longer than more recognized crops such as maize or cassava."
Dubois and Beed have taken a keen interest in Africa's banana sector since
being based in Uganda's capital, Kampala. The East African country is the
world's second largest banana producer, after India, harvesting 10 million tons
annually with an estimated value of US$1.7 billion.
Africa produces 30 million tons of bananas, which provide food for about 100
million people and account for 35 percent of global banana and plantain
Africa, banana in some form is an essential staple crop for many countries,"
says Beed. "For some countries…. such as Rwanda and Burundi, also Congo and
Uganda, it is the only staple crop. So it's an extremely important crop."
studies have found that the expansion of small-scale banana production in certain
countries like Rwanda – where
bananas make up 80 percent of people's diets – has helped to save Africans from starving in the
wake of rising food prices.
despite the banana's obvious importance to Africa, agricultural scientists and
research organizations say continental and international authorities continue
to neglect its development.
Banana far more than a
Africans boil and mash green bananas and plantains, with their firm and starchy
flesh, into life-sustaining porridge that's often eaten as a belly-filling
accompaniment to much more expensive meat. The way banana is eaten in Africa is
a far cry from the consumption of the soft yellow fruit as a tasty snack or
condiment for pudding in places like England and America.
also members of the banana family, are roasted or deep-fried across tropical
says organizations such as his have chosen to focus on the banana as a means to
boost Africa's development, specifically because the crop in its various forms
is so widespread across the continent.
the Great Lakes region, all over Central and East Africa and Uganda in
particular, but also Burundi, parts of Tanzania, Kenya and eastern DRC
(Democratic Republic of Congo). And then also we have the plantains in West
Africa, in particular countries like Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire…. Down in South
Africa there's commercial production of banana as well, which is the dessert
says banana is "engrained in the fabric" of Africa.
up to now, this crop has been seen only as a subsistence crop, to support food
production for large chunks of populations. It hasn't been seen as a crop that
could generate income from exports. We want more to be done to expand the
continent's banana industries, because the crop is so important to African
economies and to the continent as a whole," the scientist emphasizes.
Engine for economic
agrees that the banana's potential is largely unrealized.
really working towards trying to make bananas an engine of economic
development…. We're not actually trying to be extremely innovative in terms of
trying to produce a new crop and test to see what its potential is; we're
trying to maximize the potential of something that already exists," he
adds Beed, the banana cannot be a trigger for growth unless the planners of the
project "involve all the different practitioners from the field, through to the
market, through to trade regulators, to processors. Then also the agricultural
research centers that are based all over Africa, and the international centers
that focus on global agriculture, and also universities from all over the
world, and governments too."
he's quick to stress that "number one" in the minds of people planning new
strategies for African banana production are the farmers themselves, those who
actually grow the food.
we also did was include people who were innovative, entrepreneurial farmers and
processors. So people who were turning, for example, the boiling banana into
flour that could then be re-hydrated and turned into a product that is
obviously not perishable, so it can be transported easily," Beed says. "This
enables (much better) market access because you're not transporting bulky
bananas which have a very high weight."
explains that such an innovation would negate the high fuel prices experienced
in much of Africa – a cost that currently makes transport of heavy bananas
"prohibitively expensive" for most African farmers and also contributes towards
soaring food prices.
processing is useful to reduce costs at the source, on the farm. The processed
banana products can be brought to a centralized location close to production,
then processed, then introduced to the market when the price is right," Beed
says many opportunities exist for African growers to make a lot more money from
products manufactured from banana – such as mats, handbags, wine and fruit
juice – that could ultimately be exported around the globe.
one of our aims, to investigate what those opportunities are, to try and
prioritize them, and to try and make sure that production is linked to the
markets; otherwise there'll be no sustainable system for juice, for example.
The market will be identified, but production will fail, interest will fade
amongst consumers, and so on."
Gap between science and
practice 'harming farmers'
says there are "plenty of people doing good work" to improve banana production
in Africa, but that "little" information about advances that could potentially
"revolutionize" smallholder farmers' lives ever reaches them. Most of the
continent's banana growers live in very isolated regions, far from the
assistance rendered by international and local agricultural organizations.
a lot of people doing good experiments and making advancements with their
national research programs, and who understand the key aspects of how a banana
grows and how it develops disease," the scientist continues. "(But) it's not
available to the farmers exactly how this information can impact upon them and
how they can use this in terms of improved practices to maximize their
adds, "Actually, currently there's a gap between science and practice…. It's
harming the farmers."
For the first time, though, Beed and his colleagues are
cooperating to attempt to bridge this gap. They're holding meetings with banana
farmers and other interested parties – such as government representatives – across Africa to try to
draw up a plan to boost production.
"A lot's being done at the moment to reach as many
farmers in Africa as possible – especially with information that could help
them to protect their crops from disease outbreaks. But we must improve
communication efforts," he acknowledges.
In recent meetings with farmers, he says, it's the growers
and producers themselves who've been among the "most vocal… and they were very
innovative. We need that sort of level of enthusiasm and idea generation to be
spread to all of the farmers, so that the potential for the banana can be
Beed says farmers are very happy at finally being
asked to make decisions about plans that, after all, greatly affect them.