For 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 wealth.
"We 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."
Both 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.
Sub-Saharan 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 production.
"In 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."
Recent 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.
Yet, 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 subsistence crop
Mostly, 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.
Plantains, also members of the banana family, are roasted or deep-fried across tropical Africa.
Beed 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.
"Like 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 banana."
Dubois says banana is "engrained in the fabric" of Africa.
"But 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 development
Beed agrees that the banana's potential is largely unrealized.
"We're 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 explains.
But, 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."
But 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.
"What 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."
He 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.
"So 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 states.
He 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.
"That's 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'
Beed 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.
"There's 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 production."
He 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 realized."
Beed says farmers are very happy at finally being asked to make decisions about plans that, after all, greatly affect them.