Role 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

The plant 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).

Beed?s ?very 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 organizations.

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

However, 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 points out.

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?.?

The 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.

Just 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 United States.

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 says.

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.?