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Uganda's war on wilt

Four years after it was first reported in Uganda's Mukono district, Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW), has now been identified in 32 of the country's 54 districts, and is described as 'the priority number one problem' for the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF). Having also been identified in a remote region of neighbouring North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the disease is becoming of wider regional concern.

Banana sellers are at great risk from the spread of Banana Bacterial Wilt (Global Plant Clinic)
Banana sellers are at great risk from the spread of Banana Bacterial Wilt
Global Plant Clinic

In February 2005, a regional workshop was held in Kampala to develop a joint control strategy. The seriousness of the problem stems from two facts. First, the crucial role that bananas play in the rural economies of Uganda and its neighbours: 70 per cent of farmers in Uganda depend on bananas and plantains as their main source of food and income, and they contribute over a quarter of the national GDP. Secondly, the acute nature of the disease, which ruins the fruit (making them inedible even to livestock) and eventually kills the banana plant itself.

Oozing trouble

Facing such a serious threat to food and income, there is at least some good news for Ugandan farmers. A national task force to address the problem has made considerable progress, not only in identifying how the disease is spread, but also in educating farmers in some simple control measures. Insects are thought to be the most common vector of transmission at the field level. Infected plants produce characteristic ooze, rich in the bacteria, which drips from natural scars associated with the male bud of the plant. Insects feeding on the bud carry the bacteria to other uninfected plants. Browsing livestock can also spread the disease. Spread over longer distances is more likely to be by human intervention. For example, bacteria can easily be carried on tools used to cut infected plants, so a farmer may inadvertently transfer the disease while trying to control it. And once a plant is infected, suckers produced from the banana 'stool' also harbour the disease; these may be harvested as planting material, and - in this way - take the problem to previously uninfected areas.

In the zone of control

Removing the male banana bud to control the spread of BBW (Eric Boa, Global Plant Clinic)
Removing the male banana bud to control the spread of BBW
Eric Boa, Global Plant Clinic

Targeting farmers with the right messages to tackle the disease has involved dividing the country into three zones. In the 'warzone', where the disease is already prevalent, the emphasis is on control measures. These include cutting down infected plants and burying them under heaped earth, cleaning tools either with a household cleaning product or in a flame, and restriction of movement of plant materials. Farmers are also encouraged to limit the opportunities for the disease to spread in their fields by breaking off the male buds from their banana plants. Through the slogan, 'Castrate: Twist and Break', farmers learn that 'castrating' their bananas prevents them getting sick, a message that not surprisingly raises smiles, but is not easily forgotten. In the zone where the disease is not yet prevalent, the emphasis is on prevention: removal of male buds and not allowing materials from infected zones to enter the area. That can be difficult when banana fruits and trash are transported large distances within Uganda. Removing the male bud as soon as it appears limits insect transmission, though some farmers need convincing that this measure won't affect production.

Learning from the AIDS campaign

In taking these messages to rural populations, a similar approach has been used to that which worked so successfully for AIDS awareness in Uganda. According to Okaasai Opolot, of MAAIF, people are encouraged to talk about banana bacterial wilt at any public occasion, be it a wedding, a church or mosque meeting or a market day. The communication effort has been developed by a multi-party working group, and has included staff from the Global Plant Clinic (GPC) - the UK-based diagnostic and advisory service, which originally identified the causal agent of the disease. 'Going Public', a communication method developed by the GPC in Bolivia, has now been successfully adopted by extension workers in Uganda. At ad hoc meetings in villages and markets, extension officers describe key symptoms and control measures, with the help of demonstrations, posters and photo-sheets. Ministry staff have also been working directly with farming communities to facilitate a process whereby the communities identify the problems they face, and agree on a control strategy. This, says Okaasai, greatly enhances their 'ownership' of the problem and their commitment, as a community, to contain it.

Okaasai Opolot is convinced that the communication effort is having a significant impact. In areas where the control strategies have been spread and implemented, rates of infection have been reduced from 70 per cent to below 10 per cent, he says. In the 'frontline' the speed of disease transmission has also been reduced. New areas of infection are still emerging, but this, he believes, owes more to the improved ability of extension officers to detect the disease, rather than a failure of the control methods. Donor support (DANIDA) has allowed a combined GPC/MAAIF and research team to train two hundred officers in BBW recognition and the use of Going Public. That is part of a wider effort to publicise the disease on radio and via the press, so helping to fight the war on wilt.

Date published: September 2005


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