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From black to green gold in the Niger Delta

A Nigerian farmer at his plantain farm (Green River Project)
A Nigerian farmer at his plantain farm
Green River Project

Home to over 30 million people, the Niger Delta is best known for its rich oil reserves which, for over 30 years, have provided more than 75 per cent of Nigeria's export revenue. Despite the vast wealth generated by petroleum, the benefits have been slow to trickle down to the ethnic minorities who make up much of this densely populated region. However, a project led by multi-national oil company, Agip, is supporting the development and transfer of cooking bananas to replace plantain varieties, which were devastated by a black Sigatoka epidemic in the mid 1980s.

Plantain is an important staple in West and Central Africa, where about 70 million people rely on them as an important part of their food energy requirements. Although there is no formal botanical distinction between bananas and plantain, which are both classified as Musa, plantain fruits are generally used for cooking, are firmer and are lower in sugar content than dessert bananas.

When disaster strikes…

Black Sigatoka (Mycosphaerella fijiensis), a fungal spot disease otherwise known as black leaf streak disease (BSLD), was first recorded in Nigeria in 1986 causing extensive losses to both banana and plantain in the Niger Delta. Black Sigatoka is a difficult and expensive disease to treat. Fungicides are an expensive option for smallholder farmers and although cultural practices, such as removing diseased leaves and pruning branches, are helpful in reducing the spread of disease, these techniques are labour intensive and insufficient for controlling serious outbreaks. For long-term control, the most appropriate intervention for smallholder African farmers is disease-resistant cultivars.

Extension workers distribute disease-free plants (Green River Project)
Extension workers distribute disease-free plants
Green River Project

Subsequent to the BSLD outbreak in 1986, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) was quick to respond to the needs of farmers and a variety of high yielding, disease-resistant cooking banana was developed through a combination of conventional and new breeding approaches. Cooking banana (Musa sp ABB genome) is a hybrid of banana and plantain. As such, it is not only BSLD-resistant but can be eaten raw or processed into juice when ripe. When still unripe, it can be fried as chips, like plantain, or processed into flour for cooking.

…recovery is still possible

The disease-resistant material was produced in two tissue culture laboratories and, with the collaboration of more than 24 national institutions led by the Green River Project (GRP) of the Nigeria Agip Oil Company (NAOC), banana plantlets were distributed to nearly 30,000 farmers across 700 villages. Adoption of the hybrid cultivars proved to be high; by the end of the 1990s, over 50 per cent of farmers had included cooking banana in their farming systems.

PITA 14 proved to be one of the most successful plantain hybrids due to its early fruiting, high bunch weight and large fruits. In the early stages of its dissemination, several farmers were noted to have established sucker multiplication plots to sell suckers to other farmers. Under natural conditions, these high yielding disease-resistant hybrids were found to be two-to-five times more productive than traditional landraces, with no chemical control for BSLD. Good taste and cooking qualities were also favoured by farmers.

Since 2000, disease-resistant hybrids have continued to be distributed to farmers, whilst GRP has provided extension on farming techniques and training on post-harvest handling. "With proper soil and water management, and the adoption of improved disease resistance planting materials, Nigerian farmers can overcome the problems of low yields and reduce wastage of farm produce," says Dr Stanley Akele, head of GRP.

An opportunity to do more

Improved equipment and techniques are helping farmers produce good quality crops (Green River Project)
Improved equipment and techniques are helping farmers produce good quality crops
Green River Project

Since 2007, BSLD-resistant varieties have been registered and distributed by IITA to partners across West Africa, and evaluations of the hybrids are ongoing in Ghana and Cameroon. In initial impact studies in Nigeria, farmers are reported to be earning net incomes of US$200 per season from the sale of suckers, in addition to around US$8,000 per hectare from fruit sales.

More recently, IITA and GRP have supported farmers to facilitate the rapid dissemination of BLSD-resistant cultivars through community-managed nurseries, particularly in the Niger Delta. Training sessions, aimed at promoting good standards and procedures in seedling production and post-harvest processing among farmers, were also conducted in 2008.

However, Akele stresses that there is an urgent need to encourage a greater number of farmers to increase plantain production in Nigeria to meet increased local and international demands. Dr Peter Hartmann, director-general of IITA, concurs, saying that the banana and plantain industry has not yet been developed to match potential gains. "If properly harnessed plantain has the potential of giving Nigeria US$400 million per annum," he says. "It's been done here with cassava through developing an effective strategy under a presidential initiative. And I believe it can be done again with banana and plantain."

With contributions from: Onche Odeh

Date published: January 2009


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