A new take on 'matooke'
The versatility of banana as an ingredient in a broad range of recipes from soups to desserts was celebrated recently at a dinner in Kenya hosted by the Uganda Government. Award-winning dishes developed by chefs from Uganda were sampled by over 400 delegates and banana connoisseurs, who attended an international conference on banana and plantain in Mombasa. Backed by President Museveni of Uganda, the message was clear: the East African highland banana is more than just matooke (meaning "food" in Uganda and usually served steamed and mashed), it has the potential to become a high value processed product to tempt the palates of consumers around the world.
'Tooke' is the brand name for a range of products developed as part of Uganda's Presidential Initiative on Banana Industrial Development (PIBID), established in 2005 as a pilot project to develop and commercialise banana flour. The flour, which has been tested against international quality standards in Germany and France, is now being promoted throughout Uganda and is being used in bread, cakes, biscuits and other processed products, including baby food. It is hoped that Tooke products will also prove successful in export markets.
Matooke bananas are a much valued staple in Uganda: around ten million tonnes are produced each year, said the President. But, as he lamented at a press conference held in 2008, it is estimated that up to 40 per cent of bananas harvested rot and go to waste. By providing presidential support to this initiative, it is hoped that smallholder farmers can access better markets and increase household income, as has been achieved by a similar presidential initiative on cassava in Nigeria.
Banana spells money
Commercial production of Tooke flour, now a registered trademark, is expected to start early in 2009. Scientist and director of PIBID, Dr Florence Muranga, reports that initial market trials have been encouraging. "Many farmers never thought anything could come from matooke other than the whole fruit," says Muranga. "For me, a banana now spells money."
Muranga is particularly keen that PIBID benefits the smallholder farmers; as she explains, most currently sell their produce to middlemen and do not benefit from the higher prices gained when bananas are sold in urban markets. For example, a farmer may only get 300 Ugandan shillings (US$0.15) when a bunch is sold in remote rural areas and yet the same bunch can fetch more than 10-20 times more at markets in the capital, Kampala.
PIBID is supporting the construction of a banana processing factory in Nyaruzinga, in western Uganda. Due to start production in 2009, the factory will also serve as a training centre for teaching farmers how to dry their bananas. However, the focus of PIBID is not just about processing but also increasing production. With the capacity to produce five tonnes of flour a day, the factory will require 25 tonnes of raw matooke daily, so providing farmers with advice on new production techniques to increase yields will also be key.
It is also the intention of PIBID to make the initiative as integrated and sustainable as possible. "We are not looking at using electricity," says Muranga. "Instead, we will use the matooke peel to generate biogas, which we will then use for the drying process. The residue will also be sent back to the farm for use as organic manure so that we have an organic cycle of banana production which is sustainable." Over 40 per cent of the waste produced in Kampala is estimated to be from banana peel, so generating biogas is also backed by the President as an effective means of reducing unwanted rubbish in the city.
The Tooke flour produced is to be packaged in a range of sizes and distributed through marketing outlets throughout Uganda. The Instant Tooke flour, milled from precooked matooke and favoured for its easy preparation for soups and porridges, is to be sold to schools under a national food aid feeding programme. Hospitals will also be targeted. Raw Tooke flour, an effective substitute for wheat flour, is being incorporated in a range of baking products.
The award-winning dishes served at the Mombasa conference were developed as part of a 'Create and Cook' competition organised by PIBID earlier in 2008. Not all of the recipes were served but over 100 recipes have been developed and published in a PIBID cook book to raise further awareness of the versatility of this much-loved staple.
It is unlikely that some of the more adventurous recipes will be adopted widely in Uganda, or even elsewhere, but, with the prospect of rising food prices everywhere, adding value to Uganda's primary crop and using it as an effective substitute for wheat can only make matooke even more important as a food for East Africa and beyond.
With contributions from: Busani Bafana and Pius Sawa
Date published: January 2009
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