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A ripe time for Somali bananas?

Somalia used to be the biggest banana exporter in East Africa (Edward Baars)
Somalia used to be the biggest banana exporter in East Africa
Edward Baars

Tribal warfare, insecurity, poverty, drought and pirate-infested waters are just a few of the things that spring to mind at the mention of Somalia. For almost two decades, the country has endured civil unrest and an ineffective government, leaving a high proportion of the population suffering from chronic food shortages and malnutrition. And yet, prior to 1991, Somalia was renowned for its thriving banana industry and was the largest exporter in East Africa.

At its peak, Somali banana production reached 12,000 hectares, employing over 120,000 people. The banana business flourished: with more than two-thirds of production being of export quality, it supplied markets in Europe, especially Italy, and the Persian Gulf. The onset of civil war in the early 1990s saw banana production decline although the export sector was partially revived between 1993-97.

A particular preference for Somalia

Exports ceased completely in late-1997 as a result of devastating El-Niño floods and loss of preferential access to European markets, amongst other factors, although interest in Somali bananas from Middle East markets has remained strong.

To provide insight into the opportunities and constraints in reviving the Somali banana sector, CEFA - an Italian NGO - has implemented an EC-funded project to review past and current banana production, as well as conducting consumer and business-to-business research in the Middle East. With increasing private sector and donor interest in rehabilitating banana production and exports, the SAMSAM (Support to Agricultural Marketing Services and Access to Markets) project has provided important insights, including predictions on market share and potential prices, cost-benefit analysis, ascertaining areas for improvement and identifying local and international leaders involved in the banana market chain willing to implement the research findings.

Somali bananas are favoured for their sweet taste and creamy texture (Edward Baars)
Somali bananas are favoured for their sweet taste and creamy texture
Edward Baars

Some of the SAMSAM findings (pdf 67kb) indicated that Somali bananas, though small, are particularly favoured for their sweet taste and creamy texture; in the UAE, a recent market survey ranked Somali bananas in first place and, in Iran, the Somali banana (known here as Somalita) is popular in main and side dishes as well as milkshakes and ice cream.

In sharing the report findings and through its attempts to identify private sector operators capable of reviving Somali exports, SAMSAM succeeded in catching the attention of Mehrdad Radseresht. Son of an Iranian diplomat, ex-managing director for Dole Foods in Somalia and involved in the export sector up until 1997, Mehrdad has retained his faith in the potential for Somalia to export bananas. Empathising with his vision, Mehrdad's colleague, Abdulkadir Hersi Ismail, says that it his belief that "banana can be the 'peace fruit' where all clans come together to plant banana for common benefits."

The road to rehabilitation

Banana production is concentrated in the south of Somalia, where an ingenious system of barrages and dams provides over 130,000 ha with access to 'gravity irrigation' from river water from the Ethiopian highlands. Unlike bananas grown elsewhere in East Africa, Somali bananas suffer from no major pests or diseases and the riverine soil is rich in nutrients. Around 3,000 ha are currently under banana cultivation providing a year-round local supply, but Mehrdad believes that with increased support, greater production would be possible. "Farmers need a market to sustain and improve their production and increase their incomes," he stresses.

In order to increase production, farmers need access to a range of inputs (Edward Baars)
In order to increase production, farmers need access to a range of inputs
Edward Baars

Much needs to be done to provide the necessary inputs and infrastructure for a sustained revival. Farmers need not only fuel, fertilisers and nematode control but also help to rehabilitate irrigation canals and stand-by pumps to supplement gravity irrigation. Feeder roads are also in need of repair, although these should be renewed under ongoing development projects in the region. "There is undoubtedly significant interest in re-establishing banana exports in Somalia," says Edward Baars, CEFA project manager. "But we need to find the best way forward."

Striving for success

The first step in providing more support to farmers is just one shipment away. A cargo ship loaded with fertilisers, packaging cartons and tools destined for Mogadishu is, at the time of writing, docked in the Middle East. Whilst the ship has been delayed due to fears of running the gauntlet with Somali pirates, in the meantime, farmers are being made aware of the impending arrival of inputs and tools. Once the ship has unloaded in Mogadishu, it will continue to sail between Mombasa in neighbouring Kenya, and Mogadishu, ferrying food aid, and commodities such as sesame and fish, until the first bananas are ready for export to the Middle East later in 2009.

Sailing through Somali waters is currently unpredictable and it is difficult to foresee how smooth the passage for banana production and exports will be. But CEFA is hopeful of success as a similar project with sesame has recently reaped rewards and has successfully demonstrated how a development project can collaborate with the private sector in improving an important cash crop for Somalia.

With contributions from: Edward Baars, CEFA

Date published: January 2009

 

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