African bananas - unlocking the potential
First domesticated for its fibre, the banana is today best known for its curvaceous, nutritious fruit. In Africa, starchy varieties of banana and plantain (Musa) are a key staple food crop, providing food security, nutrition and income for millions of smallholder farmers. Different types are used in a multitude of ways, including being eaten fresh, cooked, fried and brewed for beer. Marketing, however, is a serious constraint.
At a recent conference held in Mombasa, Kenya, delegates from across the banana sector in Africa and further a field, gathered to discuss ways in which banana research may be strengthened and banana production transformed across the continent, from a donor-supported system to one driven by the private sector.
But what is the potential for banana in Africa? Are bananas good business, particularly for smallscale farmers? And who really benefits from a banana boom? These were some of the questions put to conference participants by New Agriculturist for this edition's Points of view.
What Africa needs to do is to work as a continent, to work together. We need to coordinate our activities, take good examples like the Presidential Initiative in Uganda, and then replicate those 50 times, so we are all endeavouring to do the same - to increase our banana production and marketing. Then we need to market as a common block.
Lusike Wasilwa, assistant director, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kenya
Africa has a number of advantages which is why the big fruit companies are currently very interested in banana production in Africa. These companies see that they can produce cheaply here because labour is cheap and they are able to use pesticide, more than in Latin America where the build-up of disease is very big. Another very important reason is to do with trade and trade policy and at the moment Africa has free access to the European market which is not the case with Latin America.
Alistair Smith, Banana Link / European Banana Action Network (Euroban), France
Our leaders need to set an environment that encourages people to make an investment in this sector and that means looking at taxation, import restrictions for equipment and processing plants, looking at how you can enforce contracts, financing etc. Many African entrepreneurs have been hurt either because these parameters are lacking, have not been implemented, or worse, they are reversed.
Peter Hartman, director-general, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Nigeria
From a biotechnological perspective, the information generated from the banana genome sequencing project will be invaluable for helping make decisions on how best to approach banana improvements.
Frank Shotkoski, director, Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II, Cornell University, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, USA
In over two decades as a researcher I have seen that banana production can be a profitable venture. It is a crop that is easy to produce, that can be cultivated on a small piece of land with high returns. It is easy to market and both smallscale and large-scale farmers are involved.
Dr. Ayodele Adelaja, National Horticulture Research Institute (NIHORT), Nigeria
Bananas definitely mean business. It's big business, it's local business and it is international business and everyone here is talking about bigger regional business. That is good.
Emmy Simmons, IITA board member, USA
Banana is, of course, business and that is why in Kenya we are currently seeing uprooting coffee and tea plantations and replacing them with tissue culture bananas.
Esther Kahangi, deputy vice chancellor, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), Kenya
Over the year, bananas are a serious business. It's a primary cash crop and most of the surplus is sold at the market. Much of it provides food security, plus the making of juice. Seventy per cent of the bananas in East Congo, for example, are being produced for juice making. And this is the primary source of income for these farmers on a daily basis because bananas are being harvested all year round.
Piet Van Asten, banana system agronomist, IITA, Uganda
Poor infrastructure, price fluctuations and proper storage are the things that hold us back in marketing our bananas. So we need better roads and cooling facilities so that the banana can stay for quite a long time before it is sold at the market.
Habbakuk Khamaala, banana farmer, Kenya
Farmers should see bananas not just as a good crop but as a cash crop and treat it equally with crops like coffee and tea. They have to be taught to manage their crop as those classified as high horticultural crops, giving it good agronomical practices.
Victoria Ndung'u, senior programme officer, Africa Harvest, Kenya
We need to upgrade farmers' business skills so that they understand how to do business with big market leaders and to help reduce their production costs by organising farmers into groups.
Elton Mudyazvivi, economic development advisor, Netherlands Development (SNV) Organisation, Zimbabwe
We cannot get anywhere without technology, and tissue culture is one technology which is rapidly spreading across Africa. But we need to work hard to train farmers on how to grow these plants to realise their full potential from this technology and then to help create markets where they can sell the end product in order to make money.
Esther Kahangi, JKUAT
I honestly don't think the smallscale banana farmer is going to get a look-in on the international market. For me, it's much more important that they play a role in food security, that they improve their farming systems to be able to feed the growing urban populations in Africa itself.
Alistair Smith, Banana Link / European Banana Action Network (Euroban)
If you look at banana waste for animal feed, it's not of high nutrient quality but there are some nutrients in there and certainly to bulk out other more nutritious products, it should be considered and looked at in a little more detail. So feeding banana peels to pigs, cattle, chickens, it's another way of processing those products.
Sarah Hearne, IITA, Kenya
We realised that there's more money in fibre products than in the fruit itself. From a single stem, you can get four times more from the fibre product. From processing and selling fibre products, I have invested in buildings and a tissue culture nursery for raising plants for neighbouring farmers.
Samuel Njiba, Highridge Banana Growers and Marketing Association, Kenya
For me, selling a bunch of bananas earns me 300 Kenyan Shillings. But when I make crisps, jam, flour, pancakes and various other products from bananas, I earn KES1,700 Kenyan Shillings, which gives me a profit of KES800 from a bunch. The knowledge of processing banana has helped me to dry and keep the harvest for profit unlike before when I could sell the harvest at throwaway prices.
Penina Okenyi, entrepreneur, Kisii, Kenya
There's a tremendous amount of plant nutrients that can be recovered from these so-called waste materials, and by composting there's a chance that those nutrients can be recycled back into the system to keep it sustainable and productive.
Jim Lorenzen, IITA
An increase in banana production will benefit the whole value chain. This includes producers, who will increase their production levels, translating into more financial benefits. It will also create a greater demand for better academic research as more innovations and technological developments will be required.
Ademola Idowu, executive director, NIHORT
The consumers of banana in Zimbabwe are not getting enough supply; there is a 40 per cent deficit. A banana boom will fill the gap left by the 30 per cent decline in banana output due to land reforms. The smallholder producers will benefit from increased incomes. Banana processors who are currently operating at 30 per cent capacity will increase their output and increase employment levels.
Elton Mudyazvivi, SNV
Bananas can be used as a weapon to fight poverty in most countries. It can create employment for the local community and the by-products can also help in the fight against environmental degradation.
Kahsay Berhe, ILRI, Ethiopia
When I see a banana in my hand I see the potential for cash in processing starch, juices, and chips. I see transporters coming to collect the banana and shipping it to town. I see people in the town market grading it and people pricing these grades differently, as they see the quality. I see that feeding back in the village where farmers are investing more in their banana plants because now the market is recognising their quality. And that creates an economic dynamism that is very powerful.
Peter Hartman, IITA
With contributions from African radio and print journalists participating in DFID-funded training at the conference Banana and Plantain in Africa: Harnessing international partnerships to increase research impact.
Date published: November 2008
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