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July 29, 2008

Banana conference in Kenya to address production, marketing, research issues

As a fruit, bananas could justifiably claim to be the best of the bunch. Packed with vitamins, minerals and energy-rich carbohydrate, bananas are the best-selling fruit in the world earning around US$5 billion each year. And yet, surprisingly perhaps, only about one-fifth of global banana production is traded.

However, stakeholders due to gather at an international conference in Mombasa, Kenya, intend to develop a long-term strategy that will change the way bananas are produced and marketed, particularly in Africa.

The conference, Harnessing international partnerships to increase research impact, will focus on banana and plantain (Musa) research across Africa. By building key partnerships, the organisers hope that the event will strengthen banana research and transform banana production across the continent, from a donor-supported system to one that is driven by the private sector.

Starchy varieties of banana and plantain are a key staple food crop in Africa, 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. In a recent address to Commonwealth heads of state, President Museveni noted that while ten million tonnes of bananas are produced each year in Uganda alone, up to 40 per cent of it rots and goes to waste.

However, the tide may be turning for banana marketing in Africa. Leading international company, Chiquita Brands International, has pledged support for projects in Angola and Mozambique, with the aim of producing the countries' first commercial banana exports by 2010. Ultimately, the company aims to source 20-30 per cent of its bananas from the region, for sale in Europe.

By establishing partnerships with local investors and with established companies with experience of growing and marketing bananas in Africa, Chiquita will not only provide capital but also expertise in farm development, good agricultural practices, training, as well as marketing and distribution to Europe. "We are confident that by leveraging our technical knowledge with the expertise of our new partners, whose core business is based on a strong history of operating success in Africa, we will ensure the reliable production of high-quality, Chiquita-branded fruit," says Fernando Aguirre, Chiquita CEO.

Chiquita's move to Africa not only provides important investment in the banana industry but opens the door for a greater proportion of banana exports to be sourced from Africa. "Bananas and plantains are among the main staple food crops on the African continent," says Dr. Thomas Dubois, the coordinator of the banana conference. "Local and regional banana production, undertaken largely by smallholder farmers, requires substantial improvement and better marketing support. But times are changing. The conference will capitalise on this wind of change to help improve the plight of resource-poor banana farmers in the region."

Discussions on further opportunities for trade and how to best stimulate markets will be a major theme for participants at the banana conference in October. Delegates from across the banana sector in Africa and further a field, will also hear from representatives involved in other commodities, to draw relevant lessons for the banana industry.

Research aimed at strengthening banana production to meet the challenges of evolving production trends, emerging markets and trade networks will be another key aspect of the conference. It is envisaged that the way forward for research will be detailed in a ten-year strategy to harmonise and guide future research in Africa.

Smallscale, lucrative enterprises such as Kenyan private tissue culture business Mimea based in Nairobi are already helping to provide large quantities of improved and disease-free planting material for banana farmers. Genetically-modified (GM) bananas, currently undergoing strictly contained assessment trials run by Uganda's National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), could also provide banana plants with resistance to diseases such as Black Sigatoka and bacterial wilt, which devastate production in many countries.

Policies and regulations need to be in place before GM bananas are available to farmers. But Andrew Kiggundu of NARO is optimistic about the conference: "The benefit for the African farmer is that scientists will mix with the people that control the markets, and we can make the research more relevant, whether by conventional or other means. So ultimately, farmers can benefit from more targeted research and produce what is required for the market."

Over 400 participants are expected at the conference, including researches, donors, policymakers, commercial companies, NGOs and farmer groups. Ultimately, the event intends to foster the successful research and trade developed for other crop commodities so that Africa's farmers can exploit the potential of banana and gain a more significant slice of the international market.

New Agriculturalist

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