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January 26, 2009

Sweeping reforms needed to improve African banana industry

By Darren Taylor

Those involved in African banana production say several reforms are necessary to improve this sector. Banana farmers across tropical regions of Africa have suffered numerous setbacks in recent years, including disease outbreaks that have destroyed their crops. As a result of underdevelopment, they can’t sell their bananas on lucrative world markets. Advisors to Africa’s banana sector are now focusing on ways to improve the lives of struggling farmers, and several solutions have been proposed.

“The immense potential of African banana production remains largely unrealized. But with hard work and good initiative, we can turn things around,” says Dr. Fen Beed, of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Kampala, Uganda.

Bananas provide sustenance to millions across Africa Besides the food provided to 100 million people in sub-Saharan Africa by especially green boiling bananas, Beed points out that it’s possible to make many other products from banana plants. In Africa, some of these include beer, wine, juice, mats, handbags and soap. Today, Uganda alone offers 200 processed banana products, but because of an underdeveloped export industry, they’re seldom found beyond local markets.

But, says Beed, before Africa can begin to explore further opportunities for banana processing, it has to confront the challenge posed by diseases such as bacterial wilt that have destroyed banana crops across the continent in recent years. Information to control diseases must reach farmers Beed maintains that one of the main reasons for the spread of plant diseases in Africa is the fact that most farmers don’t have access to information that could prevent and control outbreaks. He insists that more must be done by international organizations and African governments to help farmers to protect their banana crops.

“Methods for control include destroying material that’s showing symptoms…. Basically once the symptoms are recognized in the field, the farmer would be required to destroy that material to prevent further spread,” Beed says. “Also, (farmers must) not use hoes or machetes which are infected, because that would obviously spread the disease from one mat of banana to another.” The scientist acknowledges that “to get (relevant preventive information) to the farmers (so far) has actually proven to be quite a difficult process.”

But he adds that his organization and others are beginning to work more closely with local banana producing communities to exchange information that’ll protect African crops. “We always need to be on our guard to make sure that any disease that does come in (to Africa) is identified first and then controlled as quickly as possible, because too often, we’re trying to control disease epidemics when they’re really out of control and destroying people’s livelihoods. And we need to develop a system where we’re able to detect and diagnose what the disease is and prevent it…prior to catastrophic disasters,” Beed emphasizes. He also says African banana growers “urgently” need expert business advice on how to better organize their production. “Often they’re operating in an unsustainable manner; they’re not getting the best use out of their land,” Beed states.

According to Thomas Dubois, a scientist with the Consultative Group on International Agriculture, if Africa’s banana industry is to significantly improve production, it must “catch up” with the rest of the world and begin to use new technology. Agricultural scientists argue that African food producers must be given access to the latest scientific advances “Banana tissue culture is really the necessary biotechnical tool that farmers need to have to access planting material that is uniform, that is clean and that is fast growing and high yielding,” he says.

Tissue culture, Dubois explains, is a technique by means of which scientists produce plants under sterile conditions in laboratories. In so doing, he says, the plants that can then be given to farmers are “totally free” of pests and diseases. Dubois adds that “a lot of small cottage companies (are) opening up all over Africa that produce these tissue culture plants and sell them” but that “we still have problems moving this planting material across borders and certifying the quality of this planting material and standardizing it across the different laboratories that make those tissue culture plants.”

Dubois says African banana producing countries need to “move as fast as possible” to formulate legislation that would allow the movement of clean planting material across borders. This, he comments, would contribute a lot towards the expansion of local and regional banana markets. Dubois points out that scientists in Africa have been working to develop disease resistant banana plants by means of genetically modified organisms. He readily acknowledges that this will no doubt “send shivers down the spines” of certain groups opposed to GM foods.

But Dubois says as long as the “political and the legal framework is correct” so countries in Africa approve the testing and use of GM products, the new technology should be available to farmers on the continent.

Some have proposed that increased African banana exports to Europe as a primary way to improve continental production of the fruit. But Dubois says only a few countries in Africa can at the moment feasibly export bananas to European markets. He says nations with better infrastructure and access to “well-functioning” ports – “such as Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon” – are in a better position to sell their bananas in Europe.

But generally Dubois thinks it would be better for Africa’s banana industry to concentrate on earning money from niche markets in Europe. “They could go through the process that would allow them to label their bananas ‘organic’ or ‘fair trade’,” not attempt to compete with the mass production of banana enterprises in Latin America, for example.

A leading international trade lawyer based in Brussels, Bernard O’Connor, agrees. He advises Africa to concentrate on its home markets for the time being. “It is much better now to deliver to the urban centers (in Africa) that already exist, and who need a better supply, a more regular supply and more constant quality. And if you work on these things for your local markets, then in time you will get the sort of experience and the sort of capacities that you need to be able to support an export market,” he explains.

Dubois says some African banana producers have already taken the necessary steps to allow increased banana exports, “like the company in Ghana that actually allows small-scale farmers to co-own a large plantation. They certify the produce and ship it to Europe. There’s another person – in the Democratic Republic of Congo, of all places; actually in Kivu, where they’re fighting – who manages to export dried organic banana to high profile supermarkets in France and Germany.”

Beed says most African banana farmers are currently operating in a “fairly isolated manner” and he advises them to “become better organized” by forming “grower groups.” This could reduce the farmers’ costs, as they could share transport to markets, for example.

Dubois says grower groups would enable farmers to sell directly to wholesalers and cut out middlemen, who are costing them millions of dollars annually in lost income. African food producers work in relative isolation and are being urged to form 'grower groups' “Grower groups…allow a lot of farmers to shrink the whole value chain of banana,” he emphasizes. “They have a say now; they don’t have to start selling their plants to the guy who comes with a truck, bunch by bunch. No, they can sell en masse to a large consumer – for example a supermarket. So there’s a bigger say (they have) in the price (they can get).”

Dubois says once farmers have formed groups, they can begin grading their produce, branding their group and having “dedicated contracts with consumers – such as schools or hospitals or supermarkets in the urban regions.” All of this, he maintains, would mean higher income for banana growers. A study by the development NGO TechnoServe, in Kenya, shows that when small-scale banana farmers organize themselves into grower groups, adopt product standards, obtain capital for purchasing farm inputs and market their bananas directly to wholesalers, their incomes have doubled and, in some cases, tripled.


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