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September 19, 2010

Smallholder farmers in Kenya benefit from tissue culture banana

by Peter Mutai

It all started in 1996 when the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) asked the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) to facilitate a project that would introduce new technology to improve banana production in the country.

At the time, the country had realized rapid decline in banana production over the past several years due to soil degradation and infestation of banana orchards with pests and diseases that infected suckers. Food security and farmers income from banana producing areas dwindled as poverty and hunger increased.

Upon approval ISAAA in collaboration with researchers from KARI and local universities moved to the ground in a bid to help produce clean planting materials of improved banana varieties available to small scale farmers in alleviating poverty.

The results from the field trials were positive as tissue culture banana plants showed significant improvements in yields and growth statistics compared to plant grown from conventional suckers. Small scale farmers who adopted the technology have also benefited.

Today banana farmers in Central Kenya have opened a centre to make it easier, faster and better for buying and selling tissue culture bananas and other farm produce. The centre has been put in place due to the overproduction of bananas and also overwhelming demand from traders who sell the fruits to other major towns in the country including Nairobi. It helps the farmers sell their products in an orderly manner.

The Sabasaba Agribusiness Centre is made possible through a partnership between The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Kenya (AGRA) and TechnoServe.

"Already the market is helping us bulk our bananas, weigh them and sell in kilograms as opposed to selling in the open air market where the prices are eyeball estimates," says Joseph Wanyoike, farmer and chairman of the agribusiness cooperative society which runs the market.

The market is also a business platform, helping farmers connect to urban traders and facilitating financial linkages through banking institutions.

Poor infrastructure, price fluctuations and proper storage are the things that hold African farmers back in marketing bananas.

The farmers also plan to install cooling facilities so that the banana can stay fresh for a long time before it is sold at the market.

"We are excited to see the determination of these farmers who now consider bananas as a cash crop just as coffee and tea. They received the tissue culture technology from Africa Harvest, managed their crop well, and now they are ready for high end buyers," says Stephen Njukia, AGRA’s program officer.

"Our contribution in this Agribusiness centre is aimed at fostering economic empowerment of smallholder farmers through farm produce bulking, linking farmers to profitable markets and other business development services," notes Fred Ogana, Country director, TechnoServe.

The centre offers farmers a venue for bulking, to weigh, grade and set prices. It also serves as a centre of training on production, marketing and other related areas. The centre stands at a one and half acre land and was built at a cost of 14,000 U.S. dollars and serves 15 other producer business groups around Murang’a County. It is already a hub for the farmers and buyers to sell and buy farm produce at competitive prices, as some businessmen have moved into the area.

"We are soon introducing a farm inputs such as fertilizers, value addition and other income generating ventures for the farmers so that they do not travel long distance to seek services," adds Wanyoike.

"When I see this market center and the many bananas I harvest, I see the potential for cash that will enable me educate my children," says an elated Mary Nyambura Kinyanjui a member of the cooperative.

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