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Q&A: "I Smell A Fantastic Aroma"

Busani Bafana interviews PETER HARTMANN, banana visionary

MOMBASA, Oct 16 2008 (IPS) - As Africa and the rest of the world seek to end the current food crisis – which could get worse with the flu sweeping across global financial markets – it is time Africa made gains from the food crisis.

 Credit:  Busani Bafana/IPS

Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Peter Hartmann, Director General of the influential global research group, International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) spoke with IPS reporter Busani Bafana on the sidelines of the Pan-African Banana Conference on partnerships to increase research impact, held in Mombasa, Kenya from Oct. 5-10.

IPS: In your address to the Conference, you highlighted the current food crisis as an opportunity for Africa, how so? Peter Hartmann: The global food crisis has been talked about a great deal. We must get a dividend out of it. We must take this pain and transform it into a positive outcome.

What this crisis means is that current food system which has served us very well for decades and which I think is still good, is reaching its optimum limit. We are seeing some inconsistencies and some weaknesses in the system.

I think Africa and even European countries need to start contributing to the system which has been based on the cereal system of Australia, Canada and Brazil – the mega production zones of cereal. By bringing in other foods like bananas, we reduce dependency on these mega systems and cereal.

We will be stabilising that global system and banana is definitely one way of doing it but not the only one. We have legumes, yams and cassava. As each of the countries in Latin America, Asia and the little ones like us produce more we will be supporting that global system and dependence on the big cereal producers will be less.

We are very lucky in Africa because we have diverse eating habits and can substitute. We cannot eat potential. If you look at out literature, it is talking about potential. It is time we moved from potential to reality. The food crisis offers that opportunity for substitution. Why does bread have to be 100 percent wheat?

IPS: But do you see bananas helping to achieve an Africa free of poverty? PH: First of all Africa will never be free of poverty. The richest country in the world has 47 million people who are poor so with the human species we will always have poverty. It is sad statement, but I do not see a poverty-free world. It is a goal, a dream. However, we can reduce levels of extreme poverty; banana will not solve it but can contribute substantially.

Banana is a very healthy product, so you even look at the nutrition of children in school. Banana is an economic commodity, not only for the growers, there will be people transporting it, grading it, processing it, packaging it, advertising banana and creating employment all the way down. So it is an economic driver and a health benefit.

IPS: What are some of the technologies we can use to improve productivity especially in Africa? PH: My conviction is that we do not have technological problems. We do need technology and science but that is not what will move agriculture out of the doldrums. We need awareness.

In the olden days you could never get a head of state to spend time following issues on agriculture. When we did the cassava initiative in Nigeria, the President himself sat with us every three months. This is a fantastic focus.

The food crisis is a sad issue but the positive thing about it, is that is has got the attention of our leaders and I think we need to use that.

IPS: How can the banana marketing system be optimized? PH: We think there is a big enough market to work on in the continent first and worry about exporting outside the market later. Now there are exceptions like traditional cash crops; tea, coffee and timber. It does not mean that if you can export overseas you should not, but we feel to make the impact on our people let us find out what they are doing. Are they selling fresh banana, cooking banana, beer or chips? And we find a way of doing it better and to put some money into their pockets.

Creating wealth is very important. I am not too keen about this push of let us put food on somebody's table. I have never seen anybody with money starving, so if we can put money in their pockets by helping them produce things in the way that gives them some income that is the way to go.

In the rural areas when they get income from their produce a lot of good things happen. They fix their houses, they put a new roof on the houses and they buy a new bicycle and that creates an economic dynamism that is very powerful.

IPS: What policy frameworks are needed to turn the banana into a commercial export crop? PH: I think that our leaders need to set an environment that encourages people to make an investment in this sector. That means looking at taxation, import restrictions for equipment and processing plants, looking at how you can enforce contracts and financing.

Too many African entrepreneurs have been hurt either because these parameters are lacking, have not been implemented or worse they are reversed. We have seen many times where an incentive has been given by government and when investors go to respond to that incentive, a new government or new minister changes it but you have already made your investment based on the old rule.

With a stable environment that investors and farmers can almost count on when parliament sets the rules and tax rates, this will happen.

IPS: What do you see if you have a banana, on one hand or a plantain on the other? When you look at these two fruits, what is the potential of banana that you see? PH: When I look at those two fruits. I smell a fantastic aroma; I see a very tasty dessert. I see cash in processing starch, juices or chips. I see people walking around in villages with new bicycles and see mechanics who come to the village to fix those bicycles and see transporters coming to collect the banana and shipping it to town, I see people in the town market grading it and putting it in categories and see people pricing these grades differently as they see quality now.

I see that feeding back in the village where they are investing more in the plants because now the market is recognising their quality. This kind of multiplier is a beautiful thing to see.

All in a banana but it won't be just bananas. We have got to go with the other fruits too because the banana is important in certain countries and not in others.

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