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TRADE-EAST AFRICA: Going Bananas to Fight Poverty and Hunger

Busani Bafana

MOMBASA, Oct 10 2008 (IPS) - Arguably one of the world’s most popular fruits, bananas are poorly marketed as a value-added commercial crop in Africa. But that is about to change as a plan is being conceptualised to transform the way Africa produces and sells bananas.

Bananas can be a valuable export crop. Credit:  Busani Bafana/IPS

Bananas can be a valuable export crop. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

A five-day conference organised by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Bioversity International, focussing on banana and plantain research throughout Africa, opened this week in Kenya’s second largest city Mombasa. Plantains are a kind of banana.

The conference, which ends today, has been attended by over 400 delegates, including banana growers, buyers, scientists, government officials, donor organisations and policy makers. They are expected to develop a 10-year plan to transform banana production in Africa. The plan will address themes such as farmer cooperatives; processing and value-addition; and seed systems.

Starchy varieties of banana and plantain are a staple food in Africa where most of the produce is sold on the local market. Due to marketing constraints, a very small quantity is exported. Bananas provide income, jobs and nutrition for small-scale farmers.

IITA Director General Peter Hartmann said the conference was being held in the context of a global food crisis. This constitutes an opportunity for Africa to contribute to the global food system through alternatives to cereal, including banana, legumes, yams and cassava. These are some of the diverse crops grown in Africa.

‘‘We must take this pain and turn it around into a positive outcome,’’ Hartmann told the conference, adding that, ‘‘what this crisis means is that the current food system which has served us very well for decades is reaching its optimum limit. I do not see a poverty-free world. However, we can reduce levels of extreme poverty. Bananas will not solve it but can contribute substantially.’’

Citing Zambia, Cameroon and Ghana as examples of regions with diverse food cropping systems, Hartman said such countries are unlikely to suffer famine. Banana is an important crop in these areas.

While bananas earn around five billion dollars annually, only 13 percent of the global production of around 104 million tons is traded, indicating a potential for Africa to increase commercial trade in bananas.

East Africa is one of the largest banana producing and consuming regions in the world, with Uganda being the world’s second leading producer after India.

‘‘African farmers produce an incredible volume and variety of bananas, yet only a small percentage of the globally traded bananas come from Africa,’’ said Steffen Abele, an economist with IITA. ‘‘The challenge is to determine how Africa can claim a larger portion of the market in a way that puts money in the pockets of the continent's small-scale growers.’’

Participants at the conference have emphasised that bananas and plantains are important crops with great potential to change livelihoods in Africa through better marketing methods, management techniques and value addition.

Lack of markets, limited value addition and high post-harvest losses are some of the key factors that have hindered Africa from making the most of its bananas and plantains. Water and soil nutrition are also strong limitations in banana production across the continent.

Some of the research findings presented during thematic sessions at the Banana 2008 conference indicated a lack of capital, inadequate transportation, taxes and inconsistent prices. These problems significantly limit the ability of small-scale farmers to benefit from growing cross-border banana trade between countries such as Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Scientists and farmers participating in the conference are also discussing new production methods and organic farming techniques, which will help small-scale growers overcome current and emerging threats to production, including plant diseases, poor soil and climate change.

Among the most serious challenges to Africa's banana production are diseases which cause yield losses of up to 50 percent. Banana xanthomonas wilt attacks all varieties of bananas, causing annual losses of over 500 million dollars across the East and Central African region.

A global network of plant breeders is developing new banana varieties for African farmers that can offer disease resistance and higher yields while meeting consumer preferences.

‘‘The notion that bananas are a significant yet untapped source of wealth for Africans has really struck a responsive chord,’’ said Thomas Dubois of IITA and chairperson of the conference’s organising committee.

Discussions have also focused on how investment in banana processing can greatly expand income opportunities for banana farmers. In Africa, products made from bananas and banana plants include beer, wine, juice, sauce, mats, handbags, envelopes, postcards, flour, soup and breakfast cereals.

‘‘The incredible range of expertise and ideas being shared here in Mombasa indicates that there is broad commitment to changing the way bananas are produced and marketed in Africa,’’ said Richard Markham, director of the commodities for livelihoods programme at Bioversity International.

‘‘We are confident we will emerge from this conference with 10-year plan of action that will allow banana farmers in Africa to use their crop not just as a way to feed their families but also to lift themselves out of poverty.’’

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