The East African Highland bananas (EAHB) are an important crop to the livelihoods of millions of rural poor people in East Africa where they are grown by small holder farmers mostly by women. They dominate large agricultural systems of Uganda and other countries in the great lakes region of East Africa (particularly Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, D.R. Congo and Burundi).
The bulk of East African highland bananas are grown in Uganda and alone holds about 120 EAHB varieties. Uganda is thus considered the secondary home of banana diversity. Based on the use of the fruit, the East African Highland bananas are categorized into: cooking banana (‘Matoke’) and beer bananas. These bananas are unique in terms of utilization, taste and the cultural attachment to the people in the East African region.
The East African Highland Bananas are a food security crop. It serves as a famine avoidance crop and provides a buffering bridge to food provision in times of scarcity between cereal harvests.
In East Africa, the care and cooking of bananas are tasks reserved for women. In Uganda, each elderly woman undertakes the responsibility to provide for ten men. Per capita annual consumption of bananas in Uganda is the highest in the world at 0.70 kg per person. In Rwanda and Burundi, consumption is about 250 to 400 kg (550 to 880 lb) per person annually (about 3 to 11 bananas each day).
Due to lack of storage facilities,transport and poor market access, the women have become innovative; they use solar driers to dry the bananas during the dry season and grind them to get flour for use during times of food scarcity and weaning babies. “Tooke flour” offers a way to extend the shelf life and can be used in recipes in place of wheat or whole wheat flour.
In Kenya, banana farming and its benefits to the population is now becoming a reality, with more farmers realizing the potential of the crop in terms of food security and income to many farmers. Lilian John, a 32 yrs old woman and mother of children started on banana farming six years ago. She recalls being presented with two banana suckers by a friend who wanted her to try her hand at growing bananas and asked her husband to buy a two acre farm where she now farms.
“I planted the two suckers and watered them to maturity. My women group thought I was crazy. I can now feed my family and even have surplus to sell”, says Lilian, at Keumbu market in Kisii-Kenya. Currently she have over 100 plants and harvests an average of fifteen bunches per month.
Many Kenyan and Ugandan families own less than acre of land, but fully use it growing bananas. This has transformed their socio-economic lives. The East African Highland Bananas is a major source of income for most farmers who engage in it generating up to 1500 USD per hectare per year from fresh banana sales. Farmers have preferences for cultivars that fetch more money on sale. It’s therefore likely to find more members belonging to one cloneset compared to the others. Cultivars with easy to peel character, are soft and produce deep yellow matooke, huge bunches and lax fingers sell easily and highly.
“I used to harvest about five sacks of maize from one acre piece of land, but the returns from the bananas are 10 times more than that of maize.”– Lilian John. She adds on by saying that she started with one hectare but today she has three hectares of East African Banana plantation and earns a huge pay check at the end of the month.
The farm produces about 15 mature bunches monthly and she expects to triple this as more plants reach full maturity. Lilian is lucky to have a farm that she can cultivate and sells her produce without the help of middle men. Most women who don’t own farms engage into the business by buying bananas from middle men and selling them in the market either as fresh bunches or roasted as snacks.
Beer and Wine production
Beer and wine reproduction are benefits of growing the East African Highland bananas and usually fetches considerable amount of money for the farmers who engage in the business. In most East Africa countries, beer bananas are part of the male domain. In Tanzania, however, women prepare the beer and the proceeds from the sale as their only socially-acceptable form of revenue.
To motivate more farmers to plant the crop, farmers have formed farmers associations. The groups’ major aim is to produce new varieties to enhance food security in the members’ homes as well as improve their income by selling the output. The associations also helps in marketing of their produce by facilitating ready market.
In Bushenyi district of Uganda, we came across a a farmer who heads a group. He said his farm acts as a centre for training, development and entrepreneurship of banana farmers in his group.
“This stuff sips in correctly” the farmer says as he extends a glass of local red wine made from Mbidde, members of this clone set have an astringent sap and pulp and therefore cannot be cooked. The group collects surplus bananas that would have gone to waste to make red banana wine. The group members share the profits from the sales. Individual farmers also engage in brewing of local beer (waragi) which is a source of family income.
Inter-cropping systems and sustainable agriculture
Bananas can be inter cropped with other crops of nutritional importance and food security such as cassava, sweet potato, arrow roots, yam, beans, maize and coffee. They are also planted on the sloppy areas where their fibrous roots help reduce soil erosion. Recycling of the plant residue into the farm helps in restoration of the soil nutrients.
“Nothing goes to waste, the peels, leaves and pseudostems of the banana are used as animal feeds. In return, the manure from the animals is spread on the farm, thus maximising the crop’s food security and economic potential.” says a farmer in Western Uganda.
The exchange of planting, trading and sharing of knowledge on the care and management of the East African Highland bananas is practiced across the borders. Kenyan banana farmers obtain their planting material from Uganda and also visit farmers in Masaka and Mbarara in Uganda to acquire skills on banana farming. Kenyan farmers agree that Ugandans take banana farming seriously and some have more than 30 acres under banana mostly the East African highland bananas. Even though many Kenyan farmers are yet to acknowledge that they can improve their lot through farming of bananas, the farmers have increased their acreage of bananas and formed groups that emphasis on both commercial and subsistence farming of bananas.
The sustainability of livelihoods dependent on cultivation of East African Highland Bananas in Uganda and neighbouring countries is currently threatened by the genetic uniformity of the crop (which is essentially a monoculture), which makes the crop prone to losses due to the emergence of pests, diseases, climate change effects and socio-economic pressures that have the potential to decimate current EAHB cultivars.
There is an urgent need to improve the efficiency of EAHB breeding programs and to diversify the genetic base of EAHB production in the Great Lakes region to ensure that the crop can continue in its food and livelihood security role. The limited level of crop improvement research focused on EAHB (in Africa and worldwide) combined with the complicated breeding system of the crop present major challenges for EAHB crop improvement to meet the current and future needs of smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.
For instance, the breeding difficulties with EAHBs pose a constrain to the development of biofortified EAHB varieties (e.g. high vitamin A or other micronutrients) through use of banana germplasm with high vitamin A levels (Englberger et al, 2003). The potential to create hybrids with EAHB background has been demonstrated and there are numerous opportunities to improve them.
The future for the EAHB improvement looks promising; Mercy Kitavi, a Ireland:IITA graduate fellow, research work focuses on addressing the EAHB breeding set back by generating knowledge and molecular research tools that will be applied to improve the efficiency of East African Highland bananas breeding by IITA and its National collaborative breeding partners. Knowledge on the available genetic variability will be useful in selecting superior parents (diversely related) and improve efficiency of crossing programs.
In the long run, there will be improvement of both the breeding process and the product by generating new EAHB cultivars that retain the desirable characteristics of EAHB yet remain high yielding, pest and disease resistant an a key step to food security, enhanced livelihoods, and resilient agricultural systems for East Africa.