Monday, September 17, 2012

Simple technology supporting farmers to revive banana production in Burundi

Beatrice Bukuru, a member of the 'Tugurukire Kitoki' farmers group
in the group's communal land during a field day 
Beatrice Bukuru, 50, from Kassa village in Muyinga commune, Burundi, is a happy woman. She wasn't so happy three years ago. A deadly strange disease was ravaging her banana, threatening her ability to earn a living and feed her family.  Today, she is even the proud owner of two goats, bought through sales from the crop. 

So what has changed in three years?  Well, she joined a farmers group called 'Tugurukire kitoki' (rehabilitate banana) that has transformed the farming of this important food and staple crop in the region. 

She says the group started when the president of the group came back from training with a few banana plantlets of this new variety that is very high yielding. He also introduced a new technology of rapidly multiplying planting materials which are disease free so the new varieties could be quickly distributed to the other farmers. 

Usually, Beatrice and other small-holder banana farmers plant suckers, - the little banana plantlets growing at the side of the mother plant either from their own existing banana plants or borrowed from a neighbor. This is not only slow, as a plant can only produce about four to five suckers in a year, it also transfers pests and diseases from one farm to another.

However, with the new way of multiplying planting material, known as macro-propagation, a healthy sucker is cut into small pieces which are carefully planted in a nursery and when they are big enough, are transferred to the farms. One sucker if well prepared can produce up to 50 plantlets in three months.

The training on macro-propagation and on improved methods of growing banana were conducted by  a team from the  International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) working under an umbrella initiative that brings together many development partners to support the agricultural sector by the name Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA).  

They are a part of on-going efforts to control the spread of diseases and pest and in particular, the banana wilt and banana bunchy top disease which are spreading rapidly and destroying banana in the great Lakes region. All banana varieties are susceptible to the two diseases hence the need for concerted efforts by all.

According to Emmanuel Njukwe, the partnership associate scientist with IITA, banana is a key staple in Burundi for food and income the diseases were therefore a big threat to the already food insecure country which has a high population density. The diseases are spread by infected planting material, use of infected farming equipment, browsing animals and insects.

One way of getting disease free planting material is the use of tissue culture. However, according to Emmanuel, the farmers did not like the tissue culture bananas much which are small, delicate and require a lot of care. So they turned to macro-propagation and also developed the concept of ‘mother gardens’.

Demonstrating the banana macropropagation technology
during a field day
"We trained the farmers how to treat the suckers by placing them in boiling water for 30 seconds to get rid of pests such as nematodes and weevils. They then remove the sheath to expose the buds and meristem, the growing part of the plantlet, which they cut into small pieces. these are then grown in a nursery whose substrate has also been sterilized to get rid of pests," he said.  "We also help them with testing the mother plant to ensure they are virus free so they do not unknowingly spread the viruses."

The project has also been screening different banana varieties to identify those that can perform well under the local conditions and also meet farmers' preferences.  One such variety is the FHIA variety from and named after the Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation which is Fundación Hondureña de Investigación Agrícola (FHIA) in Spanish.

Tugurukire kitoki group has a collective farm where they are growing the new varieties FHIA and other local varieties with macro-propagation, they are able to plant all the banana at the same time and when they are ready for harvesting, call the buyers who come with lorries to collect.  Before the banana were planted with suckers of varying age and size at different times and got ready at interval.

They have opened a collective bank account to save the money from the sale of banana from their collective farm. They use it to pay school feeds for children, buy medicine and cater for other emergencies. The group has also been buying goats for the members to diversify their income and recently Beatrice got two.

Hubert Chauvet, the Country Representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) one of the institutions working in Burundi to tackle the banana disease says the macro-propagation technology is cheap and simple enough for farmers to do it themselves. 

He said FAO had supported CIALCA and national partners in the first phase of coping with the banana wilt disease which involved creating awareness to farmers about the disease and control measures which included uprooting and destroying affected banana plants to halt the spread.

 "Now with macro-propagation, farmers are getting planting material fast and the disease situation is now slowly getting under control," he said.

Felix talks to journalists
The Tugurukire kitoki group is supporting other farmers in other parts of the country to embrace this new technology. One such group is Collectif des associations de development dans la commune Kibage (CADRE),  which is an association of 29 farmers. According to their vice president, Kanyakiro Felix, they have also started banana macro-propagation and so far they have four nurseries, multiplying 120 banana suckers of the FHIA variety. The group wants to increase to 6000 suckers and each group in the association to establish their own nursery.

Kanyakiro says with this technology and the training received on how to properly grow banana such as mulching and spacing, their banana production is starting to recover. "We did not have banana. They were destroyed by the disease. We are slowly recovering. And we now even want to go into juice processing."

Njukwe says the project has been very successful due to support from many farmers and the government as well and can be easily replicated to many parts of Africa where the two diseases are spreading rapidly.