Banana is one of the most commonly grown crops in Tanzania. The crop is widely cultivated in the Kagera Region since banana is the staple food for residents of that region. Despite the crop being the key to the livelihood of residents of the Kagera region and other regions such as Kilimanjaro, some other banana species are consumed as ripe bananas in urban areas.
In recent years, we have heard the cry of hunger for Kagera residents for the first time after their banana farms have been attacked by the Dangerous Disease of banana wilt in which the inhabitants of the region call Mnyanjano and others to call Banana AIDS because the disease has no cure as it is with human AIDS and given the fact the first AIDS patient in Tanzania, was discovered from that region.
Our journey to find out about the cry begins with the Mr. INNOCENT NDYETABULA, the principal of the Maruku Agricultural Research Institute in Kagera Region that is responsible for conducting research and solving banana related challenges in the country and increasing productivity.
Here, he explains about this disease;
Banana wilt is a bacterial disease that spread widely in Kagera Region since 2006. It first started in Muleba District and subsequently it spread in all the districts in the region. We continued to research on the best methods that could reduce the effects of this disease. We also researched on its causes, spreading and able provide education to all regional stakeholders including practitioners and banana farmers. As you know, this is a region where banana is the main food and business crop.
This disease is can be spread by the farmers themselves through the materials they use on their farms as hoes, swords, etc. It can also spread by wasps when the moves for flowers form one banana plant to the next. Even if animals especially monkeys when they eat from infected banana and move to the next causes the spread of this disease.
The effect is great because banana farms for majority of farmers were affected. Since banana farms were affected, there were food shortages in the household. So we are currently advising farmers to start depending on other foods such as cassava, sweet potatoes, maize instead of depending on banana only. And since banana is the nature of traditional farmers, moving to other crops becomes as if you have to force them. Although in reality they have to go to those other products. Generally, many banana dependent families have been affected both economically and on food security.
According to the researcher, the disease has brought negative impact to the region's resident. These residents whose banana is their staple food complain of hunger when there is shortage of bananas, even if there are other crops such as maize, cassava and potatoes.
Farmers Cry on Banana Wilt.
As I speak to you, I have about seven children in the family but feeding them is a challenge because food shortages, some children were unable to go to school, though they were selected to go but I could not afford the expense of taking them to school and get them something to eat because of banana wilt. We are really very worried about this problem in the village as it has become a major problem. The situation is bad, that is, I even fail to get food, and we only eat ugali.
Banana wilt has denied us a lot, we used to eat nchakala, nchoncho, nyoa (different banana species for cooking,) but after the disease which caused shortage of bananas, people are now eating even Fia (Traditionally not suitable for cooking, mainly used to make brew) which is not our traditional
We depend on bananas mostly because the farming has been helping us to send children to school. Currently, the situation is very bad because of the disease. For example, we were relying on banana farming for our economic growth. But you will be surprised someone with five acres at moment ends up with maybe only five batches of bananas and he takes only one meal per day. The situation is terrible mainly in villages.
Formerly, bananas were bought here because my banana farm was very fruitful, and now I see it has began to come maybe God can blessing me again. People used to ask if I were using a fertilizer, and I told them I did not but it was God’s blessings. Bananas were real sold here. But when the disease appeared everything changed, you destroy five to six affected plants a day.
An extinction of banana is something we never heard of. The bananas we eat now a have been then from generation to generation. We did not plant them, our forefathers did and we continued with them to date. However, if you try to plant banana it unlike previous before the banana wilt, the plant doesn’t grow well and it wilts at a certain stage and I don’t think there could be an alternative crop for Kagera residents.
The disease has caused huge effect on us. We had never experienced food shortage in Kagera Region. But because of banana wilt, we had shortages of banana and people starved. When someone finds you buying maize flour, you look like someone of low status. You know we were not used to eating cassava and potato meal, eating them was shameful but we are currently eating them.
Various efforts have been made by researchers Maruku research institute in cooperation with district and regional agriculture specialists in assisting the farmers to reduce the risk of the disease in order to facilitate access to food.
The current efforts have been to provide accurate knowledge about this disease, its symptoms, and prevention measures and teaching farmers how to prevent the spread.
Prevention measures include; eliminating the terminal portion of the bunch of banana; cleaning the equipment used in the field by making sure the equipment used in one field is not used in other without cleaning it. Also by chopping and piling up the affected plant and cleaning the equipment used with pesticides or fire. And with the support of the regional office through the use regional and districts’ security committees we have reduced the impact of this disease to nearly 90%. But because some farmers do not care and they don’t abide by the prevention measure, during harvest, they use the same tools in different farms and some banana traders move from one field to another using the same equipments. In so doing the disease keeps spreading. Of course, efforts are being made in regional and districts offices and researchers by continuing to educate farmers and we have established by-laws to farmers in order to combat this disease.
We are still doing research and we are yet to get seeds that are tolerant and researchers are still continuing to make sure we get good seeds and there are good signs that next year we can take samples to farmers to try them and see which seeds will be able to tolerate this disease.
The cry was heard in Tanzania and other neighboring countries such as Ugandan where banana is also a main crop. Also informal reports indicate that the disease penetrated into Tanzania from Uganda where the government and its researchers have made various efforts to deal with the disease through genetic engineering technology. The genes technology used is by applying the genes from the pepper that prevent the insects from attacking banana plants.
In the initial stages of addressing famine in Kagera region, various efforts have been taken by the Government along with other agricultural stakeholders including the National Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH )by training agricultural officers in all districts in the region. The training enabled them to diagnose the disease and provided them with various ways to deal with the disease and later train and provide farmers with fresh seeds produced through tissue culture.
One of the COSTECH responsibilities is to ensure that research findings reach targeted individuals. Banana is their staple food and there has been a problem with the disease and many of their areas were affected by the disease. So, one way to help these farmers is to bring better seeds that are diseases free so that they can get good harvest. This will ensure they keep food and they can do business from seeds that are pure and productive. And so we expect at the end of the day many farms will have benefited from the seeds and the farmers themselves will be ambassadors of this technology that is good and effective.
We funded this project because we want to encourage this new technology to farmers who include this group. I urge you all to give these seedlings due attention that they should not die. If you face any problem, our researchers are there to help. Just communicate it through the district leadership, we will support so that we can make a nationwide example for this technology in banana crop.
The seeds were received by farmers in groups and planted in demo-farm so that they could be protected and many other fresh seeds obtained from those fields that would be used to distribute to other farmers.
Recognizing the importance of that crop and the main problem of food for the residents makes the Kagera Region Commissioner the first to launch the COSTECH project and to emphasize the importance of science and technology in addressing farmers' challenges and increasing productivity.
This is now what it means to modern agriculture. So I thank COSTECH by bringing us the seeds that we could try them here, and I'd like the seeds to be split into different wards and have demo- farms. People should learn by seeing and get lid of unproductive traditional farming.
I will personally be visiting those fields and see how they are doing and how they are managed. Agro officers, you should be very alert to monitor these demo farms at each stage so as to bring about the desired expectations.
It is now four months since the new banana seeds were planted in the Demo-farms and the difference is seen. Farmers point out what they now see on their farms and their hope of continuing to eat bananas as usual.
Farmers Expressing their feeling on the Tissue culture seeds.
In quality, these are is much better than ours. First it’s because when they brought these banana seedling, the seedlings were as small as nails and the time of planting we were even worried that this would be impossible and would not grow. Surprisingly, as we see it today, the plants are better than ours. Now the question of banana wilt, we do not know where these bacteria come from, I do not know whether the come from our banana plants or else.
But now we will be comparing where the disease begins, will it begin in our farms or in this demo-farm.
I have liked more these bananas than our traditional ones. And if God wishes that they will not be affected by the disease, we hope to get this kind of seed so as we can plant it since it’s tolerant to disease. I should use this opportunity to congratulate and thank this organization because it's my first time to see this kind of seed.
The bananas in the demo- farms will help us to overcome the problem in our traditional banana farms. Looking at the seedlings that we have planted, it’s obvious they have no diseases and they are drought tolerant. When People pass here always get surprised and others wanted me to sell them the seeds but I told them this is a district’s farm. I advise them to wait maybe until then when it will be approved to start selling the seeds.
I have tried to plant bananas and even applied fertilizers to no avail. Initial when you plant it grows well until when it reaches the stage of bearing fruits the disease attacks seriously. The difference is very great, this is very good, us is a big failure.
Farmers ’hope has been restored, what is the view of the Regional Agriculture office and banana researchers after the seeds show positive results?
we hope produce enough seeds, so when the demo- farms are ready , we hope for is the fact that the groups as part of their contribution to the community will distribute seeds, of course they will be selling at a low cost to repay the costs they incurred during production. So they will collaborate with the communities in distributing the seeds to people since these farms seem to have good seeds.
Our current strategy is to continue working with other stakeholders. The stakeholders in our region should look on how they can help to support us where COSTECH has ended. There are about 10 groups that benefit from COSTECH, so if we get more stakeholders to support us will be productive.
Culture tissue is great. Because we advise a farmer remove the affected plant and wait for at least two or three months for those insects to die but after the log wait this farmer misses a good source of seeds that do not have diseases. So at the end of the day, he returns to the same affected fields to fetch for seeds. Thus, tissue culture has a great chance.
We get help from the Tissue Culture laboratory in Arusha and we have also been assisted with that in Dar es Salaam however it’s very little. We also have something we call macro propagator in Maruku but its production is limited to achieving the amount required to cover the demand. Farmers also have their own sources and we find it difficult to prevent insects from getting in and it becomes difficult to find clean fields.
If we get Tissue culture, we can produce for Kagera Region because the demand is very high. For instance, last year more than 3 million seedlings were needed but the supply was very small, there were seeds. The way out is to find Tissue culture which will specialize in producing banana seedlings and other crops such as cassava and potatoes especially for Kagera region with the ability to generate very large quantities for short time.
Currently, when the seeds are needed, we have to contact the Arusha Tissue Culture laboratory and order for the seeds. The order that takes three months and no farmer is ready to wait for such long period, so the farmer will follow whatever he sees suitable for him. I think that the tissuee Culture that can produce large quantity for short time will be very helpful to farmers.
It is a fact that the disease has now begun to decline although it cannot be eliminated completely since the techniques used are short-term and the banana plants can also be attacked by the banana wilt if farmers are to plant in the unclean fields.
Efforts are needed to ensure the approach used by our Ugandan neighbors in response to the disease is also looked at and used by our researchers in the country to produce banana plants that cannot be attacked by the dangerous disease and to cause our farmers to starve and become poor.
I wanted to know from the principal Researcher of the Maruku Agricultural Research institute which is responsible for banana research, the role of Genetic Engineering in dealing with the disease as it is done by our Ugandan neighbors.
This is a challenge we have as the government. This because the disease is very difficult to combat if we are not careful, and when you tell the farmer to be careful by removing the affected plant and using safe seeds, but there are no seedlings. That's the challenge we have and since we are close to Uganda, most of the farmers follow the technology from their neighbors which they come and use.
The GMO technology is something that we cannot go fast to use because it not common to this end however there are debates about it. I think it not yet time, when the time reaches we will move to it. We must start researches; we must concentrate on reliable researches and establish whether this technology that this is something safe and even when we go to people we are sure of it. It is only technology that will end this banana wilt problem.
Tanzania is not an island unless we give our researchers the material and readiness of the country to research, Kagera farmers who are neighbors to Uganda will get the technology from their neighbors and bring it in Tanzania as it was said the researcher ‘ it is not easy to prevent a hungry person from getting food where he sees the possibility.