By Wisdom Ngwira:
The banana crop is one of the most important cash and food crops in Malawi.
In fact, it is estimated that the crop contributes three percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The importance of the crop in some districts cannot be overemphasised as it forms both a food and economic backbone.
Nkhata Bay and Mulanje, for example, highly rate the crop as it is the second and third most important crop from cassava and maize respectively.
According to Food and Agriculture Organisation 2009 report, banana crop raked in $95 million (K32 billion) from its 400,000 metric tons.
This was a huge contribution to the country’s GDP.
However, the crop’s survival has been threatened by a viral disease known as the banana bunchy top (BBT).
Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station Chief Pathologist Misheck Soko says BBT is the most dangerous disease in the banana world.
He says the disease was first noted in 1994 in Nkhotakota around Thiwi area but experts confirmed it in 1997.
“There is no known cure for it.
“To give you a clear idea on how dangerous it is, 60 percent of bananas in the country is gone due to this disease. Even the remaining 40 percent is infected and going,” Soko says.
The chief pathologist says, when the BBT virus attacks a banana plant, signs are seen in 35 days before the trunk dies within 12 months.
“This disease is spread by an aphid called Pentalonia nigronervosa from one area to another through planting diseased suckers. It spreads within a distance of 20 kilometres.
“So you can imagine the impact it has,” says Soko, who has done intensive research on BBT and the virus.
Throughout the years, the disease has wreaked havoc in the country and banana production volumes have dwindled, affecting banana business households in Nkhata Bay, Mulanje and Thyolo among others.
Chimango Kasambara, a banana farmer from Thulinga in Traditional Authority Timbiri in Nkhata Bay testifies the impact.
“The problem is that, once this disease attacks your banana orchard, you are forced to uproot all the banana plants.
“This means a farmer is back to square one where he cannot harvest anytime soon. This has affected us because our survival depends on the banana crop,” Kasambara says.
Kasambara complains that the far-reaching effects of this disease are too huge to bear as he has no other ready alternative to switch to.
BBT has affected not only farmers but also transporters who ferry the fruit from Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu.
“My business as a transporter has been affected. I cannot ferry huge volumes of bananas as it used to be.
“We are not ferrying enough bananas to compensate for the long distances. In the end, we just make losses,” says Willy Banda, a driver from Mpamba Trading Centre, the banana business hub in Nkhata Bay.
Nevertheless, banana farmers in the district have not been wallowing in self-pity. They ganged up to find a lasting solution.
“We engaged our agricultural extension worker to help us on how best to remain relevant in the banana business.
“The extension worker advised us to form a group of banana farmers called Chinguluwe Banana Production and Multiplication Group that would be producing disease-resistant banana suckers,” says Yusuf Mwale, a member of the group.
The whole thing started as a fluke.
Initially, the group produced 144 suckers to test the waters.
But, after a successful trial, it managed to produce BBT-resistant bananas and got encouraged to do more.
“As I am talking to you, we have diversified to banana seed multiplication with the hope of even helping other farmers to get the seeds nationwide.
“Our aim is to completely get read of the disease. We are, therefore, urging banana farmers to uproot all diseased plants and contact us for resistant seeds,” Mwale says.
Mzuzu Agricultural Development Division (DD) Programme Manager Wellington Phewa acknowledges efforts being done by Chinguluwe Banana Production and Multiplication Group.
“This is what we want as a nation. What these local farmers have done to help government fight BBT is highly commendable,” he says.
To this end, Phewa says Mzuzu ADD is helping the group with all necessary skills to ensure that the farmers’ dreams are fulfilled.
“We are together in the fight against BBT. So, as government, we give them advice on how best to run their orchards.
“Above all, we are happy that every farmer has his or her own banana orchard,” he says.