Fighting ravaging banana disease


By Wisdom Ngwira:

DESTRUCTIVE —Banana Bunchy Top

Bananas are one of the most important cash and food crops in Malawi.

In fact, it is estimated that the crop contributes three percent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).


In some districts, the crop forms both a food and economic backbone.

Nkhata Bay and Mulanje districts, for example, highly rate the crop as it is the second and third most important to cassava and maize, respectively.

According to a Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report of 2009, the banana crop raked in $95 million (approximately K32 billion) from its 400,000 metric tonnes in Malawi. 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 District around Thiwi area, but experts confirmed it in 1997.

“There is no known cure for it. Sixty percent of bananas in the country are gone due to this disease. Even the remaining 40 percent is infected and under serious threat,” 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 the BBT disease and the virus.

Throughout the years, the disease has wreaked havoc in the country. Banana production volumes have dwindled, affecting households in Nkhata Bay, Mulanje and Thyolo districts, among others.

Chimango Kasambara, a banana farmer from Thulinga in Traditional Authority Timbiri in Nkhata Bay District, testifies of the impact.

“The problem is that, once this disease attacks one’s banana orchard, one is forced to uproot all the banana plants. This means a farmer is back to square one where he cannot harvest any time soon. This has affected us because our survival depends on the banana crop,” Kasambara says.

He further complains that the far-reaching effects of this disease have left him stranded as he has no other ready alternative to switch to.

The BBT disease has not only impacted farmers but also transporters who ferry the fruit from Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu City.

“My business as a transporter has been affected. I cannot ferry huge volumes of bananas as was the case in the past.

“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 the lakeshore district.

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. After a successful trial, it managed to produce BBT disease resistant bananas and got encouraged to do more.

“We have diversified to banana seed multiplication with the hope of even helping other farmers to get the seed nationwide.

“Our aim is to completely get rid of the disease. We are, therefore, urging banana farmers to uproot all diseased plants and contact us for resistant seed,” Mwale says.

Mzuzu Agricultural Development Division (ADD) Programme Manager, Wel l ing ton Phewa, acknowledges efforts being made by Chinguluwe Banana Production and Multiplication Group.

“This is what we want. What these local farmers have done to help the government fight BBT disease is highly commendable,” he says.

To this end, Phewa says Mzuzu ADD is helping the group with necessary skills to ensure that the farmers’ dreams are fulfilled.

“We are together in the fight against BBT. So, we, as the government, 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.

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