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Malawi’s new-found love: Crop diseases (Part One)

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In a ‘normal’ planting season, the crop fields— from the districts of Nkhotakota to Mchinji, Nsanje to Chitipa— look almost ‘celebratory’, replete with green leaves that make a snaky noise when the winds gather strength and pass through them, especially when the fields are of the staple maize, bananas, soya peas, pigeon peas, rice or beans.
But this does not seem to be the case, anymore, as inscriptions of deteriorating standards in crop fields become commonplace— as pests, insects and infections wreak havoc almost at will.
Today, it is hard to look at crop fields without a creeping wonder: Will this year’s harvest be good enough?
But, if anything, the situation started getting murky in this century when the situation turned from good to bad in April 2010. That year, a tense hush fell over the banana-growing districts, most notably Thyolo, when a tense hush started ‘filling’ the atmosphere whenever a banana plant crushed to the ground after the ‘invasion’ of the Banana Bunchy Top disease.
Of course, it is true that Banana Bunchy Top was first reported in Nkhotakota in 1994, but things quickly fell under control as the disease did not spread to other districts. At least until 2010 when the first banana plant, in the Malawi of this century, collapsed to the ground in October, especially in areas of group village headmen Kalintulo and Maoni in Thyolo District.
Today, the farmers can still not get used to the idea of chopping down the very banana plants that have sustained them for ages.
One of those whose heart bleeds whenever a banana tree falls to the ground is Eneless Nazombe, a subject of Maoni.
“It has been difficult to find an alternative to bananas since the [Bunchy Top] disease started affecting our crops. Every banana farmer here understands that an effected plant has to be chopped down and burned to save the rest of the banana population. At one point, my four hectares of banana plants were cleared of bananas as a control measure.
“As of now, I have not fully recovered and, just like other banana farmers whose fields have been affected, I am looking forward to a day when the disease will be dealt with and we, farmers, can be able to earn a living through banana farming again. Our income has been negatively affected,” Nazombe says.
I remember that, in February 2011, when I visited Group Village Head Kalintulo’s area, the scene— even at the playground on the fringes of the village, was silent and still.
In a group of 20 banana farmers wearing sad faces, it was one farmer who gathered enough courage to speak out— even as bananas, that had left the community members economically-standing for decades, were crushing to the ground.
But, then, his words were not those of a courageous man out to attack his tormentor [Bunchy Top]; his were the words of a man defeated.
“That,” said [at the time] one of the affected farmers, Smart Namakhwa, pointing at one of the fallen banana plants in his one hectare field, “has been the source of my income for years. Today, plants are going to the ground, one after another. The disease is merciless.”
If ever diseases were merciful for, by design, diseases are supposed to leave sadness in their wake.
Those were the things Namakhwa said with emphasis, before dropping into self-withdrawal mood again, aware of the challenges that lie ahead.
That is what happens to people who have been taken by surprise.
Sadly, no permanent solution has been found to Banana Bunchy Top. Today, as in 2010, agriculture officials maintain their routine of checking and controlling affected plants.
The routine goes like this for farmers whose plants are hit by Bunchy Top: identification and confirmation of the disease and, then, crop sanitation, which includes the spraying of aphicides. Sometimes, a hole is dug through the infected plant for herbicide injection. Then, 24 hours later, the crops – infected mats– are destroyed.
That is not all, though, because focus now turns to all alternative hosts. These include ginger and taro, if they are present in the vicinity. The last step is a life-long commitment, as farmers are told to carry out routine checks for symptoms of the disease in, otherwise, healthy looking plants.
In Thyolo, in the affected areas, plants that are yellow, stunted or fallen have become a common sight.
For the stunted banana plants, it is a tragedy of great proportions because their bunches are visibly weak, the number of leaves is reduced –as leaves portray a yellow margin– and the suckers are stunted. This affects the ability of leaves to expand, thereby impacting negatively on fruit production.
But, then, community members in Thyolo have become used to the idea that the disease may not go away anytime soon. More so because, when Bunchy Top came to the attention of agriculture authorities in 2010, Misheck Soko, chairperson of the task force instituted to strategise on the issue of Banana Bunchy Top disease in Malawi, clearly said that “…it is impossible to eliminate Bunchy Top”.
And that did not mean Soko was a prophet of doom. Far from it. He was just looking at the history of the disease and drawing practical lessons from it.
In Australia, where they had Bunchy Top for a long time, Bunchy Top was not eliminated.
But, if the truth is to be told, Australia is better off than Malawi, economic and technology-wise. And, yet, a solution to Bunchy Top has eluded them.
That is not all, though, for there is more to Bunchy Top than Australia failing to eliminate it. The second reason is that the virus that causes Bunchy Top has an alternative way of surviving elimination mechanisms.
Of course, Malawi appealed for assistance from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, in a project that aimed at ascertaining the amount of land dedicated to banana production, but the project registered mixed results over a decade ago.
The problem is that, while large-scale farmers, like those from Nkhatabay and Thyolo, provided proper measurements for their fields, ‘backyard’ farmers did not. Instead, they inflated the figures. Others even deflated them.
That, too, is the reason Malawi still has problems quantifying the amount of land dedicated to banana production; the more reason national banana production statistics cannot be relied upon.
The last time the country carried out an assessment was in 1997. And the amount arrived at was 308 hectares.
Not a true reflection of the situation, agriculture experts argue. Malawi, therefore, needs another assessment exercise. But the ‘backyard’ farmers will still be there to mislead.
But, even in that project, Malawi faced another age-old problem, namely, poor surveillance systems.
Surveillance has always been Malawi’s age-old problem, starting from the time Banana Bunchy Top disease was first reported and confirmed in Thiwi area, Nkhotakota.
The disease is caused by banana bunchy top virus, which affects all banana varieties and reduces productivity of the banana orchard to zero, over time.
Banana Bunchy Top is transmitted from plant to plant by banana aphid (pentalonia nigronervosa) and spreads through movement of infected plant materials.
That, in fact, is how the disease has managed to spread to all districts in Malawi except Karonga, Rumphi and Chitipa.
Enter the fall armyworm
Then, before Malawi discovered a permanent solution to banana Bunchy Top, the fall armyworm came knocking in the 2016/17 planting season— knocking on a door Bunchy Top knocked on before, in 1994 and, then, 2010; knocking and knocking again.
The fall army worm, targeting maize and leaving bananas to Bunchy Top, threatens to wipe out the maize crop this year, with Dedza District becoming one of the affected districts.

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