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Once upon a time there was banana

A recount of way of life back in the 1980s brings tears to the eyes of Village Head (VH) Jeremiah of Tradition Authority (T/A) Thomas in Thyolo.

“Those were easy times,” says the village head, referring to means of eking out a living then.

The foot of Thyolo Hills where his village stretches out, the traditional leader recalls, was once a nucleus of banana production in the district and perhaps in the country.

“The bananas were distinct in almost any aspect; taste, they were just sweeter than any other bananas; size, you could just eat two or three of them and you were filled; quality, not any other banana could beat its class, if fact, the appetite to eat more rose due to the way the bananas looked,” he says.

The bananas being talked about here are of dessert type, Cavendish variety, eaten raw as a fruit.

The other type of bananas is the plantains mainly grown in northern Malawi, served when cooked.

VH Jeremiah says, from the proceeds of banana sales, he built a decent house, bought a motorcycle and could fend for his family and buy farm inputs.

“But alas! Amid us came a strange disease which has ravaged almost any banana field including my two and a half hectares of bananas,” says Jeremiah, his birth name Frazier Mathewe.

Since the first report of the virus, banana bunchy top, in the country, 22 years have gone by.

The virus was first reported in 1994 at Thiwi in Nkhotakota, one of the four main banana producing districts.

The other three districts are Thyolo, Mulanje and Nkhata Bay.

The crop registered a sharp increase in production in 1999 with a harvest of 300,000 tons from 93,000 tons in 1998 according to a study by Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao) of the United Nations.

Banana production reached its peak in the county in 2009 and 2010 harvesting about 400,000 tons and 410,378 tons respectively before starting registering a drop in production in the succeeding years.

As of 2013, Malawi harvested 386,345 tons of bananas from 16,487 hectares translating to about 23, 433 kilogrammes (kg) per hectare.

Figures by the World Bank show that Malawi earned over $6.6 billion in 2015 from the sales of bananas.

In Thyolo alone, hectares of bananas have dropped from 30,000 in 2009 to 5,000 in 2010, according to Thyolo District Agriculture Development Officer Raphael Mkisi.

Mkisi says this has not spared production of the plantain as in the banana production heyday farmers could harvest 41,000 kg of bananas per hectare but currently they only get around 1,000 kg per hectare.

Mkisi says the development has left about 1,842 banana farming families in the district destitute.

But how did the disease reach this ravaging extent?

National Research Coordinator for Horticulture in the Department of Agriculture Research Services and a crop scientist Felix Chipojola says: “We were not responsive in the first instance, 1994. The advice was to uproot the affected bananas but since we did not comply and also coupled with transfer of planting materials, suckers, from one area to another, the disease has managed to spread across the country.”

While farmers fault the government over its laxity to eradicate the virus, the government blames the farmers for their reluctance to take heed of its advice.

Responding to claims that government sat back in the control of the virus in its earlier stages, Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Spokesperson Hamilton Chimala concedes that the government took time to find a solution to the problem.

He says under the Agriculture Sector Wide Approach (ASWAp), a programme funded by the World Bank running from 2015 to 2017, the government is providing farmers with improved cultivars and assisting them to uproot the infected plants.

Government through the Ministry of Irrigation and the Department of Agriculture Research Services in 2015 respectively bought 35,000 and 30,000 banana plantlets from South Africa.

The plantlets are technically and scientifically being multiplied at Bvumbwe Research Station.

In Thyolo, for instance, in three pilot areas of T/As Nsambwe, Mphuka and Mbawela, about 11,450 clean suckers have been disbursed to over 1,800 famers.

Mkisi says every farmer is receiving about six to 30 seedlings depending on the size of the land.

He says they are expected to give out about 42,000 cultivars to 6,000 farmers in the district by November this year.

Chimala, however, says the initiative is facing challenges as some farmers are reluctant to uproot the affected bananas.

But VH Jeremiah argues that there is need to be assured that the government would provide them with the clean banana suckers.

“We need to be assured that the suckers are there and we will uproot the infected banana plants. Some of our friends uprooted their crops about a year ago but no single seedling has been handed to them. At least from the infected banana bunches, we are able to find a little something despite the compromised quality. Our strongest fear is, therefore, on if we really uproot the bananas and government does not live to its word, how will we survive?” Jeremiah says.

The decrease in production has also affected businesspeople who earn a living through banana sales.

Mike Kandiero, who has been in the banana selling business since 2007, says gone are the days when he could make K40,000 in a week.

“The banana prices are high these days but honestly they don’t match the quality. The bananas are of low quality but quite exorbitant right away from where we purchase them down to our customers because we also have to make profit. As such, we no longer make more money as we used to do before the disease struck,” he says.

Kandiero, who sells the fruit at Bvumbwe Trading Centre, says the situation has forced some traders to import bananas from Tanzania and Mozambique to make the state of affairs better.

But what future does the sweet Cavendish type of bananas hold?

Chipojola says the future for the fourth largest agriculture product in the world is bleak!

“If only we can be vigilant in following the new agricultural practices which are recommended for the growing of the bananas, we are assured of reviving the banana industry,” he says.

Banana bunch top disease is transmitted by an aphid. Plants infected at an early growth stage are severely dwarfed and do not bear fruit.

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