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Restoring Malawi’s banana glory

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By Steven Mkweteza:

Kondwani Nankhumwa

Esther Moloseni 42, has been practicing banana farming on her five hectare land she inherited from her late parents 15 years ago.

It is from this piece of land that every year she produced enough bananas for both commercial and household consumption for her family which includes her seven children.

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Coming from a poor family, Moloseni, a standard seven drop out, had no opportunity to explore any other trade for income generation except for banana farming.

As a smallholder farmer who comes from Nsabwe, in Thyolo district, Moloseni says the banana farming drastically transformed her life and family during all the years of practice.

“Since I started banana farming, my family never ran out of cash. The farming helped to educate my children, for example, my first born child has finished her studies at Luanar. I used the earnings from banana farming to educate her, I automatically became bread winner for my several other relatives,” she said.

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As a single mother, she says she could not be any happier that she was able to fend for her household with proceeds from banana sales.

In essence, the banana production helped to put money into her pockets and lessen the poverty levels in her family.

Visiting Moleseni’s household today however, one gets a shocker of a lifetime, misfortune has almost reduced her to a familiar beggar.

According to her, the fate scratched its ugly finger on her farming career when the climate hazards which came with the banana bunchy top virus wreaked havoc and almost wiped out the entire banana crop in her farmland.

“My vision was to see all my children achieve their education goals and live a sustainable life. But now, my dreams have been cut short. Our lives have now been understandably a very distressing scene indeed. We aren’t getting enough to eat and wear, you can see how malnourished the children are,” Moloseni asserts with a big lump, which she vainly tries to clear from her throat.

In fact, Moloseni’s fate is not unique in the Malawi’s smallholder farming sector. Across the country, smallholder farmers have failed to pursue their dreams of scoffing at poverty due to among other factors; the climate change phenomena.

Some years back, banana production was high. The crop was also high in demand for both domestic consumption and commercial purposes.

However, more than a decade ago, the production of the fruity crop has been decreasing mostly due to environmental factors such as climate change that has come with the banana bunchy top diseases.

The development has therefore, prompted the farmers to uproot all old banana varieties in order to replace them with the new clean varieties, a process which some experts argue would take a period of three to five years to clear traces of the disease and restore a vibrant crop.

Following the low local supply of the commodity, the country has been importing the produce from its neighboring countries such as Tanzania and Mozambique, a development which made suppliers to raise the prices of the commodity due to logistical considerations.

Still, the development has been derailing the government’s vision of transforming Malawi from a predominantly importing and consuming to a predominantly producing and exporting nation.

On the other hand, the economic status of some Malawians have been preventing them to buy the commodity at such prices, thereby, impacting the efforts for the promotion of nutrition status among them.

However, Agricos, one of the profit-making organizations operating high value chain horticulture farming in the country, has joined the Malawi Government initiative-ASWAP1 and 11 as well as the European Union (EU) funded Kulima projects in an effort to restore the lost glory of banana production in the country.

Justine Kaliwo, the Operations Director for the private institution says as part of the organization’s promoting the growth of agriculture industry in the country, the company believes that banana production can regain its status as another foreign exchange earner.

Kaliwo says the program came about after various research shows that banana production was showing potential to become one of Malawi’s forex earners just that it was not fully promoted.

He cited lack of capital, quality seeds, organized markets, inadequate technical knowledge on modern technologies, limited lands and climate change effects especially flooding extreme dry spells which affect yields and have been frustrating banana production.

He says his organization has already lured a number of smallholder and commercial farmers into interventions to boost the quality and quantity of the banana crop in the country, hence translating into good prices and the economic betterment of the growers.

Among other activities, he say include; the production and distribution of disease-free banana suckers and plantlets for free to the community farmers for nurseries and orchard establishments.

The program is being implemented in Lilongwe, Thyolo, Mzuzu and Mangochi districts as a short-term target.

“The target is to have all farmers who previously had banana plantations to have access to clean planting materials and multiplication of suckers through macro-propagation of bananas,” he says

Kaliwo says through the use of local structures, so far many farmers are complying with the recommendation of uprooting old crops, adding that the positive response has been stimulated by the availability of suckers from the nurseries.

He further says the implementation of banana production activities is aimed at improving the food and nutritional security of households as well as their economic wellbeing.

“We also want to ensure that the contribution of the crop to the country is better or increased in the years to come with the increased number of farmers benefitting from crops. We understand the crop has huge potential economically but has not been given it attention to increase.” he says.

The program, according to him, organizes and trains smallholder farmers in the programs catchment areas to join forces, share ideas, knowledge and resources to advance their banana production.

“We are looking at working with farmers targeting the 150 hectares. We will be distributing 500 planting suckers for each planting season. On our end, we will be providing the technical expertise and scientific methods of providing high quality produce that will meet the requirements set by the buyers,

“Farmers have an opportunity to attend training to educate them on the best ways of boosting their production, and we will be providing them with free farm visits, scouting throughout the production period, train them in value addition and linking them to farm produce markets ,” Kaliwo explained.

Furthermore, Kaliwo encourages farmers with good land to use the technologies saying; “for those farmers, who have good land, they should make sure they use the technologies provided to them and apply those at the right time as advised by the extension workers.”

With the aim of promoting the production, the farmers under the program are expected to sell their produce to the company.

According to Kaliwo, the domestic and foreign market base for bananas is so huge and that the institution wanted the production to complement business contract deals it has secured in foreign markets such as the Winrock International where there is demand for local products on condition of value addition.

Among others, the program trains extension workers and lead farmers, ensures that farmers have a continued access to transformative technologies, including the availability and use of certified or improved varieties, inputs, and other agricultural implements.

According to the Ministry Of Industry, Tourism And Trade, smallholder farmers who are operating in club or associations will need to transform into Cooperative Societies for them to do legal business and also become competitive on the market.

In an interview, the then Minister Of Agriculture, Irrigation And Water Development Kondwani Nankhumwa assured smallholder banana farmers that government remains committed to reviving the banana industry through the provision of clean planting materials for increased production.

In Malawi, it is common knowledge that agriculture forms the backbone of the country’s economy. Smallholder agriculture accounts for 80 percent of Malawi’s food production and 65 percent of agricultural contribution to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Overall, agriculture makes up nearly 40 percent of GDP around 90 percent of foreign currency earnings and is by far the country’s largest employer.

Thus, production of crops such as bananas is critical for poor Malawians like Moloseni with poverty levels estimated at 50.2 percent.

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