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Winding road from poverty recovery

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Fifty-two-year-old Patson Mailosi Jailosi has never been one to put all eggs in one basket.

“That is why, when I was working as a security guard in Limbe, Blantyre, I was also running a hawker at Mbulumbuzi in Chiradzulu District and cultivating bananas in my home village, which is under Village Head Maoni in Thyolo.

“When I decided that the K12,000 I was getting as salary for guarding premises in Limbe was not enough, I decided to relocate to the village, bought 10 hectares of land and started cultivating bananas on a large scale. That was in 2012,” he says.

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Not just that. He also bought a piece of land in Chikwawa District, where, with the help of four people he employs to tend to the crop, he cultivates maize and sorghum.

The idea, he says, is that he would be having many sources of food and income, putting him in a position to cast the demon of poverty aside and embrace prosperity.

“For a time, things were going according to plan. For example, after harvesting bananas, I could sell a lorry-load at K600,000. I could sell up to six lorry-loads of bananas a year and I was able to send children to school, pay those who work for me and construct houses. I constructed three houses, which I have been letting out in Chikwawa District,” he says.

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Unfortunately, his banana crops fell prey to what he describes as a “strange disease”.

Ministry of Agriculture officials later told him it was Banana Bunchy Top disease.

Official records at the Ministry of Agriculture indicate that the Banana Bunchy Top disease hit the village Jailosi calls home in October 2010.

He must have been lucky to cultivate bananas and make a fortune out of it when cases of the disease had already been recorded in the area.

According to Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao) of the United Nations, this is a disease that causes newly emerging banana leaves to have a ‘bunched’ appearance, and dot-dash flecking of leaves and stem sheaths.

According to Cabi.org, the disease’s preferred scientific name for the germ that causes the disease is Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV) while the preferred common name is bunchy top of banana

Other scientific names are banana bunchy top nanovirus and, on the international stage, its common names include [English] cabbage top of banana; curly top of banana; [Spanish] cogollo racimoso del banana and [French] maladie du bunchy top du bananier; sommet touffu du bananier.

“BBTV is the most serious virus disease of bananas and plantains. It occurs in Africa, Asia, Australia and South Pacific islands. The virus is transmitted in a persistent, circulative, non-propagative manner by the banana aphid, Pentalonia nigronervosa, which has worldwide distribution. The virus is also spread through infected planting material. All banana cultivars are thought to be susceptible, with no known sources of resistance.

“The typical symptoms of bunchy top of banana are very distinctive and readily distinguished from those caused by other viruses of banana. Infected plants exhibit a rosetted or ‘bunchy top’ appearance. Once infected, plants do not recover. The disease is a major constraint to production in many areas where it occurs,” Cabi indicates.

It further indicates that devastating epidemics occurred early in the 20th century in Fiji and Australia. In the 1920s, the disease had a dramatic economic effect on the banana industry in parts of Australia.

“More recently, BBTV has been decimating the banana industry in Pakistan and in sub-Saharan Africa, BBTV was the main contributor to a reduction in banana bunch production by up to 70-90 percent in disease affected areas. BBTV is listed by ISSG as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive alien species,” it adds.

Jailosi is, clearly, bearing the brunt of BBTV’s invasion, more so because plants that have been affected by the disease rarely produce fruit, unleashing what could be described as a direct kick into the farmers’ stomach.

Mailosi Jailosi attests of this.

“Plants plants in my field started collapsing one after another. I could hardly hold tears,” he said.

In Malawi, Maoni and Kalintulo under Traditional Authority Mphoka became some of the most affected areas in the Southern Region, with farmers being left with no hope to hold on to as, to many, banana cultivation had become a money-spinner; a lifeline.

Another farmer in the area, Gogo Chanza, says all her three children, who were cultivating bananas, relocated to South Africa after their plants got disease infested.

“It has been eight years now since they relocated. None has sent me anything and, yet, they left behind five grandchildren. I blame it on the banana disease,” she said.

Coincidentally, both Gogo Chanza and Mailosi Jailosi have pieces of land in Chikwawa and, as if by a stroke of misfortune, floods that were induced by tropical storms Ana and Gombe washes away their maize and sorghum crop and destroyed Mailosi Jailosi’s houses.

When Norwegian ChurchAid and Churches Action in Relief and Development (Card) disbursed cash amounting to K48 million to 2,500 households that were negatively affected by floods in the Shire Valley, the two were there, waiting for a helping hand so that, in these days of calamity, they can have something with which to soldier on, waiting for better days .

Apart from giving the flood survivors money amounting to K19, 200 per household, the organisations have been providing water treatment services and constructing latrines and bath shelters in camps.

According to Havad Hovdhagen, who is the country director for Norwegian ChurchAid and Dan ChurchAid – who are now working under one roof – giving out cash to flood survivors is one of the strategies of helping them recover from the catastrophe that befell them after tropical storms Ana and Gombe struck in January and March this year.

People are still reeling from the natural phenomena, with hundreds still being accommodated in camps.

“Cash transfers are very easy to do as they ensure that there is cash circulating in an area,” Hovdhagen said.

Card Programmes Director Arthur Lichenya concurred with him, saying people who have lost valuables have to be reached out to, so that they can rebuild their lives.

At Chidyamanga Camp, which is one of the flood survivors’ camps where part of the K48 million bounty is being disbursed, there were six more people who claimed to have been banana farmers, only to be let down by BBTV.

“I used to be a prosperous man, one who could provide for the family. However, natural disasters, including Tropical Storm Ana and Banana Bunchy Top disease, have rendered me helpless.

“If the government starts implementing the old pension programme it promised, I think I will be able to stand on my feet because I understand that the elderly will be provided with monetary allocation between K15, 000 and above,” 71-year-old Patrick Khomba said.

The Malawi Network of Older Persons’ Organisationsn Executive Director Andrew Kavala concurred with Khomba.

“The elderly get more affected during natural disasters than the youth and they deserve better. Disease infestation and natural disasters are rendering the elderly desperate and the government must do its best to ensure that their lives are uplifted,” he said.

According to Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson Grecium Lungu, the ministry has been working with farmers who were affected by Banana Bunchy Top disease with the hope that they will come back to their feet.

He said this includes encouraging them to uproot affected crops, practice crop rotation, among other things.

On her part, Social Welfare Minister Patricia Kaliati said they have been reaching out to vulnerable groups in the society through a number of initiatives, including social cash transfers.

“We, as the government, are committed to ensuring that vulnerable people become self reliant and contribute to national development efforts,” she said.

This is happening at a time poverty levels are increasing in Malawi.

According to the 2021 Malawi National Human Development Report released on Wednesday, over half of Malawi’s population is poor— which is not new because, in 2021, the National Statistical Office indicated that poverty levels in the country were as high as 50.7 percent.

United Nations Development Programme Resident Representative to Malawi, Shigeki Komatsubara, indicated on Wednesday that the study shows that Malawi has been improving but remains in the middle between the worst performing and top performing countries.

Improving Malawi’s prospects further may mean taking small steps such as reaching out to victims of crop infestation and natural disasters.

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