Nelly Bassily | September 12, 2011
Dried yellow leaves and wilting, stunted trees are scattered through the banana plantations near Ruyigi, in eastern Burundi. Calinie Cimpaye is a farmer from nearby Mubavu. She describes how banana wilt affected her bananas: “To start with, the leaves turned yellow. Then the plant wilted. I thought … that it would soon pass, but in a few days the neighbour’s plants had been attacked too.”
Bananas are a staple food in Burundi. But banana plantations are suffering. The problem has been identified as banana bacterial wilt, or Xanthomonas wilt, often called BXW for short. The disease is new to producers in Burundi. Witnesses say it first appeared in November 2010. Farmers feel powerless to respond to what they call the “AIDS of the banana.”
Nicolas Niko is a researcher at the Burundi Institute of Agricultural Sciences who has been studying the disease. He remembers, “We identified the disease for the first time in November 2010 in the town of Gisagara, Cankuzo province.” According to Mr. Niko, farmers can easily confuse the disease with fusarium wilt. Fusarium is almost identical, but does not necessarily prevent a good harvest.
BXW has been in the news in central and eastern Africa since 2006. Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya are all affected by the disease. Three of these countries border Burundi.
Banana wilt is transmitted in three main ways. Insects visiting the flowers of an infected plant can transmit the disease to healthy plants. Contaminated tools can spread the disease. And planting infected suckers can also transmit BXW.
Banana wilt has spread rapidly. Today it has been officially reported in 10 of 16 provinces in Burundi.
The government has responded, creating services across the country to fight the disease. Local agronomists, plant health inspectors and producers have been informed about the disease and trained how to manage it. Cards, brochures and posters have been designed and distributed to raise awareness.
As a result of these efforts, farmers now know how to deal with banana wilt. Adrien Nsabimana is a banana grower from Nyarurambi in Cankuzo province. He summarizes what farmers can do: “We must bury infected stumps five metres deep. Then wait six months before planting banana again.” He also emphasizes hygiene. He advises farmers to: “Wash your hands and feet with soap after burying infected plants. Disinfect your tools by holding your machete or hoe in a flame for at least two minutes.”
But the battle against banana wilt is fraught with difficulties and has been ineffective so far. Prevention measures are proving difficult to apply. Farmers cannot afford soap.
Egide Nkorengende is a banana farmer from Gatungugwe. He protests: “We do not have healthy plants to replace the destroyed ones. We replant the same infected plants or we do not replace them at all!” Mr. Nkorengende’s experience underlines the difficulty of managing banana wilt in Burundi.