Burundi: Farmers make baskets from banana “stems” to protect the environment

| January 4, 2021

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Farmers in Burundi are protecting the environment and earning money by substituting banana baskets for plastic bags. Forest nurseries are planted on the hills of eastern Burundi to reforest bare watersheds. But plastic bags scattered across the forest floor are hindering the task. Enter Mrs. Jacqueline Iradukunda. Mrs. Iradukunda braids layers of the banana plant’s stem into baskets that can replace polythene bags. The banana baskets not only protect the land from plastic pollution, they also fertilize the soil when they decompose. Now Ms. Iradukunda is teaching other women in the area to make the baskets—and boost their income by selling them.

This story was originally published in April 2019.

In eastern Burundi, nurseries of forest tree species have been planted to reforest watersheds and bare hills in the region, reducing erosion and protecting the environment. The only cloud on the horizon is that people have thrown non-biodegradable plastic bags on the ground, and they lie scattered on the forest floor.

Polyethylene bags do not decompose, so they hinder reforestation. Farmers, especially those who offer their land for these tree nurseries, have complained many times about the plastic bags that pollute their land, make it infertile, and reduce yields.

But Jacqueline Iradukunda has found a solution. Mrs. Iradukunda is braiding the layers of the banana plant’s stem into baskets that can be used as containers to replace polyethylene bags. The banana plant is not a tree and the stem is technically known as a pseudostem, although most people think of it as a stem or trunk.

It’s three in the afternoon and Mrs. Iradukunda has finished her field activities. She is 47 years old and lives in Gisoro, in the Cendajuru district of northeastern Burundi, 100 km from the capital Gitega. She is sitting in front of her house on a mat, legs stretched out. All around her are banana leaves, which she is preparing to braid into baskets.

Proudly, she explains how to make the baskets: “First you must gather the material, the pseudostems of the banana tree, and cut them. To get the right dimensions, I use empty Fanta or Heineken bottles. Then, I braid the baskets, wrapping the material around the bottle, to which I attach a rope. After [I finish], I pull out the bottle, and like that I have obtained the shape of a small basket.”

These banana-stem baskets are less harmful to the environment because they fertilize the soil when they are thrown on the ground rather than polluting it. As they decompose, the baskets add nutrients to the soil. So, when transplanting seedlings raised in nurseries, there is no need to remove the decomposing baskets.

Mrs. Iradukunda says that many women in the district have sold the baskets for income that supplements their household earnings. She adds: “Last month, I made 400 baskets and I earned 80,000 Burundian francs ($43 US) in six days. As it was a time of seed shortage, I was able to get bean seeds. With the money that I earned, I bought food and notebooks for my children who go to school. My husband was really happy because we shared the family expenses.”

An NGO called Solidarité pour la Promotion de l’Assistance et du Développement supports local farmers with training and advice on best farming practices to improve yields. The NGO was Mrs. Iradukunda’s first client, purchasing 100,000 baskets at 200 Burundian francs per basket.

Now, 10 women’s groups are making the baskets and Mrs. Iradukunda has travelled to three provinces in Burundi to teach other women her basket-making technique.

Lucie Ngerageze is a member of the Kerebuka association and is now making her own baskets. She says, “For me, Mrs. Iradukunda is a woman leader, a queen. She showed us how to make these baskets. Me, I didn’t know anything. She showed all the women in the association. Now, I am able to braid 80 baskets a day.”

Félix Shabani is an agronomist and is convinced of the effectiveness of the banana baskets. He appreciates that he does not have to remove the baskets before planting—as he had to do with the plastic bags. And, as the baskets biodegrade, they supplement soil organic matter and improve soil fertility. The banana baskets are good for the environment, the soil, and farmers’ harvests.

Photo: The photo on Beatrice Semahane’s plot of land.