Comoros: Farmers switch from growing bananas to more profitable tomatoes

| February 5, 2018

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In his camouflage pants, Ali Msa looks like a soldier in action. But he’s a gardener. Mr. Msa waters his tomato plants with a regular, controlled rhythm. Sometimes he accelerates, sometimes he slows down or stops for a moment to admire a plant. Using stakes to support the plants, he firms up the stems in the soil and removes the faded flowers.

He gets up early to prepare for his long, hot day in the field. He carries a big jerry can of water on his back to help him face heat that often reaches 40 degrees by midday.

Mr. Msa is 55 years old and grows tomatoes on his two-hectare field near Kandzilé, a village 40 kilometres southwest of Moroni, the capital of the Union of the Comoros.

He used to grow bananas, but production was low and he had to wait a long time between harvests.

On top of that, walking the six kilometres through the forest that separated his village from the field became more and more difficult as the years passed. Because Mr. Msa couldn’t visit his field regularly enough to watch over it, thieves stole half his bananas when they were ready for harvest. His financial difficulties were piling up and he could no longer feed his wife and six children.

Then, in 2010, he spent a year learning techniques for planting, harvesting, and selling tomatoes with a group of farmers from the village.With some savings and 200,000 Comorian francs (US$496) from a relative, Mr. Msa launched a new project. He had inherited a field closer to the village, an hour’s walk away, where he decided to grow tomatoes. He bought tools, irrigation equipment, trellises, stakes, and composted manure to prepare the soil for planting.

To feed 1,000 tomato plants, Mr. Msa needs 15 50-kilogram bags of manure, and each bag costs 3,000 Comorian francs (US$ 7.44). He sometimes sows up to 2,000 tomato plants, depending on how much money he has available.

He explains what happens next: “After planting the seeds, I water the plants regularly and I also remove flies, slugs, viruses, and bacteria to prevent my tomato plants from being affected by diseases.”

Mr. Msa says he regularly uses insecticides to protect his tomato plants from pests. But, he adds, this type of treatment can be harmful to the crop and to humans if farmers don’t follow the recommendations for dosage and protection. He uses one syringe of insecticide in 15 litres of water, once a week. When there are too many flies, he applies the insecticide a second time in the same week.

To handle these products, he covers his face and wears gloves. He also avoids drinking and smoking while using the insecticide.

Once he’s finished, he washes his hands, face, and neck thoroughly. Then he waits the recommended interval before harvesting the tomatoes, to reduce the risk of pesticide residues in the food.

Mr. Msa says he plans to test natural insect repellents such as lemon grass, petunias, and lavender soon on his tomato plants.

The farmer picks an average of 3,500 kilograms of tomatoes at each harvest, and earns about 2,625,000 Comorian francs (US$6,500) three times a year.

Between May and August, most tomato farmers earn between 250 and 500 Comorian francs (US$0.62 to 1.24) per kilogram. But Mr. Msa can earn as much as 2,000 francs (US$4.95) per kilo in the dry season when fresh tomatoes are less abundant.

He says, “With bananas, I waited almost a year to harvest, whereas for tomatoes, I can harvest up to three times a year. I have more regular income to support my family.”

He adds: “I earn more money, even if growing tomatoes requires a little more attention and work. I pay my children’s school fees, take care of their health, and also put away some savings to buy fertilizer and continue growing tomatoes.”

Yusuf Mmadi also grows tomatoes. He abandoned his banana field in 2015 for the same reasons as Mr. Msa and bought two hectares of land about an hour and a half from the same village. Now he’s a happy man.

With an investment of 150,000 Comorian francs (US$372) from his family, and after five months of training with the same group as Mr. Msa, Mr. Mmadi started growing tomatoes.

He says, “Never have I managed to earn over a million [francs] when I farmed bananas, despite my best efforts…. With tomatoes, it’s easy to earn more.”

Tomatoes are the top crop for market gardeners in the Comoros. The most popular varieties are Mongal and Kiara because they are more resistant to disease and produce good yields.

Both farmers hope to find a way to preserve their tomatoes during abundant harvests, so they can sell later when demand is higher. Currently, they avoid waste by selling their produce at a reduced price, which means they earn less profit.