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DRC: How banana farmers are beating bacterial wilt

This morning, like many others, Joséphine Ndamubuya only has eyes for her banana trees. Mrs. Ndamubuya has a one-hectare banana plantation at the foot of the mountains in the village of Bweremana, in the North Kivu province of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Though the 50-year-old mother of six also grows maize, bananas occupy most of her attention.

She says: “I manage a total of ten fields. I own six and rent four others. But this one is the most extensive … and I am proud of it…. If our village is known in the region, it is because of bananas, which we produce in large quantities.”

Five years ago, Mrs. Ndamubuya had a scare. She wanted to give up everything because of bacterial wilt. This difficult disease infected banana plants in and around Bweremana.

The disease is impossible to cure once the disease agent, a bacteria, has entered the plant sap.

Five years ago, Mrs. Ndamubuya knew nothing about the disease that had infected her banana trees, yellowing the leaves. She recalls: “When I saw the banana leaves withered, I did not understand. I thought it was only for certain plants. But I realized little by little that all my banana trees and the fields of my neighbours had the same problem.”

Within a few months, she lost more than 90% of her crop. Mrs. Ndamubuya was devastated, and didn’t know where to get help. There were no agricultural experts in the village to provide answers. She recalls, “I thought I was finished with bananas.”

So she decided to abandon bananas, and grew crops such as maize, tomatoes, and beans. But the crops didn’t sell as well as she had hoped. In one year, her income dropped by 600,000 Central African francs (about $415 US).

She could no longer take care of her children, and two of the six dropped out of school.

Despite these difficulties, Mrs. Ndamubuya decided to look for a solution to bacterial wilt, so she could continue growing bananas. Together with other farmers in the region, she called on the Association of Agricultural Engineers, an organization based in Goma, the main city of North Kivu.

Marc Bwira arrived in the village and taught Mrs. Ndamubuya how to manage the disease. He advised farmers to cut down infected plants, dry them, and burn or bury them. He said the cutting tools must then be sterilized—with fire or bleach—to avoid contaminating healthy plants.

Mr. Bwira also told Mrs. Ndamubuya to regularly remove the banana buds, because they help insects spread the disease. He also recommended that farmers control the movement of animals through banana fields.

Thanks to this advice, Mrs. Ndamubuya revived her banana plantation, which brings her about 450,000 Central African francs (about $310 US) every three months. She has gradually regained her rhythm, and replanted on five of the six fields she owns.

Philippe Katoto also grows bananas in Bweremana. The 40-year-old had abandoned his two fields, but has resumed planting bananas. He says, “I am one of the few farmers who have agreed to renew their banana plantations. And this allowed me to increase my crops and to double my receipts during two successive harvests.”

Now that he has been supplied with expert advice on how to prevent further infection from banana bacterial wilt, Mr. Katoto hopes to expand his farm, and has bought two new fields.