Malawi: Disease forces farmers to uproot banana plants

| December 17, 2018

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To Agnes Dzenje, banana is more than just a fruit. It has been supporting her since childhood. But things have completely changed. The 75-year-old mother of three and grandmother of four says that, since 2014, she has been unable to reap the benefits of banana farming because of a viral disease called banana bunchy top that has destroyed all her banana plants.

Mrs. Dzenje lives in Kankhomba, a village in the Thyolo district of the southern region of Malawi. She says that, because she lost all her plants, she cannot send her grandchildren to school.

She explains: “The children have been chased from school because we haven’t paid the development fund. This couldn’t have happened if I had my bananas, as we were selling them throughout the year.”

Bananas supported her family in other ways, too. The family ate the surplus fruits after sales, helping them to balance their diets. Mrs. Dzenje points at an animal in a cattle kraal. She bought it using the proceeds from her banana sales. She uses the animal manure for crops like maize that she grows in a garden behind her house.

Banana bunchy top is wiping out bananas, forcing most local farmers to abandon the crop. Before the disease hit the area, you could see many vehicles transporting bananas on the roads heading into the country’s major cities, but now there are few vehicles.

Mrs. Dzenje adds that the price of bananas has skyrocketed. She says: “Recently, I was surprised after my brother was ill and the hospital instructed us to include bananas as part of the meal…. I had to buy a small bunch consisting of five fruits at 100 kwacha ($0.15 US).”

Misheck Soko is the chief pathologist at Bvumbwe Research Station. Mr. Soko advises Mrs. Dzenje and other banana farmers to uproot their banana plants if their bananas are infected. He says that the disease is spread by aphids and hence can infect nearby plants. So effective treatment requires farmers to uproot all the banana plants in their fields.

He says that the government, with funding from the World Bank, has embarked on projects to control banana bunchy top by, among other things, importing clean suckers from France and South Africa for farmers to plant. Farmers are given clean suckers for free, but only if they have removed their old plants.

Mr. Soko says that some farmers were resistant to uprooting their banana plants. He adds: “It was a very difficult task to convince them to collaborate in removing all the plants. But we can’t give them clean suckers if the area is still infected. Some of these farmers have large estates.”

Modester Joseph is a farmer in Thyolo district who started growing bananas in 1968. The 74-year-old farmer says the recommendation to uproot all plants and plant new suckers has negatively affected her family’s income.

Mrs. Joseph explains, “The chief just came here with some men and started slashing my bananas. In my garden, only a few were infected but they removed all of them.”

Mrs. Dzenje, Mrs. Joseph, and other farmers who have uprooted their banana plants are still waiting for clean suckers so they can resume banana farming. But Mr. Soko says that, unless everyone in the area disposes of the old plants, the research institution is not willing to provide fresh suckers because the new ones will become infected as well.

Uprooting their banana plants has forced some farmers to focus on growing crops such as maize, cabbages, and tomatoes. But most are struggling with the cost of inputs like fertilizer and pesticides. With bananas, all they had to do was apply manure.

Mrs. Dzenje is keeping the land where she grew bananas, hoping that she will get the fresh suckers soon. She explains: “I can’t plant any other crops because bananas were very profitable…. I used money from banana sales to pay school fees for my own children and to support the family.”