Rwanda: Women farmers learn to fight banana bacterial wilt

| February 22, 2016

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Marie Rose Iyakaremye is a woman who is not afraid of challenges. She has grown bananas for nearly 30 years in Icyeru, a small town in the Mukura district of southern Rwanda.

In 2012, Mrs. Iyakaremye discovered that a strange disease was making her banana plants wilt. She explains, “At first I didn’t know what it was. The leaves turned yellow and dried. The inside of the bananas was often rotten.”

Without consulting anyone, she uprooted the diseased stems. She says: “That’s all we were doing here in the neighbourhood. It was believed that if we cut the [sick] stems, the trees that were not sick would remain healthy.” But the disease persisted.

Then district officers came to the village to educate banana producers on how to fight the new and devastating disease.

During a village meeting, Mrs. Iyakaremye learned that it is not enough to uproot the plant for the disease to disappear from the field. She was told that she must cut the stem, uproot the cuttings, dig a trench, and bury the entire plant: leaves, bananas, and cuttings. She adds, “After all this is done, we have to sterilize the equipment with fire. If [the equipment is not sterilized] properly, it can transmit the disease to other plants.”

The district agronomist also told her to grow another crop for at least two years before planting bananas again, and then to plant another variety of banana.

Ange Mazimpaka is the agronomist in Mukura district. He explains, “The two years are sufficient to completely destroy bacteria and stop transmission through the soil.”

Mrs. Iyakaremye and her neighbours followed the expert advice to a tee. She didn’t plant any crops in her contaminated field. Instead, she cleared a new field and grew beans and maize for two years.

In 2014, Mrs. Iyakaremye planted two cuttings of a new banana variety in her old field. Most of her neighbours did the same. After a few months, the results were encouraging.

Anastase Gatera is one of Mrs. Iyakaremye’s neighbours. He says, “I planted a banana variety called FIYA. For the first time in my life, I harvested bunches of bananas that weighed over 60 kilograms. I had never seen this before.”

Banana bacterial wilt seems to be a thing of the past for the farmers now. Mr. Gatera says: “[Going without bananas] was a painful experience. We got so used to bananas, and we rely on them a lot. We make them into juice or beer or sell them. But now we have found our smile again with a new banana variety.”

Mrs. Iyakaremye draws an important lesson from the experience. She says: “I decided that, for any disease that attacks my crops, I must directly contact the experts. Wanting to cure the disease itself without knowing the causes made me lose time.”