Most far-flung areas of Western Uganda are replete with vast and lush canopies of banana farmland.
To all appearances, it speaks huge volumes about the region’s rich-soil fertility.
One would be naive however to assume that it is only the region’s soil fertility which has engendered this enormous high banana productivity.
Uganda’s western region is the nation’s premier producer and supplier of bananas; also, on account of the significant merits of the two-year scalable technology/Intervention called the Single-Diseased Stem Removal [SDSR] project, funded by the Roots-Tubers and Bananas (RTB) scaling Fund and a four-years’ improving scalable banana agronomy for small-scale farmers in highland banana cropping systems in East Africa project.
The Single-Diseased Stem Removal project is being implemented in the three Ugandan districts of Isingiro, Bunyangabu, and Nakaseke.
The scaling fund project which is being championed by Bioversity International, Uganda, in tandem with Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) has helped smallholder banana farmers like 39 year old Nestori Nteziyaremye of Kakogga parish, Rwimi sub-county in Bunyangabu district, in western Uganda, to significantly increase on their banana yields.
Nteziyaremye, a happy go lucky father of three hitherto struggled to increase his yields because his plantation was invariably inundated by the dangerous banana Xanthomonas wilt, also known as BXW.
“I was hard-pressed before because most of my banana plants were infected and that was because I did not have proper knowledge on how to fight the disease, I used to simply cut and bury the infected wilted plants in my plantation. In a day, I could cut and bury ten to fifteen infected banana plants. That meant, I had to sell those I harvested at a pittance. Each went for Uganda shillings 5,000 [$1.33],” Nteziyaremye says.
“There was a new lease of life, after I put into execution some of the practices, I was taught by NARO, this year, like the regular cutting of symptomatic banana stems in his plantation, sterilization of cutting tools using fire or Jik [sodium hypochlorite] and de-budding banana plants using a forked stick instead of a knife,” he adds.
“The upshot has been improved livelihood for Nteziyaremye’s family shown forth in the better education, clothing, water, and meals, he provides to his children.
In many ways too, Nteziyaremye’s improved banana farming fortunes have steadily had a ripple effect in his community.
At present, many of Nteziyaremye’s neighbors accost him, often in his three-acre plantation to pick his mind on how they can also fight off BXW, which, according to local scaling agent, Silver Tumukuratire was a big threat to banana farmers in Bunyangabu district.
“Before this SDSR intervention, the local government had gone out of its way to fight BXW, using extension workers with little success. The majority of farmers used to simply cut and discard every diseased banana plant in their plantations. There was a change after farmers got the SDSR training,” Tumukuratire says.
Like Nteziyaremye, Federesi Kenema, a 38-year-old amiable mother of five-says her banana farming fortunes have gotten better since she was trained by NARO at the behest of a friend.
Before the training, Kenema was literally-in the dark about how to deal with BXW, which had plagued her plantation. Her banana plantation in Kakinga village in Rwimi sub-county in Bunyangabu district was always devastated by the wilt and as a control measure, she would ill-advisedly uproot majority of her bananas.
“I would notice that many of my bananas had gotten ripe whilst still young. Their leaves would turn brown and wilt often and when I would cut the pseudostem, it would ooze a yellowish liquid. It seemed as if the wilt was spreading from one sick plant to another but much as I racked my brain, I could not come up with any plausible clues on how it was happening.”
“The experts who were conducting the training came to my plantation and saw firsthand how it had been adversely affected by BXW. I was trained thereafter in the adaptive technology of SDSR and other packages like sterilizing cutting tools and bending of dried leaves in heavily infected plantations,” Kenema explains.
Before, a farmer friend talked her into it cutting all diseased bananas, from her plantation, rationalizing that it was the only antidote. Unknowingly, however, the practice played havoc with the soil structure in her plantation, affecting its fertility and it was very labor-intensive, to boot.
At length, after seeing how counter-productive, the practice of complete mat removal had been, Kenema adopted the SDSR control package.
“I wanted to control the spread of BXW and I was told, if that was going to be possible, I would have to regularly cut each infected stem at ground level, instead of uprooting the whole mat,” Kenema recounts.
“Because bees frequently spread the wilt by moving back and forth between the male buds of banana plants, I was advised to remove male buds from my un-infected banana plants with a forked stick, instead of using knives or pangas, which easily spread the infection,” Kenema adds
“The experts also advised me to sterilize farm cutting tools like knives and pangas with fire or Jik whenever I used them to prune. In many respects, the incidence of the disease, reduced after I employed those practices. My banana plantation is flourishing. I now harvest more sturdy banana bunches; meaning I can now sell at more competitive prices to the ever-increasing banana buyers from across the country and from Rwanda.”
In the past, at the peak of BXW, Kenema could only harvest 7-12 small size bunches, every fortnight and each bunch went for a paltry price of Uganda shillings-7,000, equivalent to [$1.86]. Now, thanks to the new practices, she employs, she harvests 20-40 bunches, every fortnight. She sells each bunch depending on the size and season between Uganda shillings 10,000 to 15,000 [$2.65 to 3.97].
Kenema has been able to improve her family’s standards of living, with better monthly profits, worth Uganda shillings 650,000 [$172.25]
Henry Turyakira, 45, a smallholder banana farmer in Kakinga village in Rwimi sub-county [Bunyangabu district] has an experiential narrative similar to Kenema’s regarding improving fortunes on his farm.
The good-natured father of six has been growing and selling bananas for the last 20 years on a 5-acre piece of land. In 2009, his banana plantation suffered a devastating BXW attack. As a consequence, he lost a big number of his banana plants.
“The solutions proposed to me, as I grappled with the bacterial wilt attack, at that time, by experts from National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS)-like cutting all infected banana stems and burying them, seemed workable, at the threshold, but in reality, there was little change,” Turyakira recalls.
“The infection still spread, and I spent a lot of money hiring people to clear the plantation. But soon as I started removing only infected plants, de-budding using a forked stick and using the fire-flame method to sterilize farm tools, after every working on a plant, before moving onto another, as advised later, by experts from NARO, the disease incidence reduced.”
The outturn, Turyakira says has been a reduction in yield loss and increased income. He hardly cuts down any plants lately, because he has controlled the disease. From producing 10-15 bunches, every fortnight, at the peak of the bacterial wilt attack, he is now able to produce, on average 30-45 sturdy banana bunches. He sells every bunch at Ugandan shillings 10,000 [$2.65].
With that has come enhanced income, better reserves for food security and better prospects for his family. He is now able to educate his children in better schools and also provide better clothing and food.
Another farmer basking in a glow of happiness after the NARO SDSR training is Alice Namanya, 35, a mother of three in Kakamisa village in Isingiro district. Namanya says the knowledge she acquired after the NARO training such as early male bud removal, cutting of single diseased banana plants and dispensing of them and sterilization of cutting tools at her farm, enabled her to reduce the incidence of BXW on her plantation.
Namanya, who has been a banana farmer for the last seven years, says before the training, she would cut down, on average 15 diseased plants from her plantation. In some months, I almost had no yields. At present, I do not cut down any plants and I harvest up to 45 big size bananas every fortnight,” Namanya says.
Her monthly profits are to the tune of Uganda shillings 500,000 [$132.5]. Taking a long view, Namanya anticipates expanding her plantation.
Annet Natukunda, a smallholder banana farmer from Nabuziba Parish, Isingiro district, also speaks of the NARO SDSR training in high terms.
Just a few years back, her eight-acre plantation was adversely affected by BXW. She employed the technologies she was taught by NARO and as things stand now, Natukunda harvests between thirty to thirty-five bunches of bananas, every two weeks. Previously she only harvested between ten to fifteen bunches and she would sell a bunch at sh7, 000 ($1.91). Now she sells a bunch at sh10, 000 ($2.73).
Dr. Jerome Kubiribira, head of the National Banana Research Programme at NARO says before the project took root in 2013, the incidence of BXW was high.
“The BXW had reached very high levels around 2012 in many areas of western and southern Uganda because of the reduced engagement of stakeholders in fighting the disease. The overall incidence that affected farmers was way above 50%, meaning out of every 100 farmers, visited, more than 50 would have their plants affected,” Kubiribira says.
“The adoption of the SDSR interventions has however caused a positive impact. The incidence of the disease has greatly gone down.”
Dr. Enoch Kikulwe, an agricultural economist, under the Development Impact Unit of Bioversity International, echoes Kubiribira’s view, noting that the disease posed a grave threat to household food security and livelihoods.
“BXW laid waste to vast swathes of banana plantations in western and southern Uganda. Its incidence was high despite some earlier measures to control it. The SDSR intervention has however been a game-changer. At the start, our target was to reach 7,000 farmers with SDSR. Thus far, we have reached 5,000 farmers and information about this intervention and other banana agronomy technologies are still being spread through radio adverts, drama shows, and extension guides. The remaining farmers will be reached in the next few months,” Kikulwe says.
A brief on what the farmers training sessions involved
Farmers were given lessons on how to regularly cut symptomatic banana stems [Xanthomonas wilt infected stems] in their plantations.
They were also given lessons on how to sterilize their farm cutting inputs such as pangas and knives, using fire or Jik [sodium hypochlorite] and de-budding banana plants using a forked stick instead of a knife.
De-budding, for starters, is the removal of the male bud by twisting with a forked stick as soon as the last cluster is formed.
Lessons were also given on bending leaves instead of cutting them in infected banana plantations.
For good measure, farmers were trained on disease epidemiology, recognition and knowledge sharing.
The banana Xanthomonas wilt, which is a non-curable infectious plant pathogen, broke out in Uganda in 2001.
It is a major threat to banana production in East and Central Africa, which ostensibly can cause up to 100% yield loss. That magnitude of yield loss would threaten food security and the incomes of many smallholder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa, who rely on banana farming as their source of livelihood.
Unlike other banana diseases, the impact of the banana Xanthomonas wilt on bananas is intense and brisk.
When the wilt attacks banana plants, there are drastic declines in yield, sales, consumption, and household incomes.
A few years ago, Ibrahim Mabuye, a smallholder banana farmer in Rwencherwa village, Birere sub-county, in the western Uganda district of Isingiro, struggled with small-sized banana bunches in his two-acre plantation.
While he knew how to clean suckers by paring before planting, he had minimal knowledge of other effective banana agronomic practices.
Though he had heard of water and soil conversation practices such as mulching, digging trenches, manure application, etc and plantation management practices such as de-suckering and de-leafing, he hardly practiced them. As a consequence, most of the banana bunches, he harvested from his garden were undersized, low in quality and sold for a low price.
“Each bunch went for Ugandan shillings 4,000 [$1.08], yet sturdy bananas in Isingiro were selling at Ugandan shillings 10,000 [$2.70],” Mabuye reveals.
Eventually, Mabuye’s banana farming prospects improved and that was in the aftermath of him attending training on improving scalable banana agronomy, conducted by Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation [NARO] in 2018.
The agronomy training was carried out under the auspices of the four year Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Funded “Improving scalable banana-growing for small scale farmers in highland banana cropping systems in East Africa” project.
The BMFG project, which began in 2016 in Uganda and Tanzania will run up to 2020 and is being implemented by the National Agricultural Research Organisation, Makerere University, CABI International, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Tanzania Agricultural Research Institutes [Tengeru and Maruku] and Bioversity International.
The training which is still ongoing in the Ugandan districts of Bunyangabu, Nakaseke, and Isingiro and the Tanzania districts of Rombo and Bukoba is aimed at bringing farmers, up to speed with the latest banana agronomy practices for the proper management of their plantations.
What the training involved
The training involved sessions taking farmers through field preparation and demarcation techniques –such as how to prepare the land for banana planting [clearing bushes or debris] and how to rid the land of perennial weeds and dead roots before planting.
Farmers were also trained in how to dig holes [with spacing of 3m between planting rows and 3 m within the row, 3*3m or wider, depending on soil fertility.
Later, they were trained in water and soil conversation practices such as mulch and inorganic and organic manure application.
On farms and plantations in the three districts, farmers were shown how to apply layers of mulch [spreading to depths of 2cm over a hectare] regularly with organic materials such as leaves, elephant grass, pseudostems, etc in their fields to minimize water runoff, to restrict weed growth, protect against intense sunshine, prevent erosion, improve soil drainage, stimulate root development and preserve nutrients such as potassium.
Farmers were also trained on how to dig 30-45cm deep trenches in the plantations as a means of trapping water and controlling soil erosion.
They were also taught plant management practices such as de-suckering [removal of suckers to reduce on the competition for water, light and to maximize yields], de-leafing [removal of dead hanging leaves to prevent creating shelters for weevils] and proper harvest techniques.
Dr. Jerome Kubiribira, head of the National Banana Research Programme at the National Agricultural Research Organization and also team leader for the project says before the farmer training commenced, most farmers in the select districts where the project is being implemented were producing bananas way below the national average of 10 tonnes per hectare per year.
“When the agronomy project started, most farmers were producing between 5-8 tonnes per hectare,” Kubiribira says.
Mabuye was one of many farmers who were producing below the national average, before the training. His fortunes, took a turn for the better after he employed the agronomy technologies taught, by NARO, such as proper field demarcation, mulching, trenching and manure application.
The water and soil conservation practices, Mabuye and farmers like Jolly Tusabe of Rwimi sub-county in Bunyangabu district, were taught, such as mulching, manuring, digging trenches and removing diseased plants came in handy in improving their plantations. Tusabe practices phased mulching.
“After a while, my banana plants grew and matured sturdily, though, initially, I faced challenges in getting mulching materials,” Mabuye says.
“Previously, I harvested 10 ten bunches per fortnight. I now harvest 40 banana bunches every fortnight and 75 in a month. I sell each bunch at sh8, 000, [$2.16], meaning, I make monthly profits to the tune of Uganda shillings 600, 000 [$162.43].”
With improved profits has come improved sustenance for Mabuye’s family and expansion of his farm.
Mabuye is now able to provide better meals, clothing, shelter, water, and education to his five sprightly children.
In his village of Rwencherwa, other farmers, who were not part of the training, have been accosting Mabuye to pick his mind on how they can also improve their banana farming prospects like he did.
Thus far, he has trained five farmers in his village and he regularly does follow up visits to see how they are fairing.
Two of the farmers, Mabuye has trained have shared the knowledge of what they learned with six other farmers from neighboring villages.
John Mutaawe, 30, a smallholder banana farmer in Bulwadda village, Nakaseke sub-county in Nakaseke district in central Uganda, faced a dilemma akin to Mabuye’s, before the NARO banana agronomy training.
Mutaawe says the knowledge he acquired after the training such as digging trenches, de-trashing, de-suckering (removal of suckers to reduce on the competition for water, light, and nutrients) de-leafing (removing dead hanging leaves covering young suckers) and mulching positively impacted on his banana farm.
Mutaawe who has been a banana farmer for the last three years, has seen his banana productivity, go up a notch, as a result of putting into execution, the technologies, he was taught.
“It was a different situation before the training. My one-acre banana plantation was in a bad state because I did not know how to take care of it. My harvests were invariably few and far between because I planted the suckers, too close to each other; meaning there was a reduction in nutrients for the plantation. At times, I also planted suckers without cleaning them through paring, which made them vulnerable to disease,” Mutaawe discloses.
At present, Mutaawe harvests up to twenty big size bananas, every fortnight and for good measure, his monthly profits have shot up to Uganda shillings 400,000 [$108.10] from 280,000.
Daniel Kimeze, the project’s site coordinator in Nakaseke, says over 800 farmers have thus far been trained in how to execute the agronomy technologies.
“The aim is to reach and impact, a minimum of 4000 farmers in Nakaseke. Many farmers have been able to increase their banana yields, food security and livelihoods as a result of the knowledge they acquired. There was a time; all bananas that were consumed in Nakaseke were coming from Western Uganda. That status quo has now changed as farmers like Mutaawe have increased on their productivity,” Kimeze says.
“Nakaseke as well had a food security problem. That, for the most part, has been dealt with now with more agro produce, principally bananas being produced. Many farmers are now able to provide better for their families.”
Ann Tibamwendera, a banana farmer in Kasana village, Birere sub-county-Isingiro district also attributes her current good banana farming fortunes on her eight-acre banana plantation to the agronomy technologies, she was taught.
“Before I used to harvest, fewer bunches. That was because I was not employing good agronomic practices like mulching and pruning. Before the training, I harvested between 50-60 bunches, but after employing what I was taught, my yields significantly improved and I’m now able to harvest bigger bunches. In a peak season, I now harvest up to 150-200 bunches fortnightly,” Tibamwendera says.
Yuda Mayinja, a buoyant 81-year-old banana farmer and resident of Kasagga village, Nakaseke sub-county, Nakaseke district has also seen his banana farming fortunes improve significantly after he employed the agronomy technologies, he was taught by NARO.
“I was mostly a subsistence banana farmer before the training. My productivity was low and I was in the dark about how to enforce better banana growth. I had never really thought of selling bananas as a source of income but that all changed after I employed the technologies I was taught like mulching, de-trashing, and manuring. I was able to harvest more bunches of bananas. Previously I harvested only 6 bunches in a week and most were small sized. Now I harvest up to 15 sturdy bunches, every week and the biggest bunches go for Uganda shillings 20,000 [$5.40],” Mayinja says.
“Most of my children are now married, but profits from my bananas have helped me improve my house and standard of living. I'm using some of the other proceeds to start a coffee growing business.”
Other farmers like Rose Najuli of Kalagala village in Nakaseke, Alice Namanya and Lilian Muhwezi of Birere sub-county in Isingiro, all speak of the agronomy project in high terms, on account of their improved farming prospects and profits.
Moses Arinda, the project site coordinator for Birere sub-county, Isingiro district, says the banana agronomy project intervention has, in many respects, been a game-changer.
“On average, banana farmers in Isingiro now produce more bananas for the market than before. Over 3000 farmers in Isingiro have so far been trained under this project,” Arinda says.
Dr. Kubiribira says before the project interventions, set forth, only nine tonnes of bananas were produced in Isingiro district, per hectare, per year.
“As I speak now, the figure is at 16.5 tonnes. In Rwimi sub-county in Bunyangabu district, only 9 tonnes were produced. Now they produce over 19 tonnes. That is double what they produced before the trainings were carried out. It is only in Nakaseke, where productivity is still low,” Kubiribira says.
Dr. Enoch Kikulwe, an agricultural economist, under the Development Impact Unit of Bioversity International, says the agronomy project has registered a lot of positive impact since it took root.
“Many farmers in the areas where the trainings were carried out are now able to harvest more banana bunches, denoting improved profits and better livelihoods. That increase in productivity is majorly attributable to the agronomy technologies, which were taught,” Kikulwe says.