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.
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