Malawi revamping banana sector: Farmers bemoan loss of income

Malawi is on the course of revamping its banana sector hugely devastated by Banana Bunchy Top Disease (BBTD) caused by the Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV) which has completely destroyed the crop across the country.

Banana is an important food crop in Malawi

Banana nursery in the village

Government through the Ministry of Irrigation and the Department of Agriculture Research Services is currently distributing disease-free banana plantlets imported from South Africa and France in order to revamp the sector which been shattered by the disease, first detected in NkhataBay district in 2004.

Malawi is one of 11 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa affected by the virus; and over the years the disease has caused great devastation, leaving farmers in the country destitute- as the crop is regarded as their main source of income.

Deputy Director of Agricultural Research Services at Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station, Thomas Chilanga told Nyasa Times that so far the country has imported about 50,000 plantlets (tissue-culture materials) which are being multiplied and distributed to farmers.

The distribution of the disease-free plantlets is done under the Agriculture Sector Wide Approach (ASWAp), a programme funded by the World Bank, and is one of the approaches to deal with the virus and revamp the sector.

“Firstly farmers are advised to uproot all old banana plants in their field and burn them. They then taught how to prepare their gardens. They are given six months to prepare the gardens and how to take care of the new disease free plants,” explained Chilanga.

He said since it’s expensive to import the plantlets which cost about K5,000 per plant, they started engaging farmers in multiplying the plantlets aside from the research station doing the same.

“We monitor the progress made and ensure the new plants are not affected by the virus. Apart from uprooting and burning old plants, we also advise farmers to spray their crop with Dimethoate which kills the aphids that spread the virus.”

Chilanga said the ministry has also taken strict measures to ensure transportation or any movement of banana plants from place to another is banned which is regarded as primary reason the BBTD rapidly spread across the country.

“It is believed that the disease was brought into the country through smuggled plants. Despite all the efforts to contain the situation, the virus managed to spread across the country causing such havoc,” added Chilanga.

In Mulanje alone the disease affected 5,513 hectors of land, negatively impacting on 185,251 farming households that regard the crop as main source of income.

According to District Agricultural Development Officer, Enford Kanyimbo, so far 9,948 new plantlets have been distributed to farmers to replace the old crop.

“We are on a campaign to ensure all farmers uproot the old plant and burn it. So far 717 hectors have been replenished. The new plantlets are not distributed to farmers who are not ready,” said Kanyimbo.

He said the distribution exercise has given farmers hope of regaining their lost income as the new plantlets have better yield than the old varieties, adding they have committees in place to monitor the situation.

Speaking on behalf of farmers in the Mulanje district, Fredrick Phiri, secretary of one of the instituted committees, bemoaned how BBTD impacted on their lives.

“Most of us, bananas have been our main source of income and with the coming in of the disease, we lost almost everything and had no other means of surviving,” lamented Phiri.

“With the new plantlets there is hope that the situation is going to change.  And the yield is promising to be better than the old varieties.”

Chilanga has since revealed that inspite distributing imported banana plantlets; the ministry is preserving some of the old banana varieties to ensure the country does not lose its heritage.

Banana bunch top disease is transmitted by an aphid. Plants infected at an early growth stage are severely dwarfed and do not bear fruit, and the virus is considered to be the most economically destructive virus disease affecting bananas worldwide.

The crop registered a sharp increase in production in Malawi in 1999 with a harvest of 300,000 tons from 93,000 tons in 1998 according to a study by Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao) of the United Nations.

It reached its peak in the county in 2009 and 2010 harvesting about 400,000 tons and 410,378 tons respectively before starting registering a drop in production in the succeeding years.

As of 2013, Malawi harvested 386,345 tons of bananas from 16,487 hectares translating to about 23, 433 kilogrammes (kg) per hectare.

Banana is an important food crop in Malawi and is among the most affordable fruits in the country. Figures by the World Bank show that Malawi earned over $6.6 billion in 2015 from the sales of bananas.

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