Banana growers in Thyolo see a flicker of hope, as the banana bunchy leaf top disease that has dwindled production over the years has been brought to manageable levels.
Since 2013, the disease which spread in most banana growing districts in the country wiped out over 60 percent of Malawi’s bananas, forcing traders to import the dessert fruit from Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique.
Due to the disease banana production in Thyolo dropped drastically from 851 000 metric tones (MT) in 2010 to 77 000 metric tonnes in 2016.
But following the uprooting of infected plants and replanting cultivars multiplied at the Bvumbwe Research Station, researchers say the farmers can look forward to good times again.
During a visit to three traditional authorities in Thyolo on Monday, farmers said the new plants are doing well and felt the good old day are around the corner.
Fadwek Banda, a banana farmer said when agriculture officials told him to uproot infected plants last year, he felt his life was being drained. Today, however, he is happy the replanted bananas have borne fruit.
“In those days, we used to hire a lorry from Thyolo to sell bananas in Lilongwe. I used to make K200 000 in five days before the disease struck. Banana production dwindled. With the plants bearing fruits, I know that soon we will be hitting the road back to Lilongwe and make a killing from the bananas,” said the Thekerani farmer.
Several farmers echoed Banda’s sentiments, saying bananas are their livelihood.
“With bananas, we do not belabour about chemicals and fertilisers. This new variety [William] is early maturing and bountiful. We are multiplying it in nurseries so that those who do not have the disease-free bananas will have something,” said another farmer, Clive Sankhulani.
He said after uprooting, he got 10 cultivars which he has multiplied to 32.
According to Thyolo district commissioner Charles Thombozi, the drop in banana production affected 129 000 of the 167 000 households who depend on the crop in Thyolo alone.
“We are happy farmers heeded our calls to uproot infected bananas and burn them. In July last year, they replanted bananas that were disease free. The plants are now bearing fruits and it is our hope that by 2020, life will return to normal for the growers. By then, the [Thyolo-Thekerani-Muona-Bangula] road will be complete, opening up easy access to markets,” said Thombozi.
Currently, Lunyangwa, Bvumbwe and Chitedze agricultural research stations are multiplying disease-free plants, a thing national research coordinator for horticulture Felix Chipojola believes will help bring down the disease.
He said: “So far, we have dispersed hardened plants to our sister departments of extension and plants in the Ministry of Agriculture. We are doing a tissue culture to multiply the initial bananas we got from South Africa and France. The only problem we are facing at the moment is the scarcity of reagents that help the plants to develop roots.”
The fruit scientist said being a viral disease, bunchy leaftop is difficult to eradicate, but only be brought to manageable levels. “If we were to completely wipe out the disease, we would need three years of completely no banana production,” said Chipojola.
The hardened plants are distributed to farmers, who are further reproducing it in communal nurseries.
Thyolo district agriculture development officer (Dado) Sheila Kang’ombe said bananas are a money spinner for Thyolo, Nkhata Bay, Nkhotakota and Salima people and their lives were affected with the drop.
The official said 50 percent of farmers’ incomes in Nkhata Bay come from bananas—the second most important crop in the district after cassava.
In Mulanje, bananas—the third most important crop there after maize and cassava—contribute 43 percent of farmers’ incomes.
“Apart from being the main income generating activity, bananas are a source of food and help to curb soil erosion. We are happy that the farmer heeded our calls to uproot infected bananas which appear with wilting yellowish leaves,” said Kang’ombe.
Banana bunchy top—first noted in Malawi around Thiwi area in Nkhotakota in 1994 but confirmed in 1997—is caused by a virus which is spread by an aphid called Pentalonia negronervosa.
It is spread from one area to another through the use of diseased planting materials.
Official contribution of the crop to the Malawi economy is not yet known, but researchers estimate it could be around two percent of gross domestic product (GDP). n