For over 10 years now, Mirriam Biziweki and her family have been surviving on selling bananas at Bvumbwe Market in Thyolo.
Her day begins at 4am with a trip to Mulanje where she orders the cash crop. For each trip, she spends K10 000 for the bananas.
“The sale realises K20 000,” she says. “I spend half of the money on home needs and use the remainder to order some more bananas.”
But since 2016, the business has not been rewarding as before. She says her profits have dropped drastically to K4 000 because of the scarcity of the crop.
Agriculture experts say Malawi started to register low banana production in the 1990s. However, it was in 1999 when a banana disease called Banana Bunchy Top Disease (BBTD) was first recorded along Dwambadzi River in Nkhotakota. BBTD is caused by a virus and the name derives from the bunchy appearance of infected plants.
The outbreak spread across Malawi and ultimately affected banana output in Thyolo, Mulanje and Nkhata Bay, the main producers of the crop. Since 1999, hectares of bananas have been dropping drastically. For instance, in Thyolo alone, the hectarage dropped from 30 000 in 2009 to 5 000 in 2010 and the size continues to dwindle.
To deal with BBTD, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) with funding from the European Union (EU) in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development in 2017 launched the Kulima Project, which, among others, promotes good crop husbandry practices.
In collaboration with the Department of Agricultural Research and Extension Services through Lunyangwa Research Station in Mzuzu, various demonstration fields have been set up at research training centres. These centres have also become sources of clean banana suckers.
FAO acting country director James Okoth says three 13-week Farmer Field School (FFS) courses were rolled out in January 2018 for 90 extension workers and three seven-week intensive hands-on trainings were provided to 90 lead farmers to enhance community outreach.
“We are addressing BBTD by equipping farmers with both theoretical and practical experiences. This has proved to be effective in dealing with BBTD,” he says.
Mzuzu Agriculture Development Division (ADD) programme manager Wellington Phewa says BBTD has punished farmers.
“Through the research stations, we have been producing young and clean suckers and it was a privilege to see FAO coming in to help through the Kulima project,” he says.
Phewa, however, notes that the programme faces several challenges, including lack of cooperation by farmers to uproot the infected plants and replace them with new ones.
The five-year project is expected to nurture 600 trainers and 8 000 community-based facilitators with new ways of farming. They are supposed to share the knowledge with other farmers.
Lucitina Banda is a lead farmer and trainer at Mulele FFS in Nkhata Bay.
“Farmers are learning good crop husbandry practices for maize, vegetables, bananas and coffee, but due to BBTD, we are focusing much on how we can revitalise banana production,” she says. “The farmers are given clean suckers and taught how to treat the planting material from nematodes using hot water method before taking it to the field.”
Esther Phiri, one of the trainees, is optimistic that the new suckers will restore glory in her field and improve her income.
“This is the only crop that does very well for most smallholder famers here because it does not demand more, but fetches more in sales,” she says. “I can’t wait for the day our banana fields will turn green again.”
On her part, Biziweki hopes the initiative will restore her happiness if it succeeds to increase the output.
Now, Biziweki and other banana sellers travel long distances with others crossing the border to Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania to buy the fruit. The distance and scarcity of the crop have also affected the retail price of bananas on the market.
“Now customers are reluctant to pay more for bananas because they feel it is a locally grown crop. They don’t understand what we go through to have the supply intact on the market,” she laments.