As the deadly Banana Bunchy Top Disease continues to take its toll on the banana plant, businesses and livelihoods too are breathing their last with it.
Twenty minutes elapse without a customer stopping at Mike Kandiero’s banana shop at Bvumbwe Market in Thyolo. Ironically, it is a Tuesday morning—a busy market day.
Then a woman, in her late 40s, appears. She samples the bananas and picks out one bunch.
“How much is this?” she asks.
“Five hundred kwacha,” replies Kandiero.
The look on her face while holding the bunch tells she is not happy with it.
Before Kandiero could open his mouth to lower the price, the woman leaves, saying the banana is of poor quality.
One would expect Kandiero to be disappointed with the encounter. But he is not.
“We go through such situations often these days. I am used to them,” he says, while rearranging his bananas.
He adds that from November last year, when the supply of bananas started to dwindle due to a disease that is killing the plant in Chizinga and Thekerani—locations in Thyolo which produce bananas in bulk—his business has been tough.
“Most farmers have uprooted their banana branches. As a result, the supply of the product to us, retailers, is low. This has created a huge demand for the bananas,” says Kandiero, who pays K600 to and from Chizinga.
Even the quality of the banana, he says, is generally substandard.
“I do not have any other income-generating activity. I am solely dependent on the banana business. But my sales have gone down and I am thinking of changing the trade right now,” he says.
He will not be the first to walk away from the business, though. Bvumbwe, mostly on market days likeTuesday and Saturday, used to be a sprawling banana market. But when The Nation visited the market on Tuesday this week, only two people were seen selling bananas.
“Since the disease struck, many banana sellers have turned to potatoes. That is what I think I should do as well,” explains Kandiero.
His story reveals the effect of Banana Bunchy Top, a disease that has struck the plant and is threatening productivity of bananas in the country.
Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station chief pathologist Misheck Soko, who has done extensive research on the disease, told the Weekend Nation in January this year that this is the most dangerous disease in the world for bananas.
“There is no known cure. As of now, 60 percent of bananas in Malawi is gone and the remaining 40 percent is infected and going,” he said.
Estimated to contribute about three percent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), any possibility of the crop dying out is a tragedy for locals in Nkhata Bay, Nkhotakota, Thyolo, Mulanje and Karonga—districts where the plant is grown on a large scale.
In some districts, according to a 2004 study, banana production or marketing is the most reliable income-generating activity not just for farmers but transporters and sellers as well.
For instance, the study showed that 50 percent of farmers’ income in Nkhata Bay comes from bananas, the second most important crop in the district after cassava. In Mulanje, bananas—the third most important crop in the district after maize and cassava—contribute 43 percent of farmers’ income.
In fact, the Food Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that in 2009, Malawi produced 400 000 tonnes of bananas, earning about $95 million (K32 billion).
First noted in Malawi around Thiwi area in Nkhotakota in 1994 but confirmed in 1997, Banana Bunchy Top is caused by a virus which is spread by an aphid called Pentalonia negronervosa. The disease is spread from one area to another through planting diseased tubers.
And, according to Soko, once the aphid attacks a banana plant, it will show signs within 35 days and within one year the plant dies. He added the disease spreads within a distance of 20 km in a year.
So with revelations that there is no known cure of the disease, is there anything Malawi can do to keep people like Kandiero in business?
Soko says the best solution is for farmers to uproot all bananas in the country and start afresh with clean planting materials.
“The ground around them should not be tampered with for three years,” he added.
With news that the disease had already wiped out bananas in Nkhotakota and was spreading to other growing districts, Soko called on the Ministry of Agriculture to pass a decree that all bananas be uprooted as a way of enforcing compliance.
But government has so far responded with silence. Just last week, the Civil Society Agriculture Network (Cisanet) issued a press statement which blamed government for its inaction against the disease.
“Despite that warnings of the disease have been raised by experts to government and also control measures proposed, bold decisions and actions to implement these recommendations have not been taken. However, taking a bold step now may save some of the remaining unaffected crop. The disease is much spread today because action was not taken when the disease was first discovered,” reads the statement in part.
The agriculture network recommends that the movement of banana suckers, although restricted, must be policed by stakeholders and that the movement of suckers is assumed to be one of the major weaknesses that has led to the wide spread of the disease in the country.
Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security spokesperson Sarah Tione told The Nation that government is encouraging farmers to uproot and burn infected banana crops.
“Some farmers are reluctant to uproot and burn the infected crops because of the labour implications. We have new cultivars that we are encouraging them to replant but we cannot force them to do that because the farmers are knowledgeable and have some indigenous knowledge from which we can learn,” she said.
However, despite some farmers having made headway in uprooting the affected plant, most farmers in Thyolo and Mulanje argue that uprooting the suckers is a tiresome job and are asking government to come up with an easier way of doing it.
“Why can’t they send their excavators and tractors to do the uprooting for us quickly so that we can begin afresh? This could help us speed up the process,” said John Kalingiza, a banana farmer and seller from Chizinga.