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Growing bananas in the north

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Agabi shows off his plantation. Though there are challenges, promotion of bananas in northern Uganda is showing good progress. PHOTO BY RACHEL KANYORO

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While in this five-acre matooke plantation with lush green leaves, for a moment, one can forget that they are in Lira District in northern Uganda and imagine it is a plantation somewhere in western Uganda.
Moses Okullo Opio’s distinct accent as he talks about the different matooke varieties that he grows, brings you back to reality.
Okullo is one of the farmers who ventured into growing bananas in a region not known for the crop. He is among the beneficiaries of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project.
Favourable conditions
It is a programme under National Agricultural Research Organisation, which promotes banana farming in northern Uganda, where farmers have not traditionally grown bananas even though the agro-ecology and soils are favourable.
In 2012, Okullo, received 55 suckers, which he planted on an acre. He has since expanded his plantation to five acres. He says he earns a total of Shs20m per annum (Shs1.7m monthly) from selling bunches and suckers. In 2013, a year after he started growing banana, Okullo had already started earning from matooke. He sold suckers to other farmers at Shs3,000 each and supplied others to Naads at Shs4,000 each.
In 2014, his annual revenue went up from Shs15m to Shs20m when he started supplying Naads with suckers at Shs4,000 each. He sells bunches at Shs15,000-Shs25,000 to hotels and individual customers.
Demonstration
Other than the money he gets from suckers and bunches, Okullo adds he never lacks food at home and his farm has turned into a demonstration of sorts with farmers from Kotido, Amuru, Amolatar and other districts coming to learn about matooke growing.
Docus Alum, Lira District agricultural officer, explains that the purpose of model farmers was to multiply planting material for the other farmers.
Adapting banana
Some of the varieties that are being successfully grown in northern Uganda are the hybrids—M9, M2, FHIA 17, FHIA25 as well as Mbwazirume and Mpologoma, which are local varieties.
Alum says the farmers are slowly adapting to banana cultivation and it has also made its way to the diet. However, the popular varieties are FHIA17 and FHIA25, which are eaten as dessert bananas. With more bananas available, even its importation from Mbale has reduced. “The restaurants serve matooke,” she says. “We eat matooke differently, we fry it and have it at breakfast,” Alum says.
Joel Agabi, is another beneficiary of the project and his is a tale of how banana farming changed his life. “I started farming in 1985, but I was growing the traditional crops such as cotton, cassava, beans, and simsim ,” he says. When he was selected to receive tissue culture bananas from Kawanda (Naro) he planted 200 suckers plus 60 tissue culture plantlets.
More sales
Fortunately for Agabi, the rains were plentiful that year, and he managed to reap big. In 2013, the sub-county Naads office contracted him to supply banana suckers. He supplied about 800 suckers at Shs4,500 each and he got about Shs3m from the suckers, an amount he says he had never earned from farming before.
In 2014, he got Shs4.5m from supplying to Naads again and expanded the banana plantation to about 500 plants on a three-acre piece of land.
That year he started to sell the matooke in Amolatar District. He adds that the matooke sales have gone up this year. He sells about 20 bunches per week, which gives him about Shs200,000 per week and about Shs800,000 in a month.
Ready market
Agabi says growing matooke has proved to have more advantages than the other crops he had grown. Matooke as a perennial crop can be planted once and a farmer is able to produce food and sell the surplus for income generation.

He adds that the difference is he is able to earn money throughout the year which is not the case with crops that are harvested seasonally.
Another advantage that he points out is the ability to make money from not only the fruits (bunches) but the suckers as well and the availability of ready market for matooke. 
On top of it all the hybrids are also drought resistant and tolerant to pests and diseases which make them good for commercial farming.
expert take
Dr Jerome Kubiriba, programme leader, National Banana Research Programme, explains why Naro encourages banana growing in northern Uganda. It is a post-conflict area with food security problems. Therefore, the introduction of bananas, a perennial crop, is a way to address food and income insecurity.
“We wanted to reduce labour requirements and other activities involved with annual crops such maize, millet and others,” he adds. Also, the soils are fertile and favourable for bananas. There is low disease and pest pressure since the north is not a major banana growing area.
The varieties promoted are resistant to diseases such as black Sigatoka and are tolerant to banana pests. They have bigger bunches and are acceptable to consumers. However, he says, one of the biggest challenges of the project is getting the farmers to properly manage the fields.
Dr Kubiriba also explains how the hybrids come about. The indigenous matooke varieties are low yielding and are susceptible to complex pests (weevils and nematodes) and disease especially sigatoka, a leaf-killing fungal disease.
The researchers use the male parents with resistance to diseases and pests to make crosses with female parents. The resulting seeds are processed to produce plantlets—new genotypes. These are planted on-station to select suitable genotypes, which have resistance to diseases and pests and big bunch size. The selected genotypes are planted again on-station for further evaluation.
At this stage, the staff also do food tasting. They select varieties with big bunches and good taste. They are then evaluated at other sites, and farmers select the ones they like.
They also collect information required by National Seed Release Committee, and apply for their release. After which, the hybrids are promoted to farming communities.

 

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The vast majority of the bananas currently grown and consumed were not conventionally bred but are selections made over probably thousands of years from naturally occurring hybrids. Cultivated bananas are very nearly sterile and as a consequence are not propagated from seed but rather through vegetative propagation, primarily suckers as well as more recently micropropagated or tissue cultured bananas. These factors, very old selections, near sterility and vegetative propagation, mean that these bananas have not been genetically improved either for resistance or improved quality and are becoming increasing in affected by serious pests and diseases.

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