Publication date: 3/23/2009

Mr Charles Kyomuhendo, a farmer in Mbarara, could fail to pay full fees for his children this academic term. The reason being that his source of income has been dealt a devastating blow by a natural calamity – the banana bacterial wilt.

“My entire life depends on the banana yields that I harvest and [sell to] cater for my family needs,” Kyomuhendo told Sunday Monitor in an interview last week.

The return of the banana bacteria wilt (BBW) three years after it was thought to have been defeated also has serious implications for a large part of the country as the region has been the food basket for the population located in central and western Uganda. 

Like the current global financial crunch, the disease calls for immediate and concerted effort to stop it.  Kyomuhendo is not alone. The disease has spread to almost all the districts of the south western region.

Ms Teo Kataratambi, a big banana farmer in Nyehanga parish, Nyakayojo Sub-county in Mbarara District, said the disease is threatening the livelihood of hundreds of people.

“The disease is real and its back,” Ms Kataratambi said. “I have about 15 acres of bananas and I have a number of casual workers who I pay on daily basis. Without the plantation, they and I will be out.”

In this sub-county alone the disease has affected the parishes of Nyarubungo, Rukindo, Katoojo and Kicwamba.
Two years ago, the Food and Agriculture Organisation initiated farm field schools to help stop the spread of BBW.

She said some farmers fear to report the disease outbreak in their plantations for fear of being ordered to destroy them. This farmer, who produces over 300 bunches of bananas every month, said the disease spreads very fast.
In neighbouring Ibanda District, the wilt has hit, and is ravaging five sub-counties.

According to the district National Agricultural Advisory Services’ (Naads) coordinator, Donat Rwaributwire, the disease has now spread to the sub-counties of Kichuzi, Bisheshe, Ishongororo, Kincheche and Nyamarebe.

The disease was last reported in Ibanda two years ago.
He said all agricultural organisations including the Naads office have already embarked on a massive sensitisation campaign to prevent further spread of the disease.

“This was after the affected communities petitioned the district production department to urgently intervene which prompted our offices to take up the matter and save the situation,” the Naads boss said.

Farmers in the affected areas have been sensitised on the symptoms and how to dispose affected plants.

Farmers in Ibanda have already set up anti-BBW taskforces to enforce the by-laws enacted to control further spread.

Some of the by-laws demand that diseased plants must be cut down, chopped and either buried or otherwise disposed of.

Also persons found tresspassing in other people’s plantations with cutting tools - that may have been used to chop affected plants - will be fined Shs5,000 per incidence per person.

“For any Banana plantation with male buds overdue for removal after set deadline will see its owner fined Shs500 per plant, diseased plants not removed by deadline; fine is Shs10,000 to Shs50,000 depending on number of diseased plants,” states one of the by-laws.

The banana disease is now in the districts of Ntungamo, Isingiro, Kabale and Mbarara. It could spread even further.

Symptoms of BBW on affected plants include yellowing and drying of all leaves, starting with young ones; premature and random ripening of fruits which then develop spots in the mesocarp; drying and rotting of the male flower part and an almost instant yellow pus like liquid seen in the stems of suckers when cut.

The disease spreads with greater speed when the same cutting tool used without first heating is used indiscriminately in a given plantation.

Unfortunately, the disease is affecting banana plantations at a time when a banana processing factory was just being constructed in Bushenyi. Bushenyi has been hit particularly hard 21 out of its 29 sub-counties affected and this could have implications from intended processing/value addition for crop.

Sabastiane Tugume, a banana dealer in Bushenyi, likens the disease to the global financial melt down. Given the rate at which the disease is spreading.

In Nyabubare sub-county casual observation reveals that some farmers have already lost acres of banana plantations which had to cut down. This has brought the gloomy prospect of hunger closer.

Daniel Ruterahururu, LC1 chairman Itaaza cell in Nyabubare captures this situation quite well:
“We are here confused, we do not have money to buy the drug [to fight the disease] and we don’t even know the drug to use because government has not come up to tell us (farmers) what could be the drug to apply,” he said in an interview, adding that district technocrats have held several meetings in the area with farmers but they have not provided them with any real solution.

Meanwhile, Bushenyi District agriculture officer, Ms Jenninah Tumushabe wants local leaders to be vigilant in monitoring the spread of BBW.

She said some farmers are stubbornly refusing to uproot affected plants while warning that those who continue deliberately refusing will be dealt with.

With the farmers like Cyril Owarwe in Nyarugote parish, Nyabubare saying they are at a loss as to what to because they have been disappointed several times, residents of Kampala should brace for higher prices as Bushenyi has been the major supplier of banana (matooke) to the city.
Farm gate presently range between Shs4,000 and Shs8,000 depending on the size of a bunch.

Monday Rwanga, an officer in the district’s production sector, said they are now treating the matter as an ‘epidemic’.

“Some farmers confessed to having been overwhelmed because they remove the affected stems, bury them but the disease reappears and new ones get infected faster than before,” Rwanga added.

It is estimated that at least 10 people along the production-market line share the proceeds from one bunch of bananas transported to Kampala.

In the absence of the crop, many will be out of business starting with the person who weeds, the plantation owner, the (bicycle) transporter to the central banana market, those who levy the tax at the market and then those who load trucks. The others are the business person, truck owner, operators of lodges in which traders and transporters sleep, refilling stations.

“This is the one reason why the government should interest itself in fighting the disease,” Kataratambi said. 

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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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