3 November 2013

Tanzania: How Bananas Can Bring Down Local Leadership

The price of bananas has more than quadrupled in the last few months and now stands at over 15,000/- a bunch-- an implausibly large sum for the average village and urban shopper.

What's worse, the hike has come in the middle of festival season, which lasts through October and November and is marked by feasts and special meals in December.

The impact of the lack of it will be overwhelming, and will go on through 2014 to 2015. The banana wilt that has attacked thousands of acres of farmers' shambas won't go away. It is an ambitious thought to think that it would just go away with stop gap solutions.

"Every year I arrange a party for my friends and family for such a banana dish," says Beatrice Bagenda, a housewife in Dar es Salaam. "For almost every dish we need this, but this year it is out of reach. How can you have a meal without it?"

The crisis, local government leaders in one of the region that produces bananas for Dar es Salaam, says, is due to unusually Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) or Mnyauko as it is locally known. There is a good reason for farmers in many households to be worried.

The price of bananas is an important economic indicator in the region. Statistics show that Kagera Region has annual yields of about 650,000 tonnes of bananas. On the face of it, there shouldn't be a problem. Kagera region produces bananas and so does Mbeya region.

But scientists are now warning that this disease may break out further to Mbeya and Kilimanjaro if not arrested. Experts further say that the country simply cannot keep up with a booming domestic demand of the crop - which forms part of national security - that has seen a significant increase in the past months.

"Previously it was seen as just part of the meal, a scientist at national research organisation (NARO) at Kawanda Dr Arinaitwe Geofrey said, "But now its demand is in many parts of the country." A gap in coordination between the demand and the supply-management chain exacerbates the problem.

The disease attacking the bananas is creating shortage, because many farmers have had to cut down their shambas, said Alzaveri Mugisha, head of the farming lobby Consortium of Karagwe farmers.

"Our local leaders may have to convince people again at election time and explain the rising banana prices because till the mismatch continues such crises of banana wilt and shortages will recur."

Kagera region farmers are now grappling with how they can come up with measures such as using jik or cutting the entire banana plantation.

But it's only a stopgap solution. Until agricultural science and innovation is used, farmers will continue to depend on this traditional banana variety that is vulnerable to attacks and local governments may find their fates depend on this plant and farmers and consumers will have their food security to cry about.

The agriculture sector has consistently been dominant in the Kagera regional economy. The sector engages about 90 per cent of the region's economically active population in the production of food and cash crops. Agriculture contributes most of the region's cash income, mainly from coffee, cotton and tea.

All seven districts in Bukoba, Biharamulo, Muleba, Karagwe, Ngara, Kyerwa and Misenyi have been directed to set up by-laws to control the destructive Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW), also known as Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW). The situation has caused panic among farmers and residents in the region who depend on banana as their main staple and cash crop.

Seven districts in Kagera Region have confirmed to have been hit by the disease. Almost 90 per cent of the entire crop is at risk of destruction. Available data indicate that Kagera Region has annual yield of about 650,000 tonnes of banana.

Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives, Adam Malima, told Parliament recently that BXW had also been reported in other banana growing areas including Tarime, Ukerewe and Kibondo districts.

The attack of banana wilt on the country's food security comes a few days after the world, including Tanzania, recognised World Food Day on October 16. It offered the opportunity to strengthen national and international solidarity in the fight to end hunger, malnutrition and poverty.

Falling water tables, eroding soils and rising temperatures make it difficult to feed growing populations. As a result, control of arable land and water resources is moving to center stage in the global struggle for food security. Here are some challenges to consider:

The rest of the world is experiencing more foodless days. In Nigeria, 27% of families experience foodless days. In India, it is 24%; in Peru, 14%. The world is in transition from an era dominated by surpluses to one defined by scarcity.

Not eating at all on some days is how the world's poorest are coping with the doubling of world grain prices since 2006. But even as we face new constraints on future production, the world population is growing by 80 million people each year. That of Tanzania is growing at an annual rate of 2.9 per cent.

There is also increasing soil erosion; with nearly a third of the world's cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming. This reduces the land's inherent fertility.

Future food production is also threatened by soil erosion. The thin layer of topsoil that covers the earth's land surface was formed over long stretches of geological time as new soil formation exceeded the natural rate of erosion.

Sometime within the last century, the situation was reversed as soil erosion began to exceed new soil formation. Now, nearly a third of the world's cropland is now losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming. Soil that was formed on a geological time scale is being lost on a human time scale. Peak soil is now history. More so, climate change is biting.

The generation of farmers now on the land is the first to face manmade climate change. Agriculture as it exists today developed over 11,000 years of rather remarkable climate stability. It has evolved to maximize production within that climate system.

Now, suddenly, the climate is changing. With each passing year, the agricultural system is more and more out of sync with the climate system. There is also little time to prepareTo state the obvious, we are in a situation both difficult and dangerous.

The world today desperately needs leadership on the food security issue. Any further progress requires a total restructuring of the energy economy. The gravity and urgency of the tightening food situation is such that we are not looking at a crisis in 2030 or 2050.

We are looking at an abrupt disruption in the world food supply that could be just one poor harvest away. This is evident in Kagera region. As potential threat for the farmers grows, local scientists in government institutions are asking: "How can we help our country?"

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