Uganda: Strange Banana Disease Spreads to 11 Districts

A bunch of bananas infected by the disease in Ntungamo District.
24 February 2020

A strange disease has hit bananas in western region and is fast spreading in more than 10 districts with little or no response from government technocrats.

The disease, which agricultural experts have not defined, was first reported mid last year but intensified last month and has reached epidemic scale.

National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) scientists told Daily Monitor that the disease has not yet been characterised since it was first reported in July 2019.

The western region produces up to 68 per cent of the country's banana output, according to the 2009 findings of Uganda National Bureau of Statistics.

Local farmers say technocrats and leaders have ignored them every time they approach them for help.

Mr Fred Ndagano, one of the farmers in Kibaare in the new Rwampara District, last week said eight acres of his banana plantation was wiped out.

"I have called almost everyone concerned but there has not been anyone coming to visit my banana plantation. I do not know what to do," Mr Ndagano said.

Mr Kampson Gershom, the head teacher for Kicece Primary School in Ntungamo District, said the disease destroyed up to four acres of their banana plantation.

"This banana plantation has been the source of food for the teachers and pupils. We don't know what to do next," he said.

Mr Swaibu Bataringaya, another farmer from Ngarama in Isingiro District, said his colleagues have resorted to using traditional means to save their plantations but without much success.

"We have started cutting down the affected bananas plants and burying them underground to prevent further infection," he said, but wondered whether that would be a remedy.

Mr Muyambi Ellady, a resident of Mbarara, one of the affected districts, claimed the genetically modified organisms (GMO) research being conducted by NARO is to blame.

"Ugandan scientists and their foreign counterparts are responsible for such diseases. I warned them when they started their GMO research in Uganda that they are bringing us trouble," the 44-year-old wrote in a Facebook comment last Sunday.

District officials speak out

Mr Jeremiah Kamulari, the Isingiro District chairman, told Daily Monitor on Friday that they were equally in dilemma following the little government response to fight the fast spreading disease.

"We are just recovering from the banana bacterial wilt. Our plantations are new and now we are affected by this deadly disease which scientists are saying they do not know how it spreads. They don't even know how it would be controlled. Government must come up with a measure in a shortest time to help farmers," Mr Kamulari said.

He said the disease has affected six of the top banana producing sub-counties in the district.

Mr Kamulari said since the district sent samples to the national laboratory in Entebbe, nothing has been done.

However, according to Ntungamo agriculture officer, Ms Esther Atwine, scientists from NARO visited the district last week to establish the facts.

"A research team visited for a fact finding mission and are yet to disclose their findings," Ms Atwine said.

Dr Halid Kirunda, the NARO director for Mbarara zonal area, which covers 16 districts in south-western region, said the disease has spread to 11 districts. "We have received reports about the banana disease in Mbarara, Sheema, Rwampara, Isingiro, Kazo, Mitooma, and Ibanda districts, among others," Dr Kirunda said, adding that a right diagnosis is their greatest challenge.

"When the district officials from four affected districts wrote to us in October last year, I responded by dispatching a team of four researchers to confirm whether there was an outbreak. The researchers returned with pictures of symptoms that were confusing. They were giving a reflection of three different diseases and a pest was also involved in the transmission of the disease," Dr Kirunda said.

He said there is raging debate among scientists on the actual cause of the disease.

"There was debate. Others were saying it was anthracnose and others said it was not. But it was resolved that this disease was due to some insect that attacks banana fruits at young stage and spread to them pathogens," Dr Kirunda said.

However, he said although the pest was identified, diagnosing the particular disease, needs intense analysis and engagement of more scientists to establish the truth.

"The pest that feeds on the fresh banana leaves and causes drying of the leaves is scientifically known as Chrysobothris. However, the prevalence of the pest reduced when rain volume went down in recent weeks," Dr Kirunda said.

He speculated that the outbreak of the pest on the banana crop could have been driven by the changes in climate that have resulted in loss of nutritious vegetation in the natural habitats.

He said the outbreak is favoured by dry weather conditions and the trees and shrubs harbour the pest.

Scientists' view

Dr Kirunda added that scientists at Kawanda National Crops Research Centre discovered that the disease is caused by a virus and fungus.

"A team from the banana programme at Kawanda picked samples and analysed. In the process, the scientists discovered a pathogen, a virus," Dr Kirunda said.

He said the virus named Cadona, which was discovered, had been in the western region since time immemorial.

"The major question was what was triggering the increase in the deadliness and spread of the virus," he wondered.

He said scientists discovered that the long rains triggered proliferation of fungi, another infectious agent in the mix, causing mass destruction to bananas in the area.

Dr Kirunda said the response processes has been slow because the disease attacked after they had already made their budgets and that there is no emergency fund for intervention.

"If we had contingency fund, we could have responded better. We are only depending on reports from district production officers to know about the disease. But we need to take some intervention," he noted.

However, when Daily Monitor asked Dr Ambrose Agona, the director general of NARO, to highlight on whether the shortage of money contributed to the slow response to the epidemic, he denied but did not explain the delay either.

"It is the mandate of Kawanda National Crop Research Centre and not Zonal Agricultural Research centres like Mbarara. So I do not buy into the words of any zonal director," Dr Agona said.

Facts about new banana disease

The infection occurs at every stage of the banana fruit development starting just after flowering, while no infection occurs on leaves. The disease diminishes the banana value and the crop fetches low market value.

Symptoms

  • The initial symptoms appear as very tiny spots on the banana fruit
  • Pathogen infection occurs on the outermost skin or epicarp of the banana fruit and bunch penducle
  • The pathogens cause reddishbrown or black spots
  • On severely infected banana bunches, the dense aggregation of spots completely covers all the bunch changing its colour from green to dark brown/red and black
  • The severely affected banana or fruit cracks or splits, creating wounds that attract other fungi and bacteria infections
  • Depending on the fruit formation stage of the banana, the disease diminishes the yields and quality

Control

The banana disease needs to be carefully monitored in order to prevent further spread, and the following measures have been advised:

  • Apply proper sanitation techniques on infected plant residues and bunches.
  • In an infected plantation, cut down all banana bunches, chop and bury them underground to minimise spread.
  • Avoid using the banana residues collected from the market and collection centres as manure or mulch to prevent the spread of disease.
  • Apply fungicides starting just after flowering in an infected banana plantation.
  • Quarantine measures to be placed in epidemic areas to prevent further spread.
  • For export bananas, the paper bag method is applied just after fruit formation.

(Adopted from Mbarara Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute).

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