Banana Wilt: The Spreading Menace

By Abisola Adekoya

As one of the world’s poorest and war ravaged nations, it’s hard to imagine that the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) could endure much more suffering.  Yet 5 years ago, another threat emerged. This time, the threat is not from guns or violence, but from a  highly-contagious plant disease called Banana Xanthomas Wilt (BXW), more commonly known as Banana Bacterial Wilt.

Committees elected by their villages are tasked with caring for healthy banana shoots, looking for signs of wilt and helping control the disease in the shared fields. (Photo Credit: Action Against Hunger)

First observed in Uganda nearly a decade ago, Wilt affects the vascular system of plants. In low-lying parts of eastern DRC, and in many of its east African neighbor states, banana plantations dominate the landscape. As both a staple food and cash crop for rural communities, the viability of the banana crop has an enormous impact on livelihoods.  So when Wilt arrives, it damages more than just crops.

With bananas (which regenerate through a bulb or rhizome), yellowed leaves are the first sign of Wilt. The disease then rots the fruit and eventually the entire tree.  Left unabated, Wilt can wipe out entire banana plantations, where many households earn up to 80 percent of their income.

In keeping with its mission to treat and prevent acute malnutrition, Action Against Hunger , a global humanitarian organization committed to ending world hunger, has been working with residents of DRC’s North and South Kivu region to help address the short-term food security needs created by the spread of Wilt, while also ensuring  long-term recovery of their livelihoods.

In their Wilt program, which is now in its third phase, Action Against Hunger is helping communities to construct wood-framed nurseries designed to grow healthy banana shoots that can replace diseased crops. To help farmers make it until these shoots have grown to maturity, Action Against Hunger has provided local community members with seeds to grow alternative crops, such as maize and beans.

With funding from the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the program has flourished: nearly 14,500 farmer households have been involved in the awareness campaign; over 100 village-based nurseries have been established (plus 10 more underway); and 100 hectares of diseased banana crop have been uprooted and replaced.

Action Against Hunger has not worked with farmers alone.  The organization has also been including local authorities in its training sessions, to order to bolster the government’s ability to address the problem through their own initiatives.

Yet, in the DRC and throughout the region, Wilt continues to spread. What’s needed to stop it, according to Muriel Calo, a Food Security and Livelihoods advisor at Action Against Hunger, is a committed, broad-based movement that involves all levels of the government, partnered with the United Nations, non-profit organizations and affected communities to develop a more coordinated effort to combat this menace over the medium and long term.

For more on managing plant disease, see:   The Birds, the Bees…and Plants and Innovation of the Week: For Pest Control, Follow Nature’s Need.

Abisola Adekoya is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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