Farmers embrace new technologies to get healthy banana planting material

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By Catherine Njuguna

Catherine Njuguna is the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture‘s  (IITA) Regional Corporate Communications Officer for Eastern and Southern Africa.

Kagimbi Tharcisse, a farmer in eastern Burundi, lifts up the transparent polythene sheet and delicately pulls back some soil to proudly show the tiny banana plantlets growing underneath. Small and delicate, they will be gently taken care of for two months. Each will then be replanted in polythene bags, to grow bigger and stronger and in three months, it will be ready for the farmers’ fields.

Tharcisse proudly shows the little banana plantlets in the special sterilized chamber. (Photo credit: Catherine Njuguna)

The banana plantlets were obtained through a more complicated process compared to the traditional way of growing banana using suckers—these are the daughters growing at the base of the mother plant that farmers uproot from their own farms or buy from a neighbor. It is a slow method of obtaining planting material and it easily spreads pests and diseases from one farm to another if the suckers are not properly selected and treated.

However, this new technology, known as macropropagation, aims at overcoming these two challenges—it allows the rapid production of pest-free planting material. In this new procedure, Tharcisse explains, one starts by selecting a vigorous healthy-looking sucker—the type that only has very thin pointed leaves—and using a large knife peels off the dirt and roots. Next, it is immersed in hot boiling water for 30 seconds to kill any pests. The outer leaf sheaths are then carefully peeled off to expose the meristem—the growing part at the center of the plant.

The meristem is cut into pieces which are then placed in special sterilized chambers lined with transparent polythene sheets for extra warmth, humidity, and light for 15 days during which they will sprout many little plantlets. These plantlets are carefully detached once they grow 2 to 3 leaves and planted in pots with sterilized soils to acclimatize. They are ready for field planting after 2 to 3 months.Using this method, a sucker can produce up to 20 plantlets instead of just one.

Tharcisse is a member of a farmers’ association in Muyinga, eastern Burundi, known as the ‘Tukarukire Gitok’ meaning “let us rehabilitate banana” in the local language. The group received training on macropropagation from the Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) project as part of efforts to ensure that farmers have adequate healthy planting material of their desired varieties, whether local or improved varieties, to curb the spread of pests and diseases. The group then used its own funds to start the macropropagation to meet their demand for clean planting material.

The CIALCA project brings together various partners and donors to improve farm-level productivity through, among others, promoting integrated pest and disease management. It is led by Bioversity International, IITA, and Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (TSBF-CIAT).

Bakame Pankris, another member of the group, is eagerly awaiting the new planting material. “Our bananas were getting diseases and we were getting very poor yields. Then we discovered these new FHIA varieties which are high yielding and are not attacked by diseases. With FHIA, we are getting even up to 100 kg per bunch while most of our local varieties rarely exceed 25 kg,” he says. “I now want to increase the banana in my farm as we are doing very good business with traders from Tanzania who come to buy in the farms.”

Pankris explains that by using the plantlets most of his banana will grow uniformly and be ready for harvest almost at the same time. He will then call the traders for collection. However, when using the traditional method, the bananas grow at different rates.

FHIA are a range of hybrid banana varieties from and named after the Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation (Fundación Hondureña De Investigación Agrícola) that CIALCA and its partners are promoting in the region as field trials have shown they are high yielding, have varieties that are suitable for the different banana uses—cooking, dessert, juicing, and making beer, and are well accepted by farmers.

Deadly banana diseases

In Burundi, banana is one of the important sources of food and income for farmers. However, the crop is under attack from a plethora of diseases and pests. Of special concern are tanana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) and Banana Bunchy Top Disease (BBTD) which have the potential to wipe out this important food and income crop as all banana varieties are susceptible.

BBTD—once described as the banana version of AIDS by Lava Kumar, a plant virologist with IITA—leads to stunted plants which do not produce fruits and eventually die. It has been spreading havoc on the crop through West and Central Africa including Burundi and neighboring DR Congo and Rwanda.

BXW, whose symptoms include wilting of leaves, premature ripening of bunches, and rotting of fruit, and eventual death of the plant, is destroying banana in East African countries including Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Dr Congo. In Burundi, both diseases are present with recent confirmation of BXW in parts of the country; frantic efforts are under way to control their spread.

The diseases are mostly spread through the exchange of infected planting material and use of infected farm tools. Control measures include uprooting and burning any infected plant to stop their spread, timely removal of male bud, and disinfecting farm tools.

According to Emmanuel Njukwe of CIALCA, due to the threat to banana posed by the two diseases, there is an increased demand for healthy planting material and good management practices. Use of tissue culture planting material is the most effective and safest way to get clean planting material. However, it is a complicated and costly technology.

“The plantlets are expensive, with a single plant costing up to US$1 although most farmers receive them through development organizations. They are fragile and need a lot of care, like babies,” he says. “Untrained farmers often have bad experiences with the delicate tissue culture plantlets in the past and do not want anything to do with them.”

Njukwe, however, says they should not avoid the use of clean tissue culture plantlets and the project is therefore finding ways of integrating it with macropropagation.

“We are promoting macropropagation as an alternative and to complement tissue culture. We are working with NGOs and farmers’ groups as our go-between with the farmers. We give them healthy tissue culture plantlets of the varieties they want, local or improved. They then take care of them in mother gardens and after 6 to 8 months, they start to field multiply using decapitation techniques or macropropagation to obtain more plants for distribution to farmers,” he says.

“To ensure they are indeed disease free, we first send samples to IITA at Ibadan, Nigeria, or Kawanda agricultural research station in Uganda for disease testing and virus indexing and discard any that is infected,” he explains.

One such development partner is the Post-conflict Program for Rural Development (PPCDR) funded by the European Union which has hired 12 technicians who will work with CIALCA, farmers’ associations, and NGOs to promote the use of tissue culture banana and rapid propagation techniques.

According to Piet van Asten, IITA agronomist working on the project, Burundi is one of the countries that is food insecure as a result of a high population density, increasingly smaller farm sizes, and low yields. All efforts must therefore be made to increase production and protect farmers’ harvests from pests and diseases.

And farmers like Tharcisse and Bakame are ready to embrace new and better ways of farming to increase their production and improve their livelihoods.

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