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.
Every year, 5 million children worldwide die from malnutrition-related causes, including immune-system deficiency, increased risk of infection, decreased bone density, and starvation. But a variety of local efforts are hoping to turn things around.
The New Frontier Farmers and Processor group in Ghana is processing the leaves of moringa trees, which are high in protein and other valuable nutrients, into powder that can be manufactured into formula for malnourished children. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country struggling with internal conflict, food shortages, and poverty, thousands of lives are threatened by acute malnutrition. When a child is brought to one of the therapeutic Stabilization Centers at regional hospitals, run by the Congolese Ministry of Health with support from the organization Action Against Hunger, they receive rations of specially formulated Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods (RUTF). RUTF—such as Plumpy’nut, a peanut butter-based food produced by the French company Nutriset—is infused with vitamins and minerals and is used to quickly rehabilitate children suffering from malnutrition.
RUTF is packaged and requires no preparation or refrigeration. It can be administered at home, allowing families to avoid having to travel to far-off medical centers or pay for long and expensive stays at hospitals. It is also very effective. After about 40 days of two or three servings of RUTF per day, a child can reach a healthy weight. During the 2005 food crisis in the Maradi region of Niger, the non-profit Doctors Without Borders treated 40,000 severely malnourished children using RUTF and saw a recovery rate of 90 percent.
In addition to obtaining Plumpy’nut from UNICEF or directly from Nutriset in France, Action Against Hunger purchases it from Amwili, a local producer that has partnered with Nutriset. By providing a local source of RUTF, Lubumbashi-based Amwili frees the treatment centers from dependency on supplies imported from Europe. Local production also improves livelihoods by creating jobs, and many organizations around the world are working to link local farmers to RUTF production in order to provide an improved and consistent source of income.
In Haiti, the Zanmi Agrikol Program, run by the organization Partners in Health, is improving agricultural capacity and household food security, in addition to treating malnutrition, by training and contracting with local peanut farmers who provide the ingredients for locally produced RUTF. Currently the project provides malnutrition treatment and prevention for 5,000 children; agriculture training and support to 1,240 families; and has contracts with over 100 local peanut farmers. Additionally, the organization Meds & Food for Kids relies on local ingredients and Haitian producers to make its own brand of RUTF, called Medika Manba or “peanut butter medicine.” Meds & Food for Kids saw a significant increase in demand for Medika Manba after the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti earlier this year, and many malnourished children were treated with a locally made RUTF that provides the additional benefit of helping to restore the country’s fragile economy.
Companies like Nutriset in France and Valid International in the United Kingdom offer instruction manuals for local production of their specific RUTF products and partner with local producers in countries struggling with malnutrition across sub-Saharan Africa. Action Against Hunger, for example, also purchases Plumpy’nut from a producer in Nairobi, Kenya, called INSTA—a partner of Valid International—to distribute RUTF to its programs throughout East Africa.
In Ghana, the New Frontier Farmers and Processor group is processing the leaves of moringa trees, which are high in protein and other valuable nutrients, into powder that can be manufactured into formula for malnourished children. This effort, along with other crop-processing projects, is helping to add value to small-scale farmers’ crops and improve the livelihoods of the nearly 5,000 participating farmers.