Bananas have had a great impact on people’s lifestyles and livelihoods in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. They provide food security during long periods of drought and are a source of income for countless farmers.
As a result, farmers in this region have embarked on growing banana plantations. Sectors and districts under the ‘land consolidation program,’ were allocated particular crops to grow-- part of the country’s overall aim of preventing land fragmentation.
“Land consolidation is meant to increase crop production. For instance most of the Eastern Province was allowed to grow bananas because the land is suitable for it. It is a long journey farmers must start,” Agnes Kalibata, the Minister of Agriculture recently said while addressing farmers in Nzige Sector, Rwamagana district.
Charles Murekezi, an agriculturist working with Rwanda Agriculture Development Agency, emphasised the importance of food security while addressing farmers in Rwamagana district.
“In Uganda for instance, people in the western and central parts of the country never starved during their dark days of political turmoil.” Murekezi said. “They depended on banana plantations solely, when it was not possible for them to plant other crops. This is what we want the Eastern Province to get…food security.”
However, the number of banana growers is still very small in the province and the country at large. Some see it as a complete change of culture, since bananas are not a staple food that they regularly feed on.
This has become a challenge when convincing people to plant bananas.
“They tell us to start growing bananas, but we are used to farming sweet potatoes and onions. It doesn’t really make sense for me to forget my daily favourite food,” said Claudine Uwamwezi, 56, a resident in Fumbwe Sector.
On the other hand Murekezi also an expert banana growing said that the issue is not only about adapting but also adopting the skill, basic knowledge and expertise of growing of bananas.
“All steps must be observed from flowering to maturity of the banana bunch,” he said.
Adding that, “much as we are trying hard to make our farmers grow the crop, they are still naïve, and still lack the skills required to grow the crop.
They have to open their ears and eyes so as to grasp what we tell them. We want them to learn but they should also show interest; it is a give and take kind of situation.”
The farmer’s literacy plays a vital role when it comes to dealing with challenges of disease spread in banana plantations.
According to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, in recent years, the livelihoods and food security of an estimated 30 million farmers is threatened by the wide spread of two diseases that have decimated banana crops in East Africa.
In Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a disease called banana bunchy top is seriously devastating banana crops.
Recently, there was an outbreak of a terrible banana disease locally known as Kirabiranya in Gishari Sector, Rwamagana district.
This has called for more informed decisions among the farmers to eradicate the disease.
“When this kind of attack is accompanied by Fusarium Oxysporum (Kabore), then the plantation is in danger of extinction. Farmers must have the knowledge and skills, to handle such cases before calling agriculturists,” Murekezi emphasized.
The scaring attack prompted specialists in agriculture to hasten treatment and quarantine, to stop the spread of the disease.
Amidst fears of people catching the disease, agricultural specialists have embarked on an awareness campaign, to explain to the locals that the disease is only dangerous to the crop, and not human beings.
“A rumour once spread that the disease also attacks human beings, so we labour to tell the truth to people,” Murekezi added.
Rwanda depends on rain fed agriculture, and it has become necessary that areas suitable for growing bananas take up the practice. However, many farmers have failed to show seriousness about growing the crop, which is demanding especially at the beginning.
Local leaders are frustrated that farmers do not heed to their advice about crop growing.
“When you move around this village, you will find that very few have cared for their banana plantations. Yet, this is a place identified for banana growing exclusively,” said Emmanuel Ngezahumuremyi, an agriculturists from Kayonza district.
There are successes too where people have excelled in banana growing, to the extent that they deserted previous jobs. The recent success story is of Alex Kanamugire and his wife who were former primary school teachers.
“I have a lot of praise for the banana crop; it has changed my family in many forms. We were desperately raising our five children. The salary we earned just couldn’t help us make ends meet,” Kanamugire told amused peasants.
This was at a gathering that was assessing the failure to grow bananas in the district of Rwamagana.
Rwanda’s farmers face very steep competition, not only from within the country but also in East Africa.
Continuous sensitization and training, currently is the only chance left that will accommodate the new agricultural revolution.
Even though the journey to adopt bananas as a staple food is long and complex, it is an assured destination to achieving food security.