Reviving banana yield

Lilongwe may not be a major banana-growing district the size of Mulanje, Thyolo, Nkhata Bay and Karonga.

However, Frank Washoni a farmer who has been growing the fruit on an irrigation farm in Dzenza for six years, seems determined to change the picture.

He is not only reaping the benefits of banana production, but also fitting a laboratory envisioned to combat a disease wiping out banana plantations in the country.

The Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) graduate also grows oranges and mangoes on his six-hectare farm.

Washoni and Griffs inspect bananas at Hortnet

The farm, a subsidiary of his Hortnet Food Limited, plays home to a  modern laboratory under construction which has the capacity to produce 150 000 banana plantlets a year.

Disease-free

The laboratory taking shape will produce clean suckers to  end the banana bunchy top disease that has reduced yield to the extent that the country now imports the fruit from Tanzania and Mozambique.

“In three years’ time, we will do away with both the shortage of banana supplies and the diseases in the country. The biggest problem Malawi is facing is lack of proper seed systems,” says the agronomist.

He commends government for giving farmers clean banana plantlets imported from France and South Africa to replace diseased plantations being uprooted.

“The tissue culture laboratory will provide a reliable source of disease-free banana seed,” he says. “Clean planting material will improve banana yield and quality.”

Similar laboratories have changed the horticultural industry in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania where the disease was detected earlier.

Washoni expects the laboratory to be functional this month. To him, replacing diseased planting material with clean one will help reduce foreign currency spent on banana imports.

“Banana seed remains a big problem in the country, so we saw this as an opportunity to close the gap and slow down banana imports,” he said.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development reports that the outbreak has wiped over 30 000 hectares of bananas since the virus was first detected in Nkhotakota in the 1990s. This represents 90 percent of the land dedicated to the fruit.

The infestation has disrupted livelihoods of banana growers across the country.

Reaching all farmers

However,  Washoni is optimistic that production of clean planting material will fast-track the country’s recovery.

Currently, 250 growers in Lilongwe are working with Hortnet to produce clean seed.

The farmers are also  expected to benefit from the exercise.

Washoni envisages the laboratory churning out enough plantlets to rescue troubled banana heartlands, including Thyolo and Mulanje.

“We will reach farmers across the country with both new and traditional varieties,” he says.

The project is supported by Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA), which strengthens the capacity of farmers and agribusinesses through farmer-to-farmer encounters.

US horticultural expert John Griffs is mentoring Washoni and his staff in readiness for the opening of the tissue culture laboratory.

The volunteer, who has completed similar assignments in Kenya and Ethiopia, agrees that the banana seedlings propagated at Hortnet laboratory will assist other farms as well.

“The advantage of tissue culture production is that the plants produced are disease-free. We do not want to accidentally propagate bananas that already have the banana bunchy top virus,” he says.

Beyond bananas

Hortnet also targets production of potato vines as the country still imports certified seed for potatoes, which can be too costly for small-scale farmers.

“If we can produce them within the country, then it would reduce the cost and the reliance on imports,” said Griffs.

He is working closely with Washoni to set up standards for all laboratory activities at Hornet. This will maximise the quality of the seed and guarantee the commercial sustainability of the lab, he says.

CNFA country director Roderick Chirambo said the international organisation has reached over 10 000 local farmers with skills and technologies for improved crop production and processing.

He says: “Generally, the F2F [initiative] adds value to existing agribusiness operations that need technical expertise they cannot afford commercially.

With continued funding from USAid, CNFA will work with smallholder farmer groups, medium scale producers and SMEs to promote the diffusion of appropriate technologies.”

Washoni currently supplies bananas in bulk to chain stores, including Shoprite and Food Lovers Market. Besides selling fresh produce, he plans to venture into value addition using modern solar drying technology.

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