A strategy for banana research and development in Africa

Scripta Horticulturae 12
Publication date: 
January, 2012
978 90 6605 664 0
Page count: 
€ 30 not including shipping & handling, 20% discount for ISHS members

A strategy for banana research and development in Africa - A synthesis of results from the conference banana2008, held 5–9 October 2008, Mombasa, Kenya

Nobody knows who brought bananas to Africa or exactly when, but it is estimated to have been between 2,000 and 6,000 years ago, long before the arrival of other important crops such as maize and cassava. What is certain is that bananas were adopted with enthusiasm, both as a vital staple food and, more recently, to generate income. Today, people in the highlands of Central Africa eat more bananas than anyone else in the world, some deriving up to 35% of their daily calories from the crop. In the lowlands of the Congo Basin, farmers grow a greater diversity of plantains than anywhere else. Bananas are a crucial money-earner for smallholder farmers, mainly sold in nearby markets as fresh fruit or fermented or distilled into alcoholic beverages. In the Great Lakes areas of East Africa alone, the crop is worth some US$1.7 billion annually to 14 million resource-poor farmers. Moreover, these tough perennial plants are the backbone of many farming systems, protecting the soil from erosion and surviving floods, drought and civil conflict, to recover quickly and provide people with food when they need it most.
Yet the banana sector in Africa remains relatively static, compared to other crops in Africa and compared to banana enterprises in other continents. The vast bulk of production is carried out by smallholders, who face challenges such as declining soil fertility, pests and diseases, pre- and postharvest losses and poor market linkages. Only a small minority of African banana farmers are organized for effective production or marketing of their crop and to ensure that their voices are heard. When they do succeed in selling their fruit into distant markets, the majority lack adequate information on prices and, selling through an inefficient chain of intermediaries, receive only a small fraction of the price paid by consumers. Most of the bananas produced in Africa are sold as perishable fruit, with high loss of quality and value along the way. The news is no better for export markets: although Africa grows almost one-third of the world's bananas, it accounts for only 4% of world trade in the fruit.
The economy of Africa is dominated by agriculture, and this sector therefore offers a route to equitable development. Research has shown that economic growth generated in agriculture is much more effective than growth generated in other sectors in benefiting the poorer section of the population. Paradoxically, the underdevelopment of the banana sector means that it has huge potential as a driver of development. With a large production base already in place to supply local needs, the groundwork is laid for bananas to respond to increasing demand from expanding markets both in the region and internationally.
Relatively modest investments in banana marketing, processing and production could greatly expand income opportunities for banana farmers. Products made from bananas and banana plants include beer, wine, juice, sauce, mats, handbags, envelopes, postcards, flour, soup and breakfast cereals. Bananas are increasingly being targeted for commercialization not only within Africa, but also for lucrative and emerging markets such as the Middle East. Recently, large international banana producers have announced plans for long-term strategic investment in sub-Saharan Africa, with a view to shifting banana production for European markets from Latin America to Africa.
So what will it take to transform this ubiquitous but neglected crop into an engine of economic growth for Africa? This is not a simple challenge. It must be seen against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world – growing population, rapid urbanization, fluctuating food prices, evolving consumer preferences and an unpredictably changing climate are just some of the factors currently in flux that have significant implications for all food systems. In developing a strategy for banana to promote economic growth, the vital role of banana for food security among the rural poor must not be overlooked. Any strategy for banana in Africa must address both food security and income generation, but these objectives are potentially in conflict. Food security depends on increasing production while keeping prices low – while improving income often focuses on higher value products.
Recognizing these needs and challenges, a consortium of national, regional and international organizations came together in 2008 to seek ways of mobilizing Africa's banana sector. They organized a conference – banana2008 – which was the first of its kind in Africa. The conference brought together 400 people from 45 countries, representing the broadest possible range of stakeholders from the private and public sectors, policy makers and development investors, researchers and economists, and of course banana farmers. Using innovative approaches, this conference bridged the gap between research, production, and markets and trade. Linkages, and in particular the importance of public–private sector partnerships, were a high priority, and reflected in the broad spectrum of stakeholders attending, many from non-scientific backgrounds. The meeting made every possible effort to capture the full range of perspectives represented: conveners gathered the key issues from three days of thematic presentations and discussions and on the fourth day participatory methods were used to focus the collective wisdom of all the participants on developing the elements of a strategy for banana in Africa.
This issue of Scripta Horticulturae is dedicated to the outputs of the conference. The context is set in a background section, which describes production systems and production figures for bananas in Africa, including problems associated with the availability of reliable data. An explanation of the conference process follows, and a synopsis of presentations further sets the scene for the final section – the strategy. This section uses the results of the participatory sessions to identify the priorities of 'what needs to be done' for each of the main types of banana in Africa – plantains, highland cooking bananas and dessert bananas – and for each market sector: local, regional and international; how to address these priorities; and who (and what partnerships) are best placed to take action. The goal is to create more efficient and equitable market chains, that can deliver economic growth while assuring food security. The strategy aims for achievable change in the short and medium term (the next 10 years), while respecting issues of long-term sustainability. In the longer term, the aim is to change banana production and development from a donor-supported system to one which is sustained by the private sector.
No single organization has the mandate or authority to implement such a strategy. However, the priorities identified should serve to guide and link the actions of stakeholders. The conference generated a unique consensus and essential buy-in from the many and diverse groups involved. It is now up to the private- and public-sector development investors to take the next steps, to build on this momentum and carry forward the enthusiasm demonstrated by the conference participants to transform the banana sector in Africa into an economic driver for development.
Fen Beed and Thomas Dubois (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) and Richard Markham (Bioversity International); Edited by Anne Moorhead

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