Masauko Maulidi looks out on his banana fields, content that he is finally back in action as a banana farmer after the shock of the devastating Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV) that devastated Malawi’s 185,000 farming households back in 2016.
Maulidi’s eldest son, Yamikani, is ready to sit for the primary education examination this year and the farmer says he is finally able to save money for school fees to send him to secondary school if he is selected.
“I want my children to get educated so that they should not be like me,” said Maulidi, adding that his father prevented him and his siblings from obtaining an education.
Maulidi’s banana yields will exceed 2020’s harvest – but only after he stopped using agricultural extension workers.
Initial resistance from banana farmers
Malawi’s banana crop was wiped out in 2016 due to the scourge of Banana Bunchy Top Disease (BBTD) caused by the BBTV, which spread across 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Malawi.
“I cannot allow that to happen in my field, where will I get money to pay labourers?” said Maulidi.
Panga in hand, he explained he had done all the digging in his fields in Nsabwe with family members in order to reduce expenses.
According to Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture, the BBTD was detected just after the turn of the millennium in Nkhata Bay some 700km north of Maulidi’s field.
Believed to have been brought in by smugglers, the disease spread across the country leaving farmers destitute.
Plants infected with BBTV at an early growth stage are severely dwarfed and do not bear fruit.
Agricultural extension workers saw the banana crop devastation in their districts of operation in Thyolo and Mulanje, where previously banana growing was the mainstay for farmers.
The crop registered a sharp increase in production in Malawi in 1999 with a harvest of 300,000 tons from 93,000 tons in 1998 according to a study by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.
Figures from the World Bank show that Malawi earned more than $6.6 billion in 2015 from banana sales, before production dropped sharply due to Banana Bunchy Top Virus.
In Mulanje alone, the disease affected 6,000 hectares of land, harming 185,000 farming households.
Banana is an important food crop in Malawi and is among the most affordable fruits in the country, said Miriam Kumwenda, the chief agriculture officer for Thyolo district.
“Farmers in Mulanje and Thyolo had been highly dependent on banana to support their needs,” she added.
Speaking on behalf of farmers in Mulanje district, Fredrick Phiri, a farmer who lost his banana field to the virus transmitted by diseased suckers, wistfully remembers the heydays.
“For most of us, bananas have been our main source of income and with the coming in of the disease, we lost almost everything and we had no any other means of surviving.”
BBTV forced total revamp for banana farmers
Another farmer, Masauko, says he changed from refusing to cut down and burn his affected trees to embracing the new measures of accepting banana suckers or new seedlings.
“I really had no other choice,” he said of the decision. “My whole two hectares of land was completely affected by the disease. I had no option but to migrate to the government’s system of a new disease free crop.”
Malawi embarked on the efforts to revamp the banana sector in 2019 as part of a five-year programme funded by the European Union and the FAO in collaboration with the country’s Ministry of Agriculture.
Sandra Paersen, the EU ambassador to Malawi, said: “It is encouraging to see so many more bananas in less than a year.”
Harold Katondo, deputy agricultural research officer at Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station in Thyolo says the farmers are starting to see success because they are following the advice of the experts.
“The virus is economically destructive,” he added. “It affects bananas worldwide and that’s why the farmers have been cooperative. They understand the importance and potential of this new disease free crop.”
The distribution of the disease-free plantlets is done under the Agriculture Sector Wide Approach, an initiative funded by the World Bank.
It one of the approaches to deal with the virus and revamp the sector.
“Through local leadership we sensitized farmers that were resistant to uprooting local varieties and plant the new seedlings,” said Kumwenda.
In Mtambanyama village in Thyolo, farmers are divided into groups to share the banana suckers.
And in order to preserve Malawi’s agricultural heritage, some local banana varieties are being protected too.
New banana crop, new market challenges
However, a group of farmers is crying foul over the dominance of imported banana products on the market. They say this has crippled their financial stability.
Although the banana crop yields are slowly returning to their former levels, Malawi still depends on imported bananas from neighbouring Tanzania and Mozambique.
Speaking on behalf of farmers in Musa village, MacDonald Mtoko, the Traditional Authority Msabwe in Thyolo, said the government should reduce the imported bananas to pave a way for their markets locally.
“All the markets we had before have all gone and have been taken up by imported bananas from other neighbouring countries,” he said.