Prove your humanity

The East African
By Mike Mande
August 29, 2009

Fast spreading new banana diseases are threatening food production and the lives of millions of people.

The bacterial wilt banana disease in Uganda has crossed eastwards as the banana bunchy top disease spread through Malawi into Southern and Central Africa.

The banana bunchy top viral disease, one of the world’s most invasive, has established itself in half of the banana-growing regions of sub-Saharan Africa, worsening food insecurity for 30 million people on the continent whose primary source of food is the banana.

The disease spreads epidemically and is almost impossible to eradicate and has forced scientists and policy makers to urgently convene in a bid to avert a food crisis.

Simon Eden-Green, a consultant with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, told The EastAfrican in Arusha last week the extent of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa and the little attention it has received is shocking.

Dr Eden-Green said the disease eliminates yields while destroying propagation materials. Severe attacks of the disease, characterised by all leaves sprouting from the top of the plant, stunting growth, were last year reported in central and southern Africa.

Scientists found the disease established in 12 countries, including in Gabon, DR Congo, Congo Republic, northern Angola and central Malawi.

Dr Lava Kumar of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, who led the survey, said farmers were familiar with the disease as they likened it to “Sida” (Aids) or called it witches’ broom.

Dr Mischeck Soko from the Bvumbewe Agricultural Research Station in Limbe, Malawi, said by 2003 the Nkhotakota Cavendish banana was wiped out by the viral disease.

Some 45,000 hectares of banana were infected with the disease in all three regions of the country, where the disease was first noted in 1994.

The banana bacterial wilt disease was established in Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, western Kenya, north-western Tanzania, and North and South Kivu in DRC and was poised to enter Burundi.

Dr Jerome Kubiriba, a banana expert from Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation, said Uganda, Africa’s leading producer and consumer of bananas, has been losing up to $200 million every year to the disease, which it has been battling since 2001.

In DRC, both diseases are almost crippling banana production. Patrick Mobambo, the Bioversity country representative in Uganda, said the bunchy top disease has almost wiped out bananas in the western lowlands bordering Angola, Central African Republic and Congo Republic, and the bacterial wilt has also caused havoc in the highlands bordering western Uganda.