Matoke banana varieties show promise for East African growers
In the highlands of East Africa, banana consumption reaches some of the highest levels in the world. Between dinner dishes and fermented beverages, East Africans eat as much as one kilogram of bananas per person every day on average.
Although most production remains local, nations such as Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya also represent a significant portion of global banana volume, explained Rony Swennen, the head banana breeder for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
"According to our statistics, 20% of global banana production comes from East Africa. We have 140 million (metric) tons (MT) in the world. Of that 20%, 90% is from matoke, which are the highland bananas," he said.
The matoke cooking banana has been at the center of IITA's East African breeding program, operated in partnership with the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) of Uganda.
To view East African matoke production, visit our photo gallery, courtesy of IITA.
After two decades of investigative work in the region, the organizations have announced 26 hybrid matoke varieties that could provide a promising alternative to smallholder farmers.
In addition to high yields, these banana varieties have shown significant resistance to Black Sigatoka, nematodes and weevils.
"The major problem in the highlands of East Africa is that the bananas suffer from a leaf disease called Black Sigatoka. In Latin America, they have to spray once a week over plantations with a plane to keep the fields clean.
"In the highlands, the bananas are also suffering from the same disease and [these varieties] are resistant to the leaf disease," Swennen said, explaining that East African producers do not typically apply pesticide treatments.
"There is strong evidence, but not scientific yet, that they also have resistance to nematodes and weevils but we need to do research more properly."
So far, the bananas have been released to farmers on a limited basis, with three varieties currently available on plantations in Uganda.
"Now with this announcement, NARO and IITA have decided we will make it available for the whole region. Now we have prepared a plan to test the material in Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo. Then we will go and extend it to other places. This will all be in collaboration with farmers," he said.
"The work is not done. Now that we have found high-yielding varieties with resistance to diseases, we need to test it in different areas to see if people like to eat it - because taste is affected by the environment - and whether they find it superior to their own varieties."
In Uganda, Swennen said farmer application has been promising and that the research varieties have been integrated smoothly into local farms.
"People have been mixing them with local varieties. In those situations, people mix 20 or 30 varieties together in the same field. They were simply part of the system. The first farmers involved, they have accepted them very well. You know if you see people mixing new varieties with old varieties that they are doing well," he said.
The fruits of smallholder farmers will be key in determining the true value of these varieties. Although they have performed well with researchers, Swennen pointed out that actual farming conditions can look quite different.
"In the experimental conditions, the yield is 60% higher. These are in well-managed fields, so it’s a much heavier bunch. Now we want to know how they will make it in farmer fields where the management is suboptimal," he said.
"In some places, people on average have 3-to-5 tons per hectare [from current varieties]. We know from a lot of research that if managed properly, you can go to 70 tons. You see the tremendous potential there. We want to find out, under low-management conditions – because that’s what most people are doing – how much better the new varieties are."
Given the time to establish new plantations, Swennen said the volume question will not become totally clear for another four years. In the meantime, the varieties will be put to the taste test.
"In year number two, I will get responses about palatability, if people like the taste, which is a very important element. No one cares about high yield if no one likes to eat it. I want to know about that before anything else," he said.