Researchers now race to stop new banana disease

Known as Fusarium wilt TR4 and first detected in 2013, the disease is feared to severely impact on banana production if left unchecked. PHOTO | COURTESY


  • Tanzania, one of Africa's biggest banana producers, and Mozambique are among the countries targeted in an effort to manage the disease.

Arusha. Experts are racing against time to stop a new banana disease threatening one of the leading food staples in the country.

Known as Fusarium wilt TR4 and first detected in 2013, the disease is feared to severely impact on banana production if left unchecked.

Tanzania, one of the major banana growers in Africa, and Mozambique are among countries targeted under a drive to tame the menace.

“We will investigate banana farming systems and the cultivars grown,” said Mr George Mahuku, an expert leading the research team.

Banana production practices in the two countries would also be investigated “to identify practical measures to reduce risks.

He revealed this here recently during a recent meeting to launch the three year project that will prevent the disease from spreading further.

Besides seeking to reduce the risks, the study aims to mitigate potential damage that can be caused on small farms.

He did not say how the fungal disease has impacted on banana production in Tanzania but confirmed it had devastated vast crop fields in Mozambique.

Dr Mahuku cited 1,500 ha of Cavendish banana plantation that was destroyed within four years in the northern part of that country (Mozambique).

The fact that the fungus can survive in the infested fields for decades and difficulty to eradicate, facilitated its spread across borders.

The research, according to him, has been launched under with the support of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

It is estimated that 70 to 100 million people in East and Central Africa rely directly or indirectly on bananas for their livelihoods.

The crop is grown on around 2.5 million ha in the region, making up 50 percent of total agricultural production in some countries.

Statistics from the Australian research agency show that the entire eastern and central African region has an annual banana production valued at $4.3 billion.

The project will investigate the risk posed by TR4 (Fusarium wilt) to smallholder banana producers in order to halt further spread.

In Tanzania, the project has roped in the ministry of Agriculture and its key research arm; Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute (Tari). Execution agencies include the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) through its regional office in Dar es Salaam.

Banana farmers in Arusha and Kilimanjaro regions have welcomed the project, saying they have lately become victims of strange banana diseases.

“We are used to seeing our crops wilting, yet we are not sure how to fight the menace,” one of them Joseph Lema told The Citizen.

He told farm experts who visited his shamba after the project launch that his banana sales have dropped since his crops were attacked by the fungus.

“Due to poor harvests, I am often forced to mow down plantains as livestock fodder because they could not deliver anything”, he said.

Mr Lema, who hails from Masama-Mula village on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro decried the absence of the extension officers to advise them accordingly.

Another farmer who identified herself as Judica Swai said occasionally she has been forced to uproot her banana plantains that have been affected by TR4 (Fusarium wilt).

This has not helped much as the banana plantain planted in the same farm would later be affected by the fungus.

Available statistics show that Tanzania produces about 3.7 million tonnes of bananas a year on an estimated 403,000 hectares.

Kilimanjaro and Kagera are the most famous banana growing regions, which together produce about 2.5 million tonnes a year.

In Africa, Tanzania ranks fourth in banana production in Africa. Among the other leading producers are Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Over 60 percent of bananas are grown in Kagera and Kilimanjaro regions where it is the staple food for 75 to 95 percent of the local population.