The time is ripe

DO-madagascar-banana-market.jpgA banana market in Kenya © CIAT/N Palmer

While Eastern African farmers grow plenty of bananas, poor market organisation and limited value addition have seriously constrained the development of the sector. But projects of all sizes are now starting to focus on better bargaining with bananas and making more of matooke.

Kenya has every reason to pay attention to bananas. The dessert banana generates half of all Kenya’s fruit income, making the crop a horticultural money earner second only to the export flower market. In the last 10 years, tissue culture varieties have spread through the country, clearing up disease and invigorating farms with yields of up to 36 t/ha. However, amid the boom, many farmers are still not getting much for their bunches, with large amounts selling cheap to a lengthy chain of brokers - or left to rot.

For a time it seemed as though Eastern Africa might attract the attention of the big multinational banana companies, thanks to preferential access to the European market. But in 2009, the ‘banana wars’ came to an end and the EU had to start reducing tariffs for banana imports from Latin America, leading to increased competition with ACP bananas. As a result, banana producing countries in Eastern Africa decided to primarily focus on their own domestic and regional markets rather than exporting to the EU.

Such strategies led to the setting-up of Banana Growers Associations in the region, such as the Banana Growers Association of Kenya (BGAK) in 2009. With members in almost every county, BGAK provides support in many ways: linking farmers, marketers and processors; grouping smallholders for bulk selling; spreading tissue culture plants; giving farmers a national voice; and spurring value addition. Through all these activities BGAK aims to keep the price of a banana unchanged, so most consumers are unaware of the transformation taking place.

More than dessert

Approaches are also changing at the local level. The Nyangorora Banana Youth Group is a 44-member group in Nyamira, formed by young farmers in 2004. Embracing tissue culture bananas, they began to experiment with new products: banana chips, flour, bread, biscuits, wine, beer, juice and jam. With equipment granted by USAID and the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute, the group will start supplying 20-30 t of banana flour to regional food manufacturer Proctor & Allan in October 2013.

“Before, there was lots of banana wastage,” says group chairman Jared Omiso; now, however, the young farmers don’t want to throw anything out. “In the future we are even planning to start making paper from banana stalks, to ensure there is no wastage from the banana crop.”

Other Kenyans are also experimenting. Kiburi Food Processors in Ruiru is teaching farmers to use solar dryers, and turning dried fruit into nutritious baby food. Sabasaba Agribusiness Co-operative makes products like porridge and jam, and advocates using the banana bud as a vegetable. Amid all the innovation, there is notably little talk of export. With high demand from within Kenya - which still imports bananas from neighbouring countries to meet its needs - there are ample opportunities to add value.

VC-matooke.jpgFreshly packed matooke © Afri Banana products

Highland expectations

Uganda is a wholly different market. Here, in Eastern Africa’s largest banana producer, farmers concentrate on the starchy varieties used for cooking matooke, a national staple. The great majority is grown for home consumption, but driven by the momentum in Kenya, organisations see the potential to generate more economic activity. TechnoServe has already organised 26,000 farmers into Producer Business Groups for joint marketing, resulting in wholesalers buying nearly US$22 million (€17 million) of matooke direct from farmers.

Ugandan researchers have also been working on processing technologies suited to matooke. President Museveni kick-started this effort in 2005 with a Presidential Initiative on Banana Industrial Development, seeking to commercialise matooke flour under the brand name ‘Tooke’. A subsequent innovation has been a process for vacuum-packing peeled bananas, washed with sodium metabisulphite to stop the ripening process. These long-lived cooking bananas, stripped of the thick peel that makes up 40% of their weight, will be exported to Ugandans living in the US and Europe - one niche market where the banana multinationals will surely never tread.

Top of page