Ethiopia's Green Miracle

Ethiopia's Green Miracle

Written By: DJ Bwakali | Published: August-17-2015 | Category: Africa's Agriculture
Tagged Under:

With a crucifix dangling around her neck and a big smile on her chocolate face, the middle-aged lady from Abrha Weatsbha community...

One and a Half Acres of Food and Hope

One and a Half Acres of Food and Hope

Written By: DJ Bwakali | Published: August-19-2015 | Category: Africa's Agriculture
Tagged Under: kenya, village

She sighed. Her rough hands clasped the jembe, hoe in her hands tightly as a rapid song replaced the sigh. Every swing of the jemb...

Burkina Faso’s Islands of Fertility

Burkina Faso’s Islands of Fertility

Written By: Environmental Africa | Published: August-14-2015 | Category: Africa's Agriculture
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As Blaise Compaore, the immediate former president of Burkina Fasso fled his country in a convoy of heavy military escort, he left...

Meet Australia's Cash Cows

Meet Australia's Cash Cows

Written By: Claire Baker | Published: December-19-2015 | Category: Africa's Agriculture
Tagged Under:

There doesn’t yet exist an animal that will grow, excrete or secrete money. We can always hope that this will one day be dev...

Bring me my Bananas

Bring me my Bananas

Written By: DJ Bwakali | Published: August-14-2015 | Category: Africa's Agriculture
Tagged Under:

‘Umshini wami mshini wami!’ My machine, my machine. With his arms outstretched, his fists clenched, South Africa&rsqu...

Africa's Agriculture (5)

Saturday, 19 December 2015 00:00

Meet Australia's Cash Cows

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There doesn’t yet exist an animal that will grow, excrete or secrete money. We can always hope that this will one day be developed, but modest, well looked-after animals are already capable of providing the raw materials for products of great value, both nutritional and monetary, and yet in Africa we don’t break open the cow-shaped piggy bank that dairy farming and, in particular, cheese production offers us.

Dairy farming is an extremely profitable, and in some ways low-demand, form of agricultural income generation. The skills involved are not as demanding or technical as certain other types of farming, and not as weather-dependent as crop farming.

Milk is a key commodity, and one with a fixed price which is more likely to go up than down, meaning that if you (or rather, the animals) keep on churning out the product, the money will follow. However, milk consumption and production in Africa are much lower than in Europe, the United States or Australia, and the quality is not always as high as in these countries.

The leading African consumer of milk on the continent is Kenya, but even the Kenyans lag behind the WHO (World Health Organisation) recommendation of 200 litres a year per person, with only 120 litres consumed by each Kenyan over a calendar year.

Though some countries seemingly have a surplus of production the quality of such milk is often questionable. Most notably, Rwanda’s milk production (where authorities introduced a ‘one-cow-per-family’ initiative in 2007) has until now not been regulated by the government, and the raw product is often not treated, transported and processed in a safe and controlled manner. Legislation to control this is encouraging greater healthy competition between producers striving for higher standards of dairy farming. However, many other African countries are lagging behind and dairy farming is not commonplace.

The irony is that milk production produces by-products which can also be profitable and useful, either for the dairy farmers themselves or for the people they can sell the products on to. Whey, the yellowish, thick gloopy liquid which is produced when milk ferments, is used to feed animals, or as a protein culture in the cheese-making process. Animal manure can be used as a fertilizer, and fleece or skin can be put to good use if treated in the correct way. The animals can also be used for meat even if that’s not the original intention, and some dairy farmers make nice side-lines in selling their meat.

In Australia, artisan cheese-making is big business. As a writer, I’ve taken on a personal mission to learn about the cheese-making process in Southern Tasmania (Australia) and this has opened my eyes to the large amount of goods that can be produced from a small number of animals, and at reduced cost.

Grass is a natural product that costs nothing, but is a delicious treat for sheep, and they love supping some of the whey extracted from their own milk during the cheese-making process; a coincidentally practical circularity, which serves dairy farmers well. A sheep can give a good 360 litres a year, and a cow 12,500l over the same period. However, cows in Sub-Saharan Africa countries average a meagre 200 litres.

So what are Africans doing differently from Australians? They have just as much sun, have access to the same quality animals on the international animal stock market, and to the same knowledge, in theory; however, accessing this knowledge proves more difficult for African farmers who don’t know about the latest developments in dairy farming, and sometimes don’t know the basics about good feeding and breeding practices, which you can easily find on Google if you know how to use it. This skills drain is being countered by initiatives such as the EADD (East African Dairy Development) project, run by Hiefer International, the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Technoserve, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and African Breeders Services (ABS).

The EADD project explores the use of VFTs (Volunteer Farmer Trainers) who are trained by professionals over a two-day intensive course on essential feeding and management practices, before going on to pass these lessons on to other members of their communities, in their village, or neighbouring villages. This cascade method of training has been proven successful by the farmers taking part, as they saw their total sales volume go up by 102% over the initial three-year period. Given that the return on investment of a dairy farm is significantly quicker to come about than most other forms of farming, this stands any potential dairy farmer in good stead.

A big advantage on the part of the Australian producers is the prolific use of WOOFFers (volunteers working on organic farms for free). This cheap way of having willing helpers has revolutionised the smallholder farming possibilities in the country, allowing farmers to have free workers, who cost just the food they eat and the beds they sleep in.

All WOOFFers are provided with board and accommodation, but can do the equivalent of half the work of a full-time employee, on average. Having a group of four WOOFFers at any one point is therefore equal to having two full-time paid employees, but they cost a fraction of the price, and they’re there to learn about farming, spend some of their free time in a more productive way, or validate a visa. Whatever the motivations, the result is a huge support network for dairy farmers, and all farmers alike in Australia. The practice has not yet reached Africa, much like the milk-drinking and cheese-eating excesses of certain European countries, as well as the States and Australia.

In Australia’s top dairy farms, the average operating profit on a single dairy farm cow (the money earned from a single cow, once all costs have been accounted for) is $AUS832 ($US599) annually. Estimates would give a figure for operating profits in Kenya as $US1740, given the rarity of the product and the possible selling opportunities. However, the initial costs necessary to purchase a cow are prohibitive for too many people, and so investing in a dairy farm’s first cows is only able to be afforded by the lucky few who have $US2000 spare to buy a cow, then increase the stock, and build the necessary sheds and equipment.

In Australia, a staggering amount of the population are migrants who arrived in the country during its boom years of financial opportunity, and made their money setting up the country’s first major businesses and providing the necessary services for the influx of migrants. They have the capital to invest in a venture such as dairy farming, and keep it up.

Moving away from raw milk, we can address the issue of cheese, which isn’t being produced on a large scale in Africa and has yet to become a popular commodity. Cheese is a European invention, one which hasn’t quite reached Africa (or several other areas of the world) in a big way. Australia was colonised by the British, and not only that, but it was populated by them so that the coloniser population far outnumbers the native population, meaning that food habits and culture have been directly imported from Britain and the wider European community.

Cheese demands a lot of work to go from the raw milk, direct from the animal, to the hard, creamy, or oozing final product which anyone with any sense (and without a lactose intolerance) wants on their plate. At the sheep cheese farm I mentioned earlier in Tasmania, Australia, it can take up to 10 months for a cheese to go from the animal to a neatly-packaged block of cheese, and throughout this time the cheese is nurtured, loved, provided with a plethora of treatments and processes, and stored in exactly the right temperature and atmosphere. This doesn’t come cheap, or easy, and given modern-day cheese making standards, it’s not as easy as 1, 2, 3 “cheese” to mount a successful cheesery.

Some small-scale African cheese makers are making their mark on the world, most notably from cow’s and goat’s milk. The DRC is the home of one of Africa’s finest cheeses, made by the Masisi people in the east of the country. However, production remains small due to limited resources and craftsmanship, so the cheese never reaches the tables of cheese-lovers abroad.

South African raw milk cheese (made with unpasteurised milk, and therefore less complicated but potentially more troublesome to make without contaminating the cheese with nasty bacteria) is a world-renowned delicacy, which is paving the way for cheese revolutions elsewhere, as a part of the Slow Food movement, and adapting European techniques to local climes and ingredients.

Perhaps with increasing access to mobile data, international exchanges and community-based learning programs, dairy farming in Africa will tame the cash cow and crack the piggy bank to expose the riches that lie inside. In the meantime, it does no harm to pay more attention to which cheese and dairy products are on offer in different types of supermarkets and shops in Sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly, to note where they are produced. Let’s hope they’ll all say ‘Made in Africa’ some time soon.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015 00:00

One and a Half Acres of Food and Hope

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She sighed. Her rough hands clasped the jembe, hoe in her hands tightly as a rapid song replaced the sigh. Every swing of the jembe was in sync with the fast beats of her song. Her bare feet found solace in the soft, wet loam soil of Butere in western Kenya.

A few feet away from her were ten other women, all donning lesos, linen wrappers around their waists and digging their own neat rows. Every now and then, they would all break into a chorus to which they would dance to as they dug. Then they would retreat back into silence punctuated only by a sneeze, a sigh, a cough or a hum.

Alice Ochami, also known as Mwalimu (teacher) Alice, sighed again and stretched her 5,2 frame to its full length. It was 10 AM and the sun was still gentle on her skin. This was her farm and the ten women were paid hands who would each receive a payment of 100 Kenya shillings (1.5 US dollars) for six hours of intense labor that entailed digging holes, throwing maize seedlings into them and covering them properly with enough soil.

The following morning at 10.30, the women assembled again in the farm. For six hours, they sang, danced, dag, talked, ate lunch, resumed digging, sighed, stifled yawns and ululated when they completed the planting.

After three days, they had completed the task.

Mama Nebungo wrapped her 300 shillings (4.5 US dollars) into a crumpled red handkerchief and placed it in her bosom. Her wide forehead and slender chin broke into a smile as she stepped out of Mwalimu Alice’s living room where they had just been served tea and sweet potatoes. I will buy a new green short for my son’s school uniform. I will also buy 3 gorogoros (2kilogramme tin) of maize. That should leave me with about one hundred shillings for saving. But even as she budgeted, there was a gnawing realization that the maize would last her seven-member family for barely two days.

Mama Namiru left the living room with a frown. She had five children, including her husband. Her smooth chocolate complexion and oval face gave her a distinct attractiveness that not even the forty years of her life could conceal.  

There were ten items on her to-buy list: 2 gorogoros of maize; 100 grammes of cooking fat; half a kilo of sugar; 100 grammes of salt; five bunches of omurere (local traditional vegetables); 4 pairs of panadol; chaguo langu contraceptive pills; 4 pencils for her four sons; one 200-gramme sachet of Royco cooking flavor and a 200-gramme bottle of cough syrup. She needed 620 shillings to buy all these essentials. With 300 shillings in her small brown purse, she was halfway there. The frown turned into a half-smile that lit up her face.

Mama Bwibo and Mama Omutsoi left together. They were cousins who were married to brothers. A tomato-colored cow by the gate seemed to nod at them as they eased themselves through the green metallic gate. Just a few feet away was the one and a half acre farm that had earned them 300 shillings each.

That farm was bequeathed to Willy Ochami, Mwalimu Alice’s husband, by his father. He was one of six brothers who got an equal share of their father’s six acres of land.

After she finished paying all the ten women, Mwalimu Alice tied the leso tighter around her waist and broke into a hum of ‘Amazing Grace’ as she walked back to her farm. She stood at its edge, near the gate and gave it a long, keen and tender gaze. The previous year of 2010, it had given her a paltry 10 sacks of maize and 2 sacks of beans. Yet twelve years earlier in 1998, her harvest had been three times as much.

Why? What had she done back then that she was no longer doing? It wasn’t just the rain because in 2010, the rain came at the right time, just like it did in 1998. She scanned the long rows in her farm and smiled, wondering if 2011 would be a repeat of 2010 or 1998?

‘For this year’s harvest to match 1998’s bumper harvest, I have to repeat what I did back then,’ she murmured to herself. But what is it that she had done back then?

She had been a member of the teacher’s cooperative union in her district. In December 1997, this cooperative awarded her a low interest loan of 30,000 shillings (500 USD – 1997 rate). Armed with this amount, she used January 1998 to plough her farm in a thorough and timely fashion. By the end of February, planting was complete. First-class maize and bean seeds were safely ensconced in the earth, perched in the midst of soft wet soil and chubby pieces of manure.

The rains didn’t disappoint and it wasn’t long before smiling shoots of maize and beans germinated. When the inevitable weeds reared their ugly heads, they were promptly pulled out by a team of dedicated farmhands who received punctual payment for their labors. Among them was Mama Namiru who always did farm work with one of her babies strapped on her back. When it was time for top dressing, she was among the ten women that sprinkled fertilizer around the plants adeptly.

Then came the bumper harvest in early June 1998 – 30 sacks of maize and 6 sacks of beans.

Clearly, the difference between 1998 and 2010 could be summed up in one word – timing. She had tilled her farm when she was supposed to; planted at the right time; weeded at the right time; applied manure at the right time; top dressed at the right time; weeded at the right time and harvested at the right time. The reason she had done all these things at the right time was because she had the resources to do so.

Then came 2010. Mwalimu Alice had already retired from teaching and most of her pension had been spent in paying school fees for her children. So when January 2010 showed up at her doorstep, she didn’t have the seven thousand shillings that was needed for oxen-ploughing. It wasn’t until mid-February that she was able to pay for this initial farming activity.

Though her tilled land was now ready for planting, she wasn’t ready to pay the planters. She had to wait for mid-March when the combined sum of her monthly pension, together with her husband’s monthly pension, was channeled towards the planters’ remuneration in its entirety. Consequently, the farm wasn’t ready when for the rains that showed up on time. As a result, the shoots that heaved and sighed to the surface were skeletal and gloomy.

It was no surprise that the harvest which followed in July was totally dismal – 10 sacks of maize and 2 sacks of beans from land that had once given her three times as much.

When 2011 came, she was hopeful, but apprehensive. If only she could get the resources that would enable her to replicate 1998! With sufficient resources, she would be able to till at the right time; plant at the right time; weed at the right time; top-dress at the right time; harvest at the right time and store at the right time, in the right way. 

If only, Mwalimu Alice thought as she walked into the weekly meeting of Rising Star women group.

The meeting started with a word of prayer from the plump chairlady. She thanked God for His unfailing love and pleaded with Him not to forget the hardworking mothers who were gathered there that day. The prayer ended with a collective proclamation from fifteen women that, ‘together, we are going to rise from poverty!’

 

A few minutes after the meeting started, the gathered women were informed about a new farmers’ initiative known as One Acre Fund.  

Monday, 17 August 2015 00:00

Ethiopia's Green Miracle

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With a crucifix dangling around her neck and a big smile on her chocolate face, the middle-aged lady from Abrha Weatsbha community in northern Ethiopia clasped a big green mango that she had just plucked from a mango tree in her farm. Her brown eyes gazed across her farm as she shook her head in disbelief. The farm was part of 224,000 acres that had once been barren and unproductive but was now awash with fruit trees, indigenous trees, crops and vegetables.

Less than two decades earlier, a dry carpet covered the landscape, stifling agricultural growth and providing a perfect terrain for flash floods. Ironically, these floods implied an overabundance of water yet ground water reserves were failing to refill, thanks to the dry, dry, dry land. Adding insult to injury, the floods often left giant gullies in their trail and destabilized farmlands even more.

This spelt doom for the little children playing catch-me-if-you-can in the land. Because their parents’ livelihoods were severely compromised, the future was bleak. Hunger often caught up with them, robbing them of their human right to healthy food.

How can you plant anything in such dry land? Any crops that they dared to plant withered, as did their thirsty livestock.  As a result, the community became perennial recipients of relief food for many years. By the time those playing children reached their mid and late teens, relief was still the order of the day.

Beneath the dry land, there was no oil to attract a stampede of investors. Even the relief efforts were just a trickle since relief is ultimately unsustainable in the long run.  After living in this vulnerable state for years, the local community gradually began to turn the tide.

They wanted to reclaim their land, their dignity, brighter futures for their children, a beautiful landscape, guaranteed food and agricultural revenue. Though many of them may never have heard of her, they began to heed the words of the Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai that, ‘it’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make a difference. My little thing is planting trees.’

The Abrha Weatsbha community planted tree after tree on acre after acre. They turned disaster into a blessing when they transformed the vast gullies into natural storage tanks for water. The gullies became dams that could power irrigation and drive agriculture forward.

Priests from a historic ancient church in the area became enthusiasts of the conservation and reclamation work that was going on. They knew that humans are God-appointed stewards of nature; hence what the people were doing was also spiritual. Such widespread local support ensured full ownership of the greening efforts.

A restored and vibrant ecosystem often has rich rewards. It is like a dormant, penniless account finally becoming active with regular, reliable and incremental revenue.

‘I am even planting coffee on my farm!’ exclaims a middle-aged man happily.

Although Ethiopian coffee is traditionally planted in the western region, some Abrha Weatsbha farmers have joined the coffee party and are now planting coffee, albeit at a much smaller scale.

Irrigated land under vegetable production doubled within three years from 32 to 68 hectares. This resulted in more vegetables on the family table and in the market stalls. By 2010, farmers were making $93,750 from the sale of vegetables and spices. Just four years earlier in 2007, similar farm products were earning them $32,500. This exponential growth was a direct result of the dramatic transition from grey to green.

Green has also resulted in sweet – literally, with honey production gradually taking root. Just like vegetables, honey production grew threefold within three years, from 13 to 31 tons.

This growth of apiculture was a deliberate strategy of revenue diversification. The idea was for local people to earn from vegetables, fruits, coffee, honey and many other products that could thrive in the newly green and fertile land.

However, this change of fortune has not come easy. The resilient people of Abrha Weatsbha have had to sweat it out and toil long hours in the hot sun. Women have been at the centre of it all, working long hours and reaping handsome dividends.

Abrha Weatsbha is relatively close to the Eritrean border, a proximity that hurt it dearly during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998 to 2000. Thousands lost their lives, amongst them husbands of many women in Abrha Weatsbha. For these women, reclaiming farmland and multiplying its productivity through environmentally sound technologies has changed their lives. They are finally controlling the size and frequency of their revenue.

The women proved that they may be victims of war and climate change fuelled land degradation, but they are also victors in their own right. They have faced great adversities and emerged victorious.

The wider Tigray region that Abrha Weatsbha is part of is known for its rich cuisine. Women are the custodians and propagators of this cuisine. Their power and influence in the cuisine arena now goes beyond the kitchen stove to the market place. They are already making culinary products like sugar free biscuits from sorghum.

The incredible efforts of the resilient community won it the prestigious Equator prize in 2012. Such global recognition reminds the world what is possible when people, however disadvantaged, team up with strategic partners to better their lives. At the heart of these partnerships is a replenished environment that can constantly refuel a green economy.   

The never-say-die men and women of Abrha Weatsbha have essentially birthed and nurtured their green miracle. With their resilient spirit, the ‘miracle’ can only get stronger with each passing day.

In the words of Bachmann-Turner Overdrive, the Canadian Rock Group, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet!’

 

The people of Abrha Weatsbha have more green surprises and products in store.

Friday, 14 August 2015 00:00

Burkina Faso’s Islands of Fertility

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As Blaise Compaore, the immediate former president of Burkina Fasso fled his country in a convoy of heavy military escort, he left behind streets full of demonstrators and farms full of uncertainty.

According to World Bank estimates, a staggering 80% of Burkina Faso’s 17.3 million people rely heavily on agriculture for their livelihoods. The country itself depends on cotton, which is its main source of income.

In the short term, the current unrest will definitely not boost revenue for Burkina Faso’s agricultural sector. This sector is replete with smallholders whose tiny farms produce barely enough food for them, leaving little or no surplus to sell and earn livelihoods from. Many other farmers can’t even cultivate their farms because they have abandoned them, thanks to soil erosion, decreasing fertility and slanting topography that complicates farming. 

When Blaise Compaore’s entourage crossed the border into Côte d’Ivoire, the former president was ironically doing what thousands of his countrymen and women do or a regular basis.  Burkinabe often migrate to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana regularly for seasonal agricultural jobs. For these seasonal migrants, migration is the golden bridge that promises greener pastures on the other side. One of these migrants was Traoré, a father of three from the southeastern town of Diabaga.

When Traoré fled from Diapaga town in August this year, he wasn’t running away from blazing guns or ethnic conflict. Diapaga was very much peaceful. He was running away from poverty into what he hoped would be a much better life in Côte d’Ivoire. He could have travelled for 350 kilometres to Ouagadougou to try his luck at the capital, but a former school mate who is a seasonal migrant to Côte d’Ivoire kept telling him about the good money in the farms of Burkina Faso’s larger and richer neighbor.

Ironically, Traoré left behind the gold that western companies had crossed the Atlantic Ocean to come and mine. Although huge amounts of gold hadn’t really been discovered yet, mining was ongoing. But Traoré had three children and a wife to feed, not to mention the extended family of his ageing mother and three younger brothers who were also jobless. Traoré and his family couldn’t eat the dreams of gold. So he took the plunge to Côte d’Ivoire.

Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world despite the fact that it is the fourth-largest gold producer in Africa, behind South Africa, Mali and Ghana.

‘Where is the gold?’ the Burkinabe like to ask whenever their country’s golden status comes up in conversation.

They never ask where the farms are because they interact with these farms almost daily and reap from them millet, maize, rice, sweet potatoes, mangoes, cassava, beans and a host of many other crops that feed them. Among them is fonio, a tiny indigenous cereal that has been planted in West Africa for millennia.

It is within this dynamic agricultural context that the World Bank is funding the Africa Union’s great green walls initiative. In Burkina Faso, this project seeks to ‘support restoration and protection of natural resources, forest and biodiversity in the larger ecosystem landscape related to agricultural expansion.’

One major challenge facing not just agricultural expansion but existing agricultural land is the fact that half of Burkina Fasso is semi-arid savannah land. It’s hardly the kind of land that would attract the average farmer.

But Burkinabe farmers are not average. They are innovative and resilient.  They have accumulated decades of indigenous knowledge that has equipped them with innovative coping strategies. One such strategy is known as zaï. It is a small hole that the farmers dig on barren land then fill it with organic matter. The small holes then become scattered islands of fertility within which crops can be planted. How cool is that!

 

These farmers may not be in the streets Ouagadougou, on the front lines of the Burkinabe revolution, but they are on the front lines of feeding their country against great odds. As for Traoré, he too is on the front lines of feeding his family, even if it means doing so from farms of another country.  

Friday, 14 August 2015 00:00

Bring me my Bananas

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‘Umshini wami mshini wami!’ My machine, my machine.

With his arms outstretched, his fists clenched, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma thunders the powerful words of the iconic song.

‘Khawuleth'umshini wami’ Please bring my machine.

The charged crowd responds powerfully.

Wen'uyang'ibambezela,’ You are pulling me back.

Jacob Zuma thunders again, swaying to the music.

This was an apartheid era song that ANC used to rouse its members and uplift their spirits. They were deep in the abyss of apartheid and their spirits would often sink to rock bottom. Such songs would strengthen their comradeship, lift their sagging spirits and remind them that freedom was possible.

Deep in western Uganda’s Isingiro district, Rosa is busy mulching her bananas. She scoops dry grass from a large basket on the ground, carefully places the grass around a banana plant, then drags along the basket to the next, waiting plant. About one hundred banana plants are standing alert in her farm. They are all tall, smooth and succulent.

These bananas are Rosa’s machine. She has used them to attack poverty. Poverty is a war and millions in Africa lose this epic war against poverty every day of their lives.  According to the World Bank, 46 percent of Africans live below that dreaded poverty line. Nearly five hundred million Africans cannot make ends meet and have already lost the war against poverty.

Rosa is not one of them because of those tall, smooth bananas that stand guard in her farm.

All of Rosa’s five children have made it through secondary school because of the bananas. Two are studying at university because of the bananas. Two Friesian cows give her ten litres of milk every morning and every evening because of the bananas. She bought them using accumulate savings from the bananas and a loan from a local microfinance institution. Officers from the institution came and inspected her bananas to confirm that she could pay the loan. In essence, the bananas were her security.

Uganda is known as the pearl of Africa, but it might as well be known as Africa’s banana superpower. This East African country is second only to India in banana production. Seven out of ten farmers in Uganda grow bananas. They mostly sell these bananas in Uganda, explaining why Uganda leads in banana production in Africa but lags behind countries like Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana when it comes to banana exports.

The average Ugandan consumes approximately 300 kilos of bananas annually. With Uganda’s population close to 35 million, it is fair to say that Ugandans consume about nine million tonnes of bananas every year. This figure has not factored in five million Ugandans, assuming that they are either too young to consume that quantity or they are simply not banana fans.

Nine million tonnes! It’s no wonder Uganda doesn’t export most of its bananas. Actually, this is not entirely accurate. Uganda produces at least 9 million tonnes of bananas annually and it’s definitely not the case that the country consumes virtually all the bananas it produces.

Post-harvest wastage of bananas is not uncommon. Despite this wastage, banana shortage is extremely rare. The fact that bananas are readily available and mostly affordably shows that the well of bananas is far from dry.

In 2008, Isingiro district in western Uganda produced nearly 600,000 tonnes of bananas. This was five times as much as Brazil’s produce that year and 40 times as much as China’s produce in the same year. Say what?! You heard me. One tiny district Uganda produced more bananas than the world’s second largest economy and Latin America’s largest economy.

In this same year of 2008, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni boosted his country’s mammoth banana sector when he introduced the Presidential Initiative for Banana Industrial Development (PIBID). The initiative sought to ‘accelerate development of the banana industry through research, increased productivity, value addition and improved marketing and markets.’

Six years later in 2014, Uganda is still on top of the banana world with only India ahead of it. However, it continues to lag far behind Latin American nations like Ecuador when it comes to export. In 2012, Ecuador, exported almost five million tonnes of bananas, fifteen times as much as Africa’s leading exporter, Côte d’Ivoire. Uganda was nowhere in the picture.

There has to be something wrong with this picture. Although bananas have educated Rosa’s children, they have not lifted her country out of the world’s least developed countries. One of the criteria used to determine these least development countries is economic vulnerability. Simply put, Rosa is more economically vulnerable than her fellow banana farmer in Ecuador which produces less bananas than Uganda but exports a lot more.  

The day that Rosa’s banana’s end up on supermarket shelves in New York and Berlin is the day that bananas will become a far superior weapon in the war against poverty. Thankfully, Uganda is taking steps towards this direction. Dr Florence Muranga is leading the Presidential Initiative on Banana Industrial Development (PIBID) Project that has already placed banana flour in local supermarket shelves and a few abroad. This is a step in the right direction. But Mandela’s long walk to freedom comes to mind when one thinks of the road ahead of them.

The banana value chain is long and laborious but ultimately much more profitable. It is a chain that will liberate millions of Ugandans from the shackles of poverty even as it solidifies the gains of farmers like Rosa.

Bring me my bananas!

 

The farmers sing.