‘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.