TCS Daily

Building a Better Banana

By Stephen Mbogo - January 5, 2004 12:00 AM

In a new wave similar to the overwhelming interest the Internet and mobile telephony have excited among African youth, biotechnology farming is spurring grown-up farmers eager to increase their farm crop production efficiency and volumes.

In Kenya's Nyanza, Mount Kenya and Coastal areas, tissue culture banana farming is well under way. In Kisii and Murang'a areas of Kenya, farmers are preparing for their third harvest, while others are tending their young banana stems, eager to see the "new miracle" of farming.

When I visited a village in Kiambu area, in the outskirts of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, I met a group of farmers who have organized themselves into a group, enabling them to use economies of scale especially in learning the new farming technology.

The predominantly elderly farmers, in their 50s and 60s, showed unexpected enthusiasm and interest in the biotech banana plants. They want the new varieties because they grow faster, are bigger and are disease resistant, hence help improve household food security and fetch higher profits at the market.

James Kamau, a farmer with 45 tissue culture banana plants, called the whole idea "a God-send." "We have seen how the bananas have transformed the lives of farmers elsewhere and now that we have started, we believe we shall make it." Previously, Kamau had only ten traditionally grown banana plants in his small plot. The banana plants used to take 18 months to mature. Now, he has cut them off and planted a whooping 45 tissue culture banana plants. They will only take 12 months to mature, are resistant to disease and will produce more and bigger banana fingers.

In addition, he can cook the peels from the unripe banana fingers, based on the information he learned from Susan Muli, a technical officer at the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) Muli said the bananas grow in a uniform manner, a plus for farmers who may want to grow the bananas for commercial purposes. KARI is the institution which develops the tissue culture bananas in the laboratories and has been carrying out research on genetically modified maize and sweet potatoes. KARI and a host of other agriculture research institutions in Kenya sell the developed banana stems to farmers for $1 for each stem and subsequently offer the farmers advise and education how to grow and care for the plants.

Already, the institute has developed genetically modified maize, known as BT (Basillus Thuringeises) maize, which has high yields, grows fast and is resistant to bacteria. But because of legal and policy complications BT maize is yet to be released to farmers here.

Were Kassim of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a group which is coordinating the education and monitoring of culture tissue bananas, called the response from the farmers "overwhelming".

Tissue Culture is a form of biotechnology that refers to the production of plants from very small plant parts, tissues or cells grown in laboratory conditions where environment and nutrition are rigidly controlled. By the time the plants are ready for sowing in the farms, they have undergone a process which induces remarkable physiological changes that influence the agronomic characteristics of the emerging plant. The process does not involve genetic modification, a fact which helps farmers here because they are able to sell their produce to the local market, something they could not do if the plants were genetically modified.

In Kenya like in many other African countries, genetically modified foods have not been allowed into the market. However, a number of African governments including Kenya are in the process of proposing legislation which will allow production and sale of genetically modified foods.

The road to convincing African governments to allow production of GMOs has not been easy, although biotechnology lobbyists like Catherine Ngamau of Biotechnology Information Center in Nairobi says "there is high hope" that this could change "soon."

Pro-biotechnology campaigners want Africa to appreciate the technology fully so that food security situation in Africa can be eased. Professor Diran Makinde of AfricaBio said African farmers can grow other crops such as cowpeas, cotton, corn and soybeans with the assistance of biotechnology. "Biotechnology should be used as a tool to boost crop quality and improve agricultural efficiency in Africa. I want African farmers to be able to access this technology and assess the benefits for themselves," Makinde said.

According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), although the proportion of the undernourished people in the developing world had decreased from 37 to 18 percent by the end of 1990s, the proportion and absolute number of undernourished people has actually increased in some countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Near East. For those 49 nations considered the world's least developed, the proportion of the undernourished has remained unchanged at 38 percent since the early 1970s. Today nearly 800 million people in the developing world remain hungry and poor - and 650 million of them live in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), most of which are in Africa, says FAO.

Biotechnology, as most scientists have urged, is the best vehicle to improve the food security situation in Africa and could possibly help eradicate the perennial hunger prevalent in Africa.

Stephen Mbogo is a writer based in Nairobi.


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