Association launched to drive farmers harder into banana market

A new 20,000 member organisation for banana farmers, The National Banana Association, has been launched to aid banana farmers with cheap tools and inputs and link them to marketers and processors, in an effort to accelerate the crop’s moves from traditional low status to becoming a high earner.

The transformation of the banana industry in Kenya is being driven by the introduction of the high-yielding tissue culture (TC) banana Grand 9 variety.

The banana was introduced in Kenya in 1996/97 to 15 farmers by Africa Harvest (AH). From that first 400 hectares it is now farmed on more than 86,000 hectares, with East Africa’s biggest supplier of TC banana cultivars, Aberdare Technologies, having since 2004 supplied over 600,000 TC cultivars to farmers in Eastern, Central, and Coast Provinces and the North Rift.

The new association was officially launched on 19th August at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute Headquarters in Westlands. The founder chairman retired Major Gideon Gitonga, said members had joined from all provinces in Kenya including Eastern, which has members in Garissa region.

To formalize its operations, NBA is drafting a banana policy to reduce bottlenecks in the industry and achieve greater earnings still. According to Miss Anne Onyango policy director in Agricultural Ministry the aim is to make the banana a main staple in place of maize in Kenya.

Despite the growth in TC farming, Kenya is still a relatively small banana producer, selling just over a million tonnes a year, compared with the world’s largest producer, India, which sells nearly 22 million tonnes a year. In Africa, Tanzania currently has the largest banana output at 3.5 million tonnes a year. 

However, the TC banana has brought the chance of high yields to Kenya. When it was launched in the country in 1996/97, it had a harvest potential of 11 tonnes per hectare, but that has risen to 36 tonnes as agronomic techniques have improved, said Dr Florence Wambugu, the CEO of Africa Harvest.

Today a farmer with a “quarter of an acre farming TC bananas can make Sh100,000 in a year” said Dr Wambugu.

Esther Gachugu from Kiharu Muranga district was one of the 15 pioneer farmers to plant the TC banana. In her first harvest she made Sh21,000 in a single day, which she used to build a new kitchen she dubbed the ‘banana kitchen’, which, to date, reminds her of the first earnings she got from the sales.

That initial financial windfall spurred her to plant more of the bananas and in 2005 she bought a pick-up truck from her earnings for transporting her bananas to market. Last year, she sold her old pick up truck and bought a brand new one. “In the soil is where the money is,” she said, beaming.

She has also since ventured into poultry farming that started with 200 chickens that has risen to 800. She uses their manure for the bananas. 

After graduating from Makerere University, her daughter also joined her in farming rather than seeking formal employment. Besides educating her children she has opened a hotel in Muranga. “It serves good banana stew people love,” she said.

Esther foresees NBA helping other TC banana farmers in Kenya advance economically as she has done. “There is hope for a market for them,” she said.

Her views are echoed by the chairman, who is optimistic that with more formalised structures, marketing problems will be better addressed. Also “we will seek increase our operational territories,” said Gitonga.

Within the association, members are clustered into commercial villages of 50 to 100, to give them more clout in bargaining with buyers than when selling individually.

The chairman oversees a group of 35 farmers in his area of Mugambone Meru Central.

Some farmers are also gradually venturing inti first-level pricessing, by grinding the banana to flour in Kariene Meru Central.

By way of more  advanced processing, Kiburi Food Processors is now training banana farmers on drying the crop using solar dryers to preserve unsold bananas. The factory manager Njoki Wainana says dried bananas are ideal for export to countries like China where a ready market for bananas exists that is not yet tapped by Kenyan farmers.

The factory also buys bananas too small for selling straight to the market, in quantities as low as 5kgs.

For more information on the NBA and on Tissue Culture banana farming contact Africa Harvest on 020-444 1113/5, or visit their website www.africaharvest.org

Written By James Karuga for African Laughter