Banana farmers turn fruit to wine, as Hero’s Power

A farmers group in Murang’a district is raising Sh30m to build a banana wine making plant, following its success in creating banana wine brand, Shujaa Power, after a glut of bananas last year forced the group to find new ways of adding value to excess banana crops.

The Kihoti Banana Wine Makers Association is now in talks with a company in Southern Sudan to export the banana wine, which has captured a hearty market in its local area and increased the members’ earnings by 30 per cent compared with selling raw bananas.

“At the moment we have even been forced to start buying the bananas from our non-members, since the request for the wine here has grown tremendously since we started in 2010. Local pubs buy the wine in bottles and resell in smaller quantities, which is also profitable to them,” said Kamengo Kanyi the group’s chairman.

This business take-off is a far cry from the farmers’ position two years ago. Overwhelmed by the overproduction of bananas after local farmers embraced high yielding tissue culture bananas, the 150-member group was formed on the idea that wine making would be the cheapest way to add value and achieve better sales for the excess crops.

The venture is based on the traditional fermentation process, which involves using yeast to hasten fermentation.

Every week, members supply bananas to the winery, which has a ripening gallery used to hasten the ripening. The group digs a hole big enough to pile up 5 or 6 bunches of bananas which are picked while still green. A fire from dried banana tree leaves is lit inside the hole, which is lined with fresh banana tree leaves to stop the bunches from touching the earth. The hole is then covered with more leaves and a gallery made of banana tree trunks.

After four to six days the bananas have ripened and are peeled and placed inside a hollowed canoe-shaped tree trunk. The group then kneads and churns them with bundles of stiff grasses to extract the juice into open buckets. One kilo of bananas produces 3 litres of the banana juice

To achieve fermentation, each banana juice bucket is sprinkled with ground grilled sorghum that acts as yeast. The jugs are then sealed using banana leaves and left to stand near the hearth where a small fire is kept burning for a day and a half. The now ready wine is decanted into medium sized jugs and left to stand for a day in a cool place, before being bottled in 330ml and 500 ml glass bottles that are returnable to the group for subsequent bottling.

The modest winery also has a bottle cleaning process in to ensure clean packaging and distributes the bottles in wooden crates, which each hold a dozen bottles.

A 330ml bottle of the wine goes for Sh150 in the local pubs, but is sold at Sh200 to buyers who come from as far as Nairobi and Thika.

The venture has been lauded by the provincial administration for greatly helping curb the alternative illicit brews that have claimed numerous lives in the area. “We have tested it and found out that it is very safe and that’s how we encouraged bar owners to resell it in cheaper affordable quantities to encourage locals to use it as opposed to the other lethal drinks,” said Kanyi.

“I have tried it myself and I love it,” said Allamano a chief in one of the locations in Murang’a district. The banana wine called Shujaa Power, or hero’s power, has a golden and clear appearance with a fruity smell and a shelf life of six months. It contains 10 per cent alcohol.

However, the wine’s take-off, and now moves into Southern Sudan, have heightened the focus on production standards. Winemakers have been pushing for better and cleaner ways of extracting the juice and fermenting it by the farmers. “In fact, the majority of the wine makers says they would want us to keep producing the juice and then assist us with the fermentation, but insist we really have to work on our hygiene,” said Kanyi.

This has seen the group set its eyes on a modern fermentation plant with micro finance institutions and other financial institutions having promised to build the fermentation plant if the group can raise the 10 per cent of the Sh30m needed. To this end, the group has entered into a share ownership scheme, where members have to buy at least 1,000 shares, each going for Sh100. “It’s a very ambitious drive, but we have to do it.”

“Farmers have responded well to the share scheme because they realise how important a modern fermentation plant is to us. Already we have about 80 per cent of the group members having bought 1000 shares,” said Kanyi.

The wine making venture is one of now many value addition ventures being developed by Kenya’s 400,000 smallholder banana farmers, following from the highly volatile banana prices and often meager returns from the now oversupplied raw banana market. Other ventures include banana flour, banana biscuits and banana accessories like handbags made from banana sisals.

Written By Bob Koigi for African Laughter