New banana disease puts 85 percent of East Africans at risk of starvation

A destructive strain of a banana wilt disease which has devastated thousands of acres of plantations in Asia for the last two decades has been discovered on Cavendish bananas, also known as plaintain bananas, in Mozambique sending shockwaves to majority of East Africans who rely on banana for survival. This comes at a time when most banana farmers are still grappling with banana bacterial wilt (Xanthomonas Wilt) which has wiped out plantations.

Over 85 percent of East Africans rely on banana for income and food with the global market for the crop totaling to some $ 5 billion a year.

The new disease, widely known as Foc TR4, is a form of Fusarium wilt or Panama disease is caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum Tropical Race 4. This fungus has devastated banana plantations in Asia over the past two decades and the African outbreak was discovered on a commercial farm in northern Mozambique earlier in 2013 with support from UEM (Universidade Eduardo Mondlane), and the responsible fungus subsequently identified at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

The Ministry of Agriculture in Mozambique has announced this outbreak through the IPPC (International Plant Protection Convention) portal. Dr Serafina Mangana, Head of Mozambique's national plant protection organization (NPPO), said that currently the outbreak is limited to a few fields on the farm. “All sites where the disease was found have now been isolated, the affected plants destroyed, and appropriate phytosanitary measures have been implemented to prevent the disease from spreading,” explained Mangana.

Mozambique government officials have visited the farm, and have introduced in-country measures to contain and prevent spread to other parts of the country. A stakeholder consultation meeting to explain the outbreak was held in Maputo in November 2013, and will be followed by similar meetings in neighboring countries to raise awareness, heighten surveillance and put in place an emergency response plan.

A consortium of partners, including the Mozambique Department of Agriculture, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Stellenbosch University, Bioversity International, FAO, National Agricultural Research and Regulatory Organisations and government officials throughout Africa are being mobilized to address the outbreak, monitor plantations and raise awareness in Mozambique, the region and continent.

The expertise in this consortium of producers, national authorities, quarantine services, banana agronomists, banana pathologists and breeders will resolve the current situation in Mozambique and prepare countries across the continent for any future incursions of this potentially deadly disease.

This new threat could jeopardize the lives of over  400,000 small holder banana farmers in Kenya  where about 1.7 per cent of Kenya’s total arable land planted to bananas.