Photo: Women selling bananas in Democratic Republic of Congo

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Photo: my host family in Province Orientale, Northern DRC

My adoptive family in Northern DRC during a training

When I went to Province Orientale in Northern DRC, near the Sudanese border, I stayed in a very remote village that took about 12 hours to get to on a small motorbike. I was a bit apprehensive because I was not sure what I was going to find there once we arrived. My hut was clean and well looked after, and one of the families in the village looked after me. They gave me food and washed my clothes. There were adorable and I hope this picture does them justice. I think about them every now and again, and hope they are doing well. Hopefully I will see them soon! That area of DRC has a lot of problems with Cassava Mosaic virus and Banana bacterial wilt. however they have an amazing quantity of food due to the tropical conditions in the region. It rains 10 months of the year and avocado the size of watermelons grow everywhere, they feed peanuts (usually a cash crop) to the pigs and the chickens are very tasty (which I find unusual in East Africa)

Photo: A South Sudanese woman in a market in Northern DR Congo

South Sudanese woman in Northern Congo market

This woman, whose name I unfortunately cannot remember, lived in what is now South Sudan and left during the recent troubles in Juba. She crossed into DRC and now lives in Aru, near the Ugandan border. She is growing cassava and banana to sell at the moment and is an expert seamstress. She owns her own sowing machine and gets good income from it. She was very happy to talk to me about the problems in the area. The North East Congo-Uganda-South Sudan region used to be a lawless area where many bad things happened. It is however easier now, and she is looking forward to returning to her native Juba soon. For her and her family, I really hope this happens! good luck!

Photo: Plant Health rallies in DR Congo

At CABI, we have an initiative called plant health rallies, where we interview farmers on a particular disease in the area. This can be banana bacterial wilt, cocoa black pod, Cassava mosaic virus... The big problems are the ones that not only affect farmer's crops constantly, but also their wallets. Plant health rallies are an organised extension initiative that aims at collecting information on the extent of the disease, as well as giving the farmers interviewed valuable information on  disease control and management. It is a hard day's work, as I would normally interview 200 farmers in 4 or 5 villages, and pass on information, as well as giving speeches to draw the crowd in! It is all worthwhile though, as the information we give them will hopefully aid their crop obtain better yields!

At CABI, we have an initiative called plant health rallies. this involves riding out to rural areas and interviewing farmers on a particular disease in the area, and giving them practical, economic and safe solutions for fighting the disease. This can be banana bacterial wilt, cocoa black pod disease, Cassava mosaic virus… These  problems affect their crops, but also their wallets. Plant Health Rallies are an organised extension initiative that aims at collecting information on the extent of the disease for future development of control techniques, as well as giving the farmers interviewed valuable information on disease control and management. It is a hard day’s work, as I would normally interview 200 farmers in 4 or 5 villages, and explain how to control the problem, as well as giving speeches on a chair in a random market to draw the crowd in! It is all worthwhile though, as the information we give them will hopefully aid their crop obtain better yields! I do get some people who look at me strangely. Photo: Dr Eric Boa

So bananas and cassava are growing as staples around the world. Not if diseases have anything to say about it

According to CGIAR (http://www.cgiar.org/), a leading Global agricultural research partnership, the leading world food staples such as wheat, maize, potato, and rice will be replaced by other crops, such as banana, cassava and cowpea.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20126452

Travelling to many countries where bananas grow, I am not all that surprised that bananas will be replacing potatoes. They are everywhere! In Uganda they are a huge part of the diet. You fry them, steam them, eat them raw or  with chips, tomatoes and even yoghurt. You can use the leaves as a cooking pot, or as plates etc… They are also extremely tasty! Not that we would know anything about this in the UK, as we get the majority of our bananas from the West Indies. During my travels in Uganda (having been there about 7 times in 2 years), all we see is blooming bananas!

However, in the recent past, the entire East African banana region suffered from an extremely serious bacterial disease (Xanthomonas campestris) causing severe wilt and premature ripening of the fruits. This disease renders the fruit inedible, and leads to the death of the tree or the spread of the disease in the farmer’s crop, causing severe economic loss. The picture below shows quite distinct symptoms. Some fruit are green, some are yellow, but internally, they are not ripe.

A batch of bananas that is seriously affected by a bacterial disease not only must be thrown away, affecting the farmer’s earnings, but the tree needs to be cut down and burned outside the field, so that insects do not transmit to healthy banana trees nearby.

Naturally in East Africa, as bananas are so important, major research was done by all, including by CABI (my organisation) and the IITA. The disease is still a big problem in Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but the word has spread and farmers now know that simple measures  can drastically reduce the damage and spread, such as cutting down the male bud after the emergence of the fruit, and cleaning their tools after using it on a diseased tree. Slowly but surely, farmers are fighting the disease…

One thing I cannot comprehend however, is how Cassava can be such a popular staple. I eat it a lot in DRC and Uganda, and no kidding its just not tasty or even remotely appetizing to look at. Granted, you can make flour from it and use the leaves, but give me bananas any day of the week! It is easier to grow though so on a serious note I can see why it is becoming more popular.

Again, however, major diseases on east African cassava, such as the “Mosaic Virus” and the unfortunately named “Brown Streak” virus are ravaging cassava fields. In this case, the best way to fight the diseases are through developing resistant varieties through research. Luckily it seems a breakthrough has been made recently, according to ETH Zurich (http://www.ethlife.ethz.ch/archive_articles/120926_GMO_Maniok_per/index_EN), and a resistant variety has been developed. It still needs adequate testing and probably is a long way off, but I remain optimistic… Easier for me to say this than a farmer..

So in conclusion, new staples are shining through? Well that’s all well and good, but they’ll need to be ready for a serious upsurge in disease outbreaks. When a crop becomes too successful, or an artifical monoculture is created by man, nature has a way of keeping it in check. That’s my view anyway

Here’s to more bananas. You can never have enough of them.

till next time