Taking over. Central Uganda, due to disease and ageing soils, lost its leadership position in the production of matooke to Western Uganda, and, as Paul Tajuba and Brian Mugenyi report, scientists predict that Northern Uganda and Karamoja could soon weigh in as big banana producers
Francis Muwonge, 61, has throughout his life known food to mean mashed banana, popularly known as matooke.
But the resident of Bugabira, Masaka District, will now have to redefine what food means.
“I am going to cut down the entire plantation (8 acres),” Mr Muwonge says.
“The land seems to be exhausted, the matooke are of poor quality even when I try to practice (good agronomic practices like) mulching,” he adds.
Up to about 15 years ago, Mr Muwonge had a flourishing banana plantation that gave him bumper harvest after another all-round the year. He considered himself rich.
He would use part of the proceeds from his banana sales to educate his children, and there was no need to look for a job or even ask for money to sustain his family needs. Things have changed a lot.
“I am traumatized,” Mr Muwonge says, “How can I harvest 10 bananas from this plantation?”
As pain pierces through squinting eyes, Mr Muwonge notes that it is not only garden which is on the brink of extinction. Almost all banana plantations he has visited in his district are wilting away.
In Kyali village, a small distance from Mr Muwonge’s, another farmer, Mr Maurice Ssemwanga, is equally disappointed with the harvest from his garden.
Mr Ssemwanga says he has slowly adapted to a new diet – posho – which in the years gone by he used to consider only fit for ‘prisoners and students’.
For so many years, central region was the hub for matooke growing, feeding both urban and semi-urbans areas of the country. This has since changed and Central Uganda has lost its place as the leading producer of matooke to Western Uganda.
According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics 2015 abstract report, Western Uganda produced 2,883,653 metric tonnes of banana, while the Central region produced 1,039,834 metric tonnes.
Central was followed by East with 342,236 metric tonnes, while Northern Uganda produced a paltry 31,626 tonnes.
“Our (Buganda) soils no longer support matooke growing,” Mr Yonah Kato, who used to grow matooke in Wakiso District, says. “To ascertain the extent of this problem, stand on Masaka road and see where matooke comes from.”
Mr Kato here refers to the fact that much of the matooke consumed in Kampala comes from farther than Masaka, in Mbarara, Bushenyi and other parts of Western Uganda.
Apart from the economic benefit derived from selling matooke, says Mr Noah Kiyimba, the Buganda kingdom spokesperson, the plantain has a number of other uses.
Mr Kiyimba gives an example: “Matooke is integral in Buganda culture. When a Muganda has premature babies (who die in the end), such babies are buried in a certain banana plantation.”
What went wrong?
Mr Freddie Kabango, the Masaka District agricultural officer, says the district is a ghost of its glorious matooke pride and, which he attributes mainly to the banana bacterial wilt (BBW) which has attacked the whole district.
“We have undergone a lot of transformation [for the worse]. Our soils are no longer fertile. In areas like Kyazanga people had lots of food crops and even coffee is no more,” Mr Kabango says.
With such developments, the expression from ‘grace to grass’ perfectly fits the current lives of these farmers and the region which was once a matooke basket feeding the country.
The National Agricultural Research Organisation, the government agricultural research agency, blames the Banana Bacteria Wilt (BBW) disease for the current woes.
BBW started as a small issue in the year 2000 in Kayunga District but rapidly spread to most parts of the country, says Dr Andrew Kiggundu, a researcher at NARO.
The bacteria can indiscriminately wipe out all banana variety types by causing the banana wilt and ripen prematurely.
To control the disease, scientists recommend that a farmer cuts down the infected plant or sucker completely to prevent it from growing again and bury or burn the infected plant.
Also, farmers are advised to clean all tools used through disinfecting them to avoid spread of the disease from one plant to another. Removing buds is also important since it is believed the disease can be spread by flies.
Dr Kiggundu says that although reduced matooke production in the Central region, has had serious economic and other consequences, the occurrence could make other relatively more fertile parts of the country like northern Uganda, where the plantains are rarely grown, to embrace the crop.
Banana is an economically profitable crop and requires less labour to keep it flourishing compared to other crops.
A banana plant takes under one year to bear a bunch of bananas. One plant produces many suckers for self-multiplication and therefore ‘stays alive after it dies’, Dr Kiggundu says.
He predicts: “The same thing that happened when matooke went to Western Uganda will happen in northern Uganda including Karamoja. All they need is to manage low rainfall and heat, through inter-planting with shade trees and mulching.”
But this is only projected for the future. Currently, the price of matooke in many parts of the country, especially urban areas, has been increasing.
“Every day, matooke is becoming scarce and expensive. And I think it will become more expensive in future,” Kato says adding that he has turned his once banana field into passion growing area.
Currently, with the drought that has scorched most of the country through much of last year, a bunch of matooke costs in most markets in Kampala above Shs22, 000, while the same bunch in Western Uganda costs about half that amount.
Why Masaka matters
For the many years the Central region was the leading producer of matooke in the country, Greater Masaka (which Baganda call Buddu), was the centre of activity.
In this now former core of banana production, many gardens are drying up, especially in areas like Ssenyange, Katwe-Butego Division, Bugabira village, and Kyali village all in Buwunga Sub County.
It was not unusual for someone in Masaka to get a bunch of bananas from a neighbour for free in the years gone by, and those that had to buy would pay much lower prices than those elsewhere.
But the price of matooke in Masaka is now quickly catching up with that in Kampala, with a bunch ranging from Shs15000 to 20,000.
Uganda Bureau of Statistics figures show that Masaka has a total of 274,063 household farmers, many of whom prospered especially during the days of the now defunct Masaka Cooperative Union.
Planners are therefore concerned that that declining production of matooke in Masaka and Buganda, or total extinction, will adversely affect the country’s food security situation.
Matooke features prominently among the priority crops that the ministry of Agriculture identified as key to the achievement of the country’s food security and nutrition objectives.
On the economic front, statistics from Uganda Export Promotions Board indicate that the country earned Shs325 million from selling 426 tonnes of matooke to other countries.
Also, there have been other initiatives under a Presidential initiative on banana to develop value added products from matooke such as breads biscuits, cakes, flour, starch, fibre and biogas.
According to NARO’s Uganda Biosciences Information Centre (Ubic) and Kilimo Trust, more than 13 million Ugandans consume bananas as their main food.
An estimated 75 per cent of farmers grow bananas and the country earns a total of $440m (over 1.5 trillion) as revenue per annum.
Official estimates are that due to the banana wilt disease, the country loses 71.4 per cent of potential banana harvest, representing an estimated annual loss of $299.6m.
The percentage of national agricultural revenue attributed to banana is 22 per cent, according to another estimate.
If matooke is to survive, Dr Kiggundu says, the country needs to adopt disease and harsh climate change resistant banana varieties, which he says are being developed at NARO.
“We are developing resistant varieties using both conventional crossbreeding and genetic engineering,” Dr Kiggundu says.
As the wait for the those resistant varieties continues, Mr Kabango says through different government programmes like Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) and NAADS, Masaka District is carrying out sensitization of farmers about the disease with the view of preventing or killing it.
“We can now pour paraffin on those diseased plants to kill the bacteria and this has worked for many farmers,” Kabango says.
In response to the ravaging attack from the wilt disease, Ugandan molecular biologists and biotechnologists have since 2007 genetically engineered varieties that are wilt-resistant.
By 2014, they had registered a 100 per cent resistance, according to Dr Kiggundu, head of Naro’s Agro-biotechnology and Biodiversity Centre at NARL.
There is still strong opposition to growing genetically engineered crops, including banana, however, with activists and others arguing that, among other disadvantages, Uganda will lose its advantage as a source of organic food.