The Fight to Save Bananas and Cassava in Africa

By Ken Hackett
CRS President

In many African countries, bananas and cassava aren't simply a healthy addition to one's daily diet. They are key to survival.

The bananas grown in Africa, for example, are a starchy staple much like plantains and are the major source of carbohydrate to millions of poor people. They are cooked and mashed to make matoke, a vital building block of the meal in many countries. And in several countries of Central and East Africa, cassava is the most important primary food staple.

Banana and cassava in the African diet are equivalent to people in the U.S. eating rice, potatoes, wheat or maize. Any threat to the production of these vital crops is a potential catastrophe. What if a disease were to attack any of these four crops in the U.S. and there was no known resistant cultivar or means of eradication?

Ominously, that is exactly what is happening in Africa through the spread of two pernicious plant diseases. Banana Bacterial Wilt Disease (BXW) causes early ripening and rotting of fruit and eventually wilts and kills the plant. Over the last five years, it has spread widely in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and serious outbreaks have also been reported in Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda. And an unusually severe strain of Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) has expanded into a pandemic covering vast areas of East and Central Africa, with devastating effects. BXW and CMD are affecting more than 70 million people and pose the largest natural threat to food security in the Great Lakes region in decades.

The people of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) often talk about the importance of collaboration with our partners in finding innovative solutions to the challenges we face. Our response to this situation offers an example. CRS has teamed with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), one of Africa's leading research partners in finding scientific solutions for hunger and poverty since 1967, to carry out a very practical and innovative response to these pandemics. IITA's network of international scientists spread across Africa are dedicated to the development of technologies that reduce producer and consumer risk, increase local production, and generate wealth.

Through the USAID-funded Crop Crisis Control Project, with the pithy acronym of C3P, we are working with a wider network of local partners, including Catholic dioceses and national research institutes, to educate farmers about these two diseases, and how to manage them.

We are also introducing and distributing disease-resistant strains of cassava that mitigate against the impact of CMD, enabling farmers to build back up their cassava crop. Cassava is grown from vegetative plant stems that are cut from the virus-free mother plant. These disease resistant cultivars are then multiplied in large primary sites located in research institutes or other larger institutions, secondary sites located in regional centers, and tertiary sites managed by farmers, farmers groups or community-based organizations, offering greater accessibility of planting material to poor rural farmers. In addition CRS has developed a demand driven approach to support farming communities using “on farm vouchers” (OFVs) to promote the dissemination of appropriate planting material to very poor banana and cassava farmers.

These multiplication and dissemination efforts are accompanied by training and education aimed at achieving better growing techniques and methods of disease prevention. And perhaps most important, these efforts are organized on a regional, cross-national basis in an effort to combat diseases that do not respect borders.

It is our hope that this collaboration with a wide array of African partners will halt the spread, and enable the recovery from two destructive diseases that threaten the wellbeing of so many people and ultimately to save lives. C3P is about preventing people falling into abject poverty. As one Tanzanian scientist said at a recent C3P workshop in Kigali, Rwanda, “close your eyes and imagine the Great Lakes region without bananas.”

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