Uganda bananas

Millions of smallholder banana farmers in Tanzania and Uganda are set to benefit from a new US$13.8m project to develop and distribute higher-yielding, disease-resistant hybrid banana varieties.

The effort is being funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) with Rony Swennen, a professor at KU Leuven in Belgium and head of banana breeding at IITA, leading the project.

Bananas are both a food staple and an economic backbone in East and Central Africa, where over half of all cultivated land is planted with the fruit. Uganda and Tanzania produce over 50 per cent of all bananas grown in Africa, with the region’s yearly banana crop valued at US$4.3bn.

However, banana production in Uganda and Tanzania achieves just 9 per cent of its potential yield due to pests and diseases, posing a serious threat to the future sustainability of banana production in the region.

The new five-year project aims to dramatically upscale and speed up existing banana breeding efforts in the two countries.

The researchers expect their hybrid banana varieties to have a 30 per cent higher yield and a 50 per cent higher resistance to at least three of the target pests and diseases compared to the current varieties grown by the farmers under the same on-farm conditions. The varieties will also meet over 90 per cent of the quality traits for consumers found in the current cultivars, say the researchers.

“One of the most effective ways to increase production of any crop is to plant high-yielding varieties,” says professor Swennen. “This new project will expand the on-going breeding efforts in Uganda and Tanzania by developing research capacity and bringing expertise from other countries. Hence farmers will get faster access to high-yielding, high-resistance hybrids that are at the same time satisfactory to the consumer.”

The project builds on a collaboration between IITA and Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), which culminated in the development of the first 26 high-yielding, and disease-resistant hybrid varieties, called NARITA varieties.

It will also support the on-farm testing of these hybrids in Uganda and Tanzania, will improve the technical capacity of the breeding programmes in the region, will strengthen partnerships with farmers, and will develop local human capacity by supporting 8 PhD projects and 5 MSc research projects.

The IITA, Bioversity International and the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas are also providing substantial co-financing.