Scientists set to create banana hybrids to raise yields

Gladys Wandia inspecting a banana crop
Copyright: Sven Torfinn / Panos

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  • Tanzania and Uganda achieve only 9 per cent of expected banana yields
  • A new project aims to create disease-resistant and high-yielding hybrids
  • An expert says the project should also aim to build capacity of local breeders

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[NAIROBI] A five-year project that aims to improve banana farming in Tanzania and Uganda by creating high-yielding and disease-resistant banana hybrids is set to begin trials in June this year.
The project, which received US$13.8 million funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in October last year, aims to develop banana varieties for smallholder farmers in the two countries where banana is a staple food for millions of people.

“Farmers will evaluate these hybrid varieties for two cycles and by 2018-2019 the best of the hybrids can then be multiplied for larger distribution.”

Rony Swennen, IITA

Uganda and Tanzania produce more than 50 per cent of all bananas cultivated in Africa, but achieve only nine per cent of the crop’s potential yield because of pests and diseases, according to the Nigeria-headquartered International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).  

The project will be implemented by IITA, with five doctoral and eight master’s students expected to receive research grants.
“Beneficiaries will come from Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) and IITA, and most master’s and doctoral students will be selected on a competitive basis,” says Rony Swennen, project leader and head of banana breeding at IITA. The research projects will include pest and disease control, and genetics.

The venture, says Swennen, hopes to boost resistance to common banana pests including banana weevil and nematodes; and diseases such as Black sigatoka also called black leaf streak — and Fusarial wilt disease by up to 50 per cent, while raising yields by 30 per cent higher than the current potential.

Swennen adds that in June the plants will be introduced in five field sites for trials and evaluation. The venture will build on 26 already existing hybrid varieties developed earlier jointly by NARO and IITA.

“Farmers will evaluate these hybrid varieties for two cycles and by 2018-2019 the best of the hybrids can then be multiplied for larger distribution,” Swennen says. “In the meantime the breeders will develop more new hybrids for later testing”.

Six east and central African countries —  Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda —  produce around 20.9 million tonnes of bananas a year with a value of US$4.3 billion, according to IITA estimates.

Urgent action is needed to raise yields and meet food demand for a growing population in the region, says Douglas Miano, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences.

Technologies including tissue culture would be critical in developing disease-free planting materials, Miano adds.

“It would also be critical to build capacity of local plant breeders and scientists to ensure that there is adequate manpower to continually upgrade the crop and come up with even higher yielding breeds that meet over 50 per cent of the expected potential,” Miano advises.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.