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Banana farmers in Embu, Murang’a and Kirinyaga are to recieve disease-resistant and high-yielding varieties to grow through a partnership with researchers at Kenyatta University.

When widely adopted, farmers from the three counties will be able to compete with their counterparts in Kisii and those from Uganda and Tanzania for the green banana market.

The scientists are multiplying and testing for adoption hybrid green banana varieties that are resistant to Black Sigatoka disease. It is among the most devastating foliar diseases of bananas worldwide.

Mary Mwangi, a researcher at KU’s department of biochemistry, microbiology and biotechnology, said Sigatoka reduces photosynthetic area and affects fruit filling.

โ€œAffected plants produce small fruits, small bunches and have overall yield reduction of up to 100 per cent in severe infestation. The fruits also ripen unevenly and prematurely which is undesirable for cooking bananas and compromises market quality,โ€ Mwangi said.

She spoke on Friday during a field visit to banana farmers in Embu county.

Mwangi said farmers have little information on how to identify diseases and pests so they are being trained in good farming practices, disease detection and control.

In Kenya, bananas are the fourth most produced crop after sugarcane, maize and potatoes and the third most important food after maize and rice.

The annual production is 1.5 million tonnes, which is lower than that in Uganda and Tanzania at 4.4 million and four million tonnes respectively.

โ€œThe dismal productivity is attributed to continued cultivation of low yielding varieties, deteriorating climatic conditions, soil degradation, pests and diseases. Past interventions have mainly focused on the dissemination of disease-free tissue culture seedlings of commercial dessert bananas,โ€ Mwangi said.

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โ€œObservably, there has been little adoption of cooking bananas and plantains, yet they have the potential to address the rampant food insecurity in the country. Besides, gender shifts arising from commercial banana farming have generated observable gender-based violence within the households.โ€

Mwangi said farmers incur huge losses due to poor yields and increased susceptibility to pests and diseases caused by climate change.

The researcher said 25 new hybrids have been evaluated for agronomic performance in Uganda, and Kenya has begun similar studies.

Part of the project is assessing the potential of the hybrids for adoption by farmers, consumers and traders in Kenya through a participatory gender-responsive approach.

โ€œNARITA hybrids are high-yielding and disease-resistant hybrids which are the result of over 20 years of joint breeding efforts between the National Agricultural Research Organization of Uganda and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture hence the name,โ€ she said.

The research is being done through the Climate Smart Banana Project which costs Sh83 million, with a matching fund of Sh8 million from the Ministry of Education National Research Fund.

The project is being implemented by a consortium of researchers from Kenya, Uganda, Spain and Belgium and is funded by the LEAP-Agri: EU-Africa Research and Innovation grant.

Grace Wamue-Ngare from the department of sociology, gender and development studies said the team is popularising and evaluating improved cooking bananas and plantain hybrids. They are using a participatory, gender-integrated approach for the entire project team, including farmers and other players in the banana and plantain value chains.

โ€œThe project is aimed at exploiting the existing genetic resources and diversity of bananas to select varieties resilient to climate change-induced constraints. This will be done by using a participatory gender-responsive approach that involves all stakeholders in the banana and plantains value chains in Kirinyaga, Embu and Murangโ€™a counties,โ€ Ngare said.

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She called for affirmative action, where applicable, especially in all training and knowledge transfer activities.

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