For many people, the banana is more than just a fruit. Across Africa and indeed large swathes of Central America and Asia, the sweet dessert banana, starchy cooking varieties and plantain are the lifeblood of the people, as part of a regular, staple diet and source of income for hundreds of millions of people. Yet its potential is far from realised.
Take Uganda as an example. It produces 9.9m metric tonnes of bananas annually, accounting for 33% of the world's total production, making it the second-largest global producer after India. Yet the landlocked East African nation ranks only 70th in the index of world banana exporters.
In fact, the Great Lakes region of Central Africa consumes the largest quantity of bananas anywhere in the world. They are easily digestible, provide nourishing weaning for babies, and can be made into drinks, chips, flour additives and textiles.
Wider still, banana and plantain are basic food crops for over 70 million people in Africa. But yields have been declining over recent years. Nutrient deficiency in soils, disease and climate change all pose a threat to agricultural productivity in Africa. Bananas, however, have a degree of comparative advantage as a crop.
"A perennial plant with a relatively shallow root system, they help to prevent soil erosion and are very resilient," says Dr Fen Beed, plant pathologist and strategy chair of Banana 2008, the name given to a conference held outside the Kenyan city of Mombasa.
Organised by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), and supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the pan-African conference was attended by over 400 delegates from across the continent and the fields of research, science and agriculture. The five-day meeting centred on the transformation of the banana into an economic driver for the well-being of Africans, increased food security, and sustainable development.
"Bananas will survive periods of drought, flood and civil conflict, continuing to provide stable food in harder times," continues Beed. In addition, the plant has local, regional and international market potential.
However, debilitating factors contribute to post-harvest losses of up to 40% in some cases, through damage, disease and poor transportation and handling. Global increases in fuel prices are likely also to pose difficulties for the banana's comparative advantages.
So what can be done to realise the full potential of this fruit? "Through linking the diversity of expertise and intellect back to grassroot farmers, we want to initiate a process where all facets are interlinked to achieve sustainable development of the banana sector," says Beed. It is a grand and noble notion.
From the tropical surroundings of the five-day coastal retreat to a typical rural banana farmer growing enough produce to feed his family seems a very long way indeed. Yet the conference is the beginning of improving the lost of rural communities not necessarily a panacea.
"We are gathered here in an attempt to try and characterise what need to be done", Beed points out. At the moment, it is an ambitious attempt, but it provides an opportunity to lay down the guidelines for the way forward over the next 10 years. It is the beginning of a process that needs continual feedback, and requires trust between the policymakers, scientists and the farmers, who, says Beed, should be the ultimate beneficiaries, along with all the people involved with the supply chain.
Speaking at the opening of the conference, Uganda's minister for tourism, trade and industry, Janet Mukwaya, said bananas were a potential source of economic prosperity for people, but that many were left to rot in the farms resulting in significant economic loss and potential food and nutritional insecurity.
Receiving a fair price for their product is also something that underpins the idea of farmers maximising their profits from their produce. …