After Barren Years for Bananas in Somalia, Signs of a Tentative Comeback

By Isma'il Kushkush | International New York Times, December 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

After Barren Years for Bananas in Somalia, Signs of a Tentative Comeback


Isma'il Kushkush, International New York Times


During the civil war, banana plantations were abandoned. Now, the banana is making a tentative comeback in Somalia.

Armed with machetes, the men push their way through the densely packed rows of trees, emerging every few minutes with large bundles of green bananas over their shoulders.

A guard, his chest crossed with bandoliers, his hands cradling a Russian-made rifle, scans the tree line for intruders as the men throw the bananas on a trailer before dashing back into the plantation for another load.

When the trailer is piled with bananas, it is pulled by tractor to a nearby warehouse, where the fruit is sorted and boxed for transport to destinations as far away as the Middle East.

After years of warfare that decimated an industry that was once the largest in Africa, the banana is making a tentative comeback in Somalia. Farms are stepping up production and eyeing overseas markets that were dormant for years.

"Last April we exported to Saudi Arabia for the first time in 23 years," said Kamal Haji Nasir, 30, whose father, owns a plantation in Afgooye, a town on the Shebelle River, about 45 minutes' drive from Mogadishu. "We are excited and hopeful."

For more than two decades, Somalia was the epitome of a failed state -- a country rife with war, anarchy, famine, piracy and terrorism. Many of those problems persist -- there has been a recent surge in attacks by Shabab militants, the government is riven with infighting and the United Nations has been warning of a growing risk of famine -- but the country has nonetheless made some progress in the past few years.

Somalia elected a new president and adopted a constitution in 2012, bringing some stability, and attracting pledges of aid from international donors. Somali pirates, who once threatened international shipping in the Indian Ocean, have largely been contained and the Shabab have lost their grip over many towns.

"By any measure, Somalia today is in a better situation than it has been for the past 23 years," said Nicholas Kay, the United Nations' special representative for Somalia. That stability has allowed farmers like Mr. Nasir, who studied agriculture at Mogadishu University, to return to a business that has been in his family for four generations.

Banana farming was brought to the fertile Shebelle and Juba river basins in the southern part of the country by Italian colonists in the 1920s. Soon, bananas became a major staple of Somali cuisine, consumed with rice or pasta, or just as a fruit, and farmers began exporting to Italy and the Middle East. With investment by Italian and American fruit companies, the banana trade reached its peak in the 1980s, led by the brand Somalita, which was partly owned by De Nadai, an Italian company. In 1990, Somalia's banana exports were worth $96 million, according to Mohamood Abdi Noor, a former World Bank agricultural expert. …

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