Call edition 2012
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For millions of people in Rwanda and the whole African Great Lakes area bananas are the most important food crop. They are mainly cultivated by small-scale farmers. The majority of the bananas they grow are not the yellow dessert type but cooking bananas. Also grown are beer bananas, whose juice can be drunk fresh but which are mostly used for brewing beer.
Bananas are harvested throughout the year, their permanent foliage protects the steep slopes against erosion and the banana plant waste is returned to the soil. Bananas are therefore very important, not only in enabling the farmers to feed their families but also in terms of income and the sustainability of their exploitation. A high percentage of cultivated land is therefore planted with bananas, usually mixed with beans and other crops.
Recent years have seen a significant drop in banana yields, however, largely due to disease and insects. Researchers attempt to solve this by way of improved and more specially adapted cultivating methods and/or improved plant material.
In densely populated Rwanda the government has also addressed the issue of how to use the small amount of steep and often poor land available to feed the more than ten million people. It was decided to divide the land into agricultural production zones. Farmers were then asked to concentrate on the crop that was chosen for their zone - potatoes in the north-west, for example, manioc in the south and bananas in the south-east. This “agricultural specialization” is intended to modernize farming and so increase production. For instance, the government aims to replace the majority of beer bananas with cooking bananas. In some areas farmers are no longer allowed to cultivate beans in the banana fields, as it is thought that this would reduce the yield.
As a student at the Université catholique de Louvain Van Damme examined what farmers, agriculture advisors, researchers and policy makers saw as the most important problems and possibilities for these banana systems. This she did working jointly with national and international researchers from the CIALCA consortium, which is supported by the Belgian Directorate-General for Development Cooperation (www.cialca.org).
In her interviews the author observed that farmers did not always agree with the government’s view. The agriculture advisors had great difficulty in convincing the farmers of the usefulness of government policy, which runs counter to years of tradition. Other problems are poor access to the market, more variable rainy seasons with longer dry seasons, limited possibilities for industrial processing of (beer) bananas and a limited capacity to rapidly reproduce new and better banana varieties and to make these available to the farmer.
Julie Van Damme’s research makes it very clear that solutions for small-scale farmers can only work sustainably if there is technical coherence throughout the scheme and when a support base is established that extends from farmer to policy-maker. Within CIALCA the results of her research are used to develop solutions that best fit the priorities of both farmers and policy-makers.
report: J. Kalders, International Environmental Policy and Agricultural Research, Directorate-General for Development Cooperation D4.3, Brussels, Belgium