From 30 kgs to 181 kgs per bunch of banana: How banana rehabilitation is making difference for smallholder farmers in Rwanda

It’s around 4:30pm, on the first Saturday of April somewhere in Southern Province of Rwanda. A man, apparently in his 50s, is inspecting a banana plantation, removingsome suckers, just to maintain about 3 to 4 suckers per stool; removing old leaves and cutting off some male buds among other practices.

Manasseh Mpagazehe showing how banana rehabilitation has improved his yields (Photo: Eric Didier Karinganire)

Manasseh Mpagazehe showing how banana rehabilitation has improved his yields (Photo: Eric Didier Karinganire)

Answering to my curious questions, the farmer explains to me that he does de-suckering in order to ensure strong plants and good yields; given that competition between suckers depletes soil fertility very fast and results in weak plants which are very susceptible to infections.

By removing old leaves and sheaths, he tells me that it’s because they are susceptible to infections and can host infections if not removed in time. He maintains the average number of 8 to 10 leaves per banana plant at flowering and 4 at harvest, while he tells me that removing the male buds early also helps reduce the spread of diseases like the banana bacterial wilt, which can be transmitted by bees collecting nectar from the banana male buds.

This is Manasseh Mpagazehe, a renowned role-model smallholder farmer and leader of a women-dominated cooperative that won the continental overall award of the year 2013 organized by African Investment Climate Research (AFRICRES) and Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Based in Gacurabwenge sector, Kamonyi district of Southern Province, the banana farmer who grows the crop on his own 2-ha land, looks humble and wise with a posture that reflects an image of self-confidence.

The 55-year-old father of four needs no introduction in some parts of the country and in Kamonyi in particular. Some people knew him through Farmer Field School by teaching best practices on banana rehabilitation across the country, while others have come to know him because he is the leader of the award-winning cooperative on the continent.

“I don’t really know if I can get any other activity more lucrative than farming,” he points out.

With more than 7 years having a rehabilitated banana plantation, Mpagazehe knows well what he is talking about. He started with 300 banana plants of Fiat 17 and Fiat 25 varieties seven years ago, but as of now, his banana plantation has been expanded to 2 ha. He is yielding a bunch of banana weighing 181 kgs from 30 kgs back in 2006 when started banana rehabilitation.

I caught up with him for insights about how he got engaged in banana farming and the way he went through up to the success

Blogger: Tell us briefly how you got engaged in banana farming…

Mpagazehe: I used to practice subsistence farming. I could get hardly food stuff from my banana plantation and could some time make a local banana-made beer, urwagwa. That’s what I could get out of my banana plantation. Then back in 2006, officials from then Rwanda Agriculture Development Authority (RADA) [now integrated in Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB)] visited me, requested me to rehabilitate my banana farm and provided me with some training sessions, then I started with 300 FIAT varieties.

Blogger: to what extent have you benefited from the training?

Mpagazehe: I really must say that the training sessions made me whom I am now. I used to do banana farming, but in traditional ways where you plant suckers I wait to get yields without doing anything else. After attending the trainings, I became aware of banana rehabilitation, what is the right sucker for planting, standard spacing between suckers so that they can become healthy, how to use fertilizer and many more best practices. Thanks to these good practices, I started yielding a bunch of banana weighing more than 80 kgs only after 10 months while I was getting a bunch of banana of less than 30 kgs.

I started attending national agriculture exhibition in 2007; just to exhibit my banana and suckers. Then, I became popular and other farmers from all corners of the country started visiting me to learn more about the best practices I was using to get impressive yields.

Since 2010, I became the facilitator at national level working with Framer Field School in banana rehabilitation. When I sell banana once, I can’t earn less than 250,000 Frw while I get around 500,000 Frw when I sell suckers.

Blogger: What are your main challenges?

Mpagazehe: the challenge is lack of enough land where I can expand my activities. The second challenge is violent wind that sometime brings down our banana plants and we stay counting losses; given that we do not have mechanisms to prevent this unpredictable disaster.

In spite of loss caused by the violent wind, which I think would be mitigated though crop insurance scheme, but really Mpagazehe has lessons to teach, and it would be wise for other farmers to pay a visit to him to learn how agriculture can be a business.