How Banana Farming Is Fighting Poverty in Kenya

By Sylvia Mwichuli-Mundasia and Jayne Rose Gacheri

A vibrant relationship binds the counties of Meru, Embu, Kirinyaga and Murang’a – that of being Tissue Culture Banana (TCB) farmers and being affiliated to the Banana Growers Association of Kenya (BGAK), an umbrella body that oversees the interests of banana farmers in the country. These farmers are a testimony of how innovative ideas and technology can turn around subsistence farming of an inconsequential crop to a lucrative agribusiness venture.
According to Margaret Mburugu, a successful Meru TCB farmer, at the time of the introduction of TCB in the late 1990s, research institutes were the only source of tissue culture banana and there was no real sustainable supply system in place. This limited supply rendered tissue culture banana plantlets far too expensive for the ordinary low-input farmer. Prior to tissue culture banana, farmers used suckers from the mother-plant to propagate their crop.
A changing Scenario
However, with the entrance of partners such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Kenya National Federation of Producers (KENFAP) and Africa Harvest, banana farming got a new meaning. The most remarkable one was the introduction of nurseries and demonstrations farms into the four regions.
“We cannot get anywhere without technology, and tissue culture is one technology which is rapidly spreading not only in Kenya but Africa,” says Meru County Director of Agriculture, Stanley Mworia. He says his office compliments the support put in place by AGRA through KENFAP to train farmers on how to grow the banana crop in order to realize their full potential from this technology and help create markets for the produce.
Before adopting the TCB’s farmers like Margaret grew traditional varieties, which she sold for as little as Ksh100 for a large banana bunch. She also did subsistence farming of maize, beans and sweet potatoes. “We were content with what we earned because we didn’t know the difference,” she says. An intervention by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and Africa Harvest changed that. Margaret was one of the first 15 TCB farmers. She started with 120 TCB’s plantlets. Today, she has over 3,000, earning over Ksh500,000 per year.
This is a story that is repeated by farmers from across the regions. Farmers like Jacinta Mugo, Thomas Mwangi, Rahab Nthiga, Lucy Njagi, Cannon Jean Mwangi, Rose Muthoni, Philomena Mwaniki and John Njeru among others. The farmers are success stories of how banana farming has transformed their economic lives.
According to Dionisia M’eruaki, County Director of Agriculture, Meru, a 2008 research by the Ministry of Agriculture, indicated that 60 percent of stalls in fresh market centers, villages and towns were selling fresh produce stock bananas. This means banana farmers are likely to earn more compared to other fruit farming since banana production is an all-year-round crop. He explains that  it is scientifically proven that the average hectare yield for tissue culture bananas is 30 to 40 tons per year, earning more than Ksh1 million, almost twice the yield from normal breeds.
Jacinta Mugo, a successful Kirinyaga banana farmer narrates how before venturing into banana farming she had bad experiences year after year as a coffee farmer. After toiling and laboring to produce a coffee crop and taking it to the factory, she would go back to wait for payment for months only for her coffee slip to reflect a negligible pay.

The pain of remembering what she had to go through to deliver the coffee beans was unbearable Doubling as a mother and managing the coffee farm as her husband was always travelling was stressful. Jacinta couldn’t bare it anymore. One day after her husband had travelled; she hired three power saws and had the coffee bushes felled down in one day. She did not want to take chances for her husband to come and meet the job half done.

“When my husband came back he could not believe his eyes. I kept my distance as I explained and asked for him to give me at least one year before he could release his anger and send be back to my parents,” reminisces the mother of three amusingly.
She got her request and it was time to get down to business. Through training forums, workshops, demonstrations and support from others who had been there before her, Jacinta was able to put the former 1acre farm under TCB cultivation. She has never regretted that decision and has been an inspiration to many. She now earns close to Ksh500,000 per year from her one acre banana farm.

Personal sacrifices
One aspect that highlights the determination of the bananas growers across the region is their willingness to be part of the support and partnering with their well-wishers. For instance, the space occupied by all the banana plantlets nurseries and demonstration farms are donations from farmers. The beneficiaries are not only the farmer groups but also both non-members and farmers groups from across the regions. AGRA through KENFAP funded only the initial construction and seedlings, but the farmers have put in place methods of expanding the original project by turning around the funded venture into an economic one. Money collected from the sale of the seedlings and demonstrations is ploughed back to buying more seedling and maintenance of the demo farms.

“Today, these demo farms are beehives as farmers stream in for training, demonstrations and thereafter buy TCB plantlets,” explains Margaret who was also pivotal in shattering myths by skeptic farmers that TCBs were not real bananas. “After they saw my success that drew international visitors, more farmers began growing them,” she says.  Her success has landed her invites to agricultural conferences in South Africa and Kampala to share her story and expertise to continental farmers.

A bright future
According to Pauline Kamau, Programme Officer, FOSCA, AGRA, working with former groups is one of the sure ways of downscaling food insecurity by 50% in at least 20 countries among them Kenya, thereby doubling the incomes of an estimated 20 million smallholder . This move will put the continent on track in attaining and sustaining a Green Revolution. The organization was recognized by the G8 Group as being an effective public-private partnership for improving smallholder farming in the G8 in the years 2008 and 2009.
And with the successful launch of the Banana Association of Kenya, now it is all systems go as the leadership of the Group invests in dynamic value chains and policies that will catapult banana production to global markets. Already, the organization is pioneering the setting up of cold rooms to give the crop longevity. Finally the last nail will be put on coffee – the “Black Gold” whose memories farmers like Jacinta are keen to bury.

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