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Worldwide, bananas outrank citrus as a fruit crop. Bananas rank fourth as world's most valuable food crop, behind rice, wheat and potatoes. Almost 80 million metric tons are harvested annually around the world, with 72 million tons harvested by farmers in the tropics. Bananas are a staple food in Africa. Of the 28.3 million tonnes of plantain produced worldwide, 69.4% is destined for human consumption, 11.1% processed and 8% fed to livestock. More than 60% of this world volume is produced and consumed in central and western Africa. In Uganda, per capita banana consumption is 1.3 pounds per day - about 16 times the amount consumed in the United States. Bananas are easily digested and high in vitamins A and C and in potassium. It is possible to live indefinitely on a diet of just milk and bananas.

World trade figures for bananas account for only 13.3 tonnes of bananas (FAO, 1996). Whereas 80% of all bananas produced worldwide go to domestic markets. In most producing countries, bananas are very popular and used in a variety of local dishes. Both in terms of production and consumption, plantain is at the top of the popularity hit list. It provides food security for millions of people.

The average American consumes twenty-seven pounds of bananas a year. The banana industry is the lifeblood of many Central and South American countries. Unfortunately, the industrial methods of growing bananas for export inflicts serious damage on the lowland rainforest, the richest eco-system on earth. Deforestation, erosion, the spread of dangerous pesticides, as well as mountains of blue plastic and organic waste - this has been the environmental legacy of banana farming in the Americas. Export bananas have to be covered with a blue plastic bag that lets them grow optimally. After the harvest workers leave the plastic bags lying in heaps. The heavy tropical rains wash the plastic bags out into rivers and streams, and they end up even clogging up the coral reefs and choking sea tutles.

In Africa plantain production is targeted for domestic consumption and thus marketed according to traditional strategies. The plantain trade is closely tied to urban market trends, with demand rising steadily as the population grows. This trade is also dependent on the marketing subsector organisation - transporters, wholesalers, retailers - which varies from country to country.

Plantain is transported from plantation to market in a variety of ways, e.g. on labourers' backs, in a refrigerated lorry, by canoe and on bicycles. In Ghana, market retailers and traders go to the plantations or villages themselves to purchase plantain supplies from farmers with whom they have established agreements. Whole bunches are placed in baskets; banana hands and fingers are put in bags and carried out manually to the road. A lorry driver is then paid to transport the fruit to market, and collector-wholesalers often arrange the lorry transport operation. The bananas are sold to middlemen or traders, who sell them to retailers, who in turn sell them to consumers in bunches or separate fingers.

The complexity of the intermediary subsector increases proportionally around distribution hubs with the distance between production and supply markets, especially when the approach routes are in good shape. This trend is well established in Caribbean countries such as St Vincent, whereas it is just emerging in Africa. For instance, jobbers group around important markets in southwestern Cameroon (Mile 60, Bole and Owe). The banana plantations are quite remote from Douala (100-150 km), not easily accessible, and often impassable in the rainy season.

Large quantities of plantain are delivered to the city markets on a daily basis via regular distribution channels, and the longest one involves three main types of middleman: collector-wholesalers (purchasing 50-500 bunches from the producers), sedentary wholesalers, who sell to retailers on a per-bunch basis in the wholesale and retail markets of Douala, and these retailers in turn sell to consumers or other retailers on a per-finger basis.

Middlemen have a key role in the plantain marketing subsector - from the wholesaler to the retailer. As this domain becomes increasingly complex, growers are forced to produce greater quantities of higher-quality plantain, more regularly, and at lower cost. Production criteria are gathered by middlemen on the basis of information they obtain on selling prices, consumer demand and market trends. By professionalizing the subsector, the most organized of these go-betweens (dealers, transport agents, etc.) could become key stakeholders and thereby influence domestic market patterns.

Reducing postharvest losses As domestic consumer demand is constantly increasing, local market dynamics depend on producers' capacity to maintain adequate sustainable production levels, while staving off post-harvest banana losses. The most common cropping practice involves extending yearly production over as long a period as possible. Soil potential is crucial for the success of this strategy. In Cameroon and Rwanda, on volcanic soils in the Dominican Republic, and on river alluvia in the humid intertropical zone, plantain growers have adopted a sustainable production strategy, and this crop is often their main source of income.

In Ghana, consumer demand for plantain is high and its retail price is steadily rising, however production has been stagnant for over a decade. This situation could be turned around by planting high yield, strongly pest and disease resistant, cultivars.

The Volta River Estates (VREL) plantation in Ghana is the only banana plantation in the country and was set up to help the diversification of food for production.

Postharvest plantain losses are generally heavy and are estimated at about 3 million tonnes worldwide. These losses are due to poor harvest and handling conditions, in addition to a shortage of distribution channels (e.g. Côte d'Ivoire). The quality of communications networks is also an important factor. In most African countries, access routes to markets are in poor condition and poorly maintained, except around large urban centres.

For instance, farmers in Rusitu valley in Zimbabwe produce high volumes of dessert bananas. They lose a substantial portion of their overall production during the rainy season because of the very long distances along poor roads that have to be travelled to the nearest urban markets.

The EU has set up a system whereby farmers can rent vehicles to facilitate getting to local markets. Still, asphalting the roads represents the most efficient way of promoting trade to external markets. Cameroon is a case in point, there are now paved roads allowing comparatively easy access to the main markets and the capital.

The market price for a banana bunch (30-40 kg) in Douala (Cameroon) depends upon the time of year. The volatility of banana prices is mainly to be explained by seasonal variations in supply, which in turn are dictated by plantation, climate and socio-economic factors (e.g. a shortage of workers at harvest can diminish banana supplies from October to December).

There can also be a drop of around 50% in the per-bunch price from the middle of the rainy season to the middle of the following dry season. Other parameters, such as the practice of inflating prices during the end of the year festival season, can also influence these patterns.

The number of middlemen involved in marketing the product and the different extra expenditures (market fees, transport costs, police inspections during transport, etc.) affect producer prices, which can sometimes be more than 50% lower than the retail price.

The retailer mark-up for banana bunches is constant- 200-250 F CFA (2-2.50 FF)

Black Sigatoka affects many banana varieties, and while it does not kill the banana plant, it reduces yields by 50 percent and causes fruit to ripen prematurely and irregularly, a major problem for exported fruit. Banana breeding programs now are developing resistant hybrids, which offer the only hope for subsistence consumers. Moreover, as fungicides lose their ability to control this disease, the export trades may well be forced to replace the Cavendish bananas with resistant banana clones developed in breeding programs.

Banana is a major food staple and a source of income for over 20 million people in eastern Africa. Production continues to decline steadily as pests and diseases tighten their grip on the region's aging banana orchards. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) is collaborating with the Ministry of Agriculture, NGO's, and women's groups to encourage the production, testing, dissemination, and adoption of tissue-cultured banana plantlets.

The project was launched in 1996 to test germplasm in Uganda, and growing bananas by tissue-culture.

Growing bananas simply requires uprooting suckers, which grow alongside existing banana trees, then replant them in the desired spot. In time the suckers grow to become banana "trees" in its own right, flanked by its own suckers. Used by millions of small-scale farmers all over Africa, this method of growing bananas carries no cash costs and requires little labor. It does, however, have significant drawbacks. The sucker carries with it all the diseases and pests afflicting the mother plant, and these are passed on to the new tree.

Without the introduction of fresh planting material, the quality and vigor of the trees decline with each generation. The method is also desperately slow—traditionally propagated trees produce only six suckers a year.

Pests and diseases such as nematodes, fusarium wilt, banana weevil, and black sigatoka invade the banana orchards, causing fruit yields to fall. In Kenya for example, the result of reduced yield is a steep hike in prices, which have increased several fold in local markets over the past five years.

Tissue-cultured plantlets have four main advantages over traditionally propagated planting material. First, they are clean: the sterile conditions under which tissue culture is carried out eliminate fungal diseases, nematodes, and bacteria. Second, the trees will be far more productive, reaching maturity earlier and bearing fruit bunches up to 50% heavier than traditionally raised trees.

Elsewhere, tissue-cultured trees typically produce 50 tonnes of fruit per hectare per year, and could produce up to 80 tonnes per hectare per year under Kenya's favorable climate conditions. Third, the trees are more uniform and will all reach maturity at the same time. Finally, each tree produces up to 1015 suckers per year—which is more than double the number from traditionally propagated trees—thus offering a rapid means of multiplying and disseminating better planting material.

As they mature, the plantlets will be watched closely to make sure that the number of off-types (unwanted variations produced through cell division in the laboratory) remains within acceptable limits.

In South Africa commercial production and a lucrative export industry has been be built on the large-scale production of tissue-cultured plantlets.

The possibilities for growth of ACP member states, traditional suppliers to Europe, is dependent upon current negotiations regarding repartition of quotas. The extent of the current socioeconomic crisis, which could prompt WTO to take corrective measures, is already quite alarming for other Caribbean countries where banana production is the main resource (particularly, for example, Dominica, St Lucia, and Jamaica). Indeed, for several years now, these countries have suffered from diminished competitivity because they have not made needed structural changes.

However, opportunities for diversification exist, these include: the opening up of other markets, reinvigoration of local markets, amelioration of channels of production and commercialization of high quality products such as organic bananas and the fair trade banana. But it is wise to be realistic, the roads to diversification, although realizable, are not without their challenges.

Other than food, banana and plantains provide products such as paper, and furniture. Beautiful handicrafts and art are made with banana fibre, a long lasting fibre that is used in the weaving of baskets, carpets, and roofing. Banana juice is popular non-alcoholic beverage, although banana alcohol is also popular on social occasions, it can be used for fuel.