Banana  farmers hurt as market glut leads to reduced prices

Banana farmers hurt as market glut leads to reduced prices

The high yielding disease resistant tissue culture bananas may have returned impressive yields to those who invested in them, but obsession with the crop by majority of smallholder farmers has created a glut in the market leaving late entrants with bunches rotting in farms even as the few that finds their way to the market fetch appallingly poor prices.

The tissue culture (TC) banana Grand 9 variety grown predominantly in Kenya was introduced in 1996/97 to 15 farmers by regional agricultural organization, Africa Harvest. But just like every alien crop farmers were skeptical about embracing it terming it an alien crop that would diminish soil nutrients while not sure they could triple yields as was being hyped. But the few that ultimately embraced the banana reaped huge returns as yield per hectare hit the 36 tonnes mark with improved agronomic techniques compared to traditional low yielding ones’ at 10 tonnes.
Farmers like Jane Ngahu from Muranga County was one of the 15 pioneer farmers to plant the TC banana and with a quarter of an acre managed to get Sh100,000 in a year.

But as word spread first on the massive returns of the bananas more farmers went to the drawing board, clearing swathes of traditionally bushy land and replacing non performing crops with the much touted tissue culture banana which has currently sparked a litany of woes for the farmers. “It took longer for farmers to crack the wonders of the new variety. And when they did and realized the huge returns they all went into it which is now an acute problem we are nursing,” says Zachary Musyoka of Bridge Net Africa a farmer organization that has been actively involved in tissue culture banana farming in East Africa. Recent statistics from the organization that has worked with over 30,000 banana farmers in Kenya paints a gloomy picture as almost all these farmers wobble in unstable and poorly paying market.

Central Kenya one of the areas hit by the glut at one time produced over 500,000 tonnes against market demand of only 400,000. “The loss to the farmers in terms of spoilt bananas is heart breaking,” says Musyoka referring to the over Sh40,000 that a farmer owning a quarter piece of land needs to invest in, in terms of fertilizers, consistent water supply and farm supplies. Now even with a bumper harvest thanks to the rains thousands of these bananas mature, ripen and rot in farms. Damaris Kinyui a middle aged farmer who was expecting her first harvest this season has over 50 kilos of the bananas slowly rotting in the farm as about 100 kilos she managed to sell picked a paltry Sh6 per kilo as opposed to Sh30 that Esther sold when the bananas were sold in the market. “So farmers like Damaris are ending up with huge losses after they even abandoned other crops to focus their attention and investment on this one crop. The market has become so terribly oversupplied but the demand has stagnated,” says Leod Wasilwa an agricultural consultant. The overproduction while hurting farmers has equally hurt consumers with supermarkets who buy from the farmers stock the bananas at prohibitively high prices. A kilo of bananas in major supermarkets currently retails at between Sh 100-Sh 150.

Thomas Mutugi a banana farmer in South Ngariama, Kirinyaga county planted 20 acres of the modern banana seedlings in 2020 and by May 2021 he started harvesting with a kilo at the farm retailing at Kshs 16.

Necessity however has birthed revolutionary inventions which among a breed of agropreneurs who have refused the current glut to dampen their banana business. This has primarily been through value addition with the end products including banana crisps, banana flour, banana biscuits and banana accessories, fetching even higher prices and diversifying markets for these farmers.
Musyoka advices farmers to be on the lookout for market trends and be wary of the kind of crops they grow irrespective of how markets respond to them. “Some of these high value crops are promising in terms of their returns to farmers. However when word goes round about how lucrative they are, farmers tend to get over excited and all move to the same crop. That is where the problem is and farmers need to take caution. There are so many crops that markets have still expressed appetite for. Farmers should quit obsession with a select few,” he said.

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