By Daniel Kasondo Mana:
Stories abound that when a baby cried in Thyolo, the mother gave it a banana before breastfeeding it.
That is how Thyolo natives proudly but jokingly talked big of the abundance of what they valued most — bananas.
Until the evergreen canopy surrounding homes turned yellow, wilted and then completely dried then the mothers learnt to fish out a breast for a crying baby.
The banana plantains on which the peoples livelihoods depended slowly succumbed to an unknown disease, rendering them destitute.
In an apparent resignation to her fate, Rose Julio, 56, helplessly gazed at her banana garden which used to be her only source of livelihood being wiped out by Banana Bunchy Top disease also known as Chisaka in vernacular.
Julio saw her life crumbling because she could not imagine life without bananas.
“I depended on bananas all my life. Losing the crop was a blow to the whole community,” laments Julio, a mother of eight who also looks after some grandchildren.
Thyolo remains a shadow of its former self as it has only one banana person selling the fruit at the district main market with literally no bananas in the countrys major markets.
The sole banana trader, Maxwell Chipoya, plying his business at Thyolo Boma Market, says life is tough now because he struggles to get bananas since the disease attacked the crop.
“We get the bananas from Mozambique through Mulanje. Sometimes our friends from that side bring the fruits here but it is expensive.
“My business has been greatly affected, but theres nothing I can do; I just have to struggle to make ends meet,” Chipoya says.
Not long ago, Mulanje and Thyolo were the banana fruit basket supplying major cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Zomba. Truckloads of bananas were on the roads to the cities every day.
Each time a truck off-loaded bananas in the markets, it was either from Thekerani in Thyolo or Mimosa in Mulanje.
When the Banana Bunchy Top disease was discovered in the early 90s, people did not anticipate that it would cause huge havoc.
With passage of time, the disease engulfed major banana growing districts across the country.
Immediately, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development responded by advising famers to uproot and burn all the affected bananas in the fields.
However, some farmers did not comply.
Over time, the supply of the fruit in the countrys markets started to dwindle and later became scarce.
The development forced people in banana fruit business to cross the borders to Mozambique and Tanzania.
A visit to most markets established that benches were dominated by bananas from Tanzania and Mozambique — a very unfortunate situation for the countrys economy.
“We have no choice, we need to cross borders in search of the commodity to remain in the business,” says Tadeo James, a fruit vendor at Limbe Market.
But Julio and Chipoya as well as Malawians at large have a reason to smile as Thyolo has started producing bananas from the newly grown plantations distributed through Agriculture Sector Wide Approach Project (ASWAP) 1.
ASWAP which started distributing banana suckers in 2016 was working with the agriculture sector in persuading farmers to uproot and burn the affected crops.
Given ASWAPs support, there was intensified campaign to have the bad bananas destroyed before farmers were supplied with new and healthy suckers.
Thyolo Crops Officer Fredson Banda says the reluctant farmers did not understand the logic of destroying the existing stems because despite being affected, the crops provided them with a little income.
“It wasnt easy to convince farmers to uproot the stems. But with the help of extension workers, most farmers complied with the order. The exercise involved the police, whenever necessary,” Banda says.
In a further attempt to restore the crop, farmers established committees to regenerate suckers through nurseries.
Through ASWAP 2, six banana nurseries were hatched in affected extension planning areas (EPAs) to hasten multiplication and distribution of the same to farmers.
Over 50 farming families in Chidzinja Village in the area of Traditional Authority (TA) Mphukas area are banking on the village nursery, which has close to 200 plantains, to get clean suckers.
Village Head Chidzinja says considering how the nurseries were doing, there was hope that any time soon every household would have bananas just as it was before.
Chidzinja says as a leader he was in the forefront in multiplying and distributing suckers with support from agriculture extension workers to ensure the area claims back its lost glory.
“We are proud that slowly we seem to be getting back our bananas. Every interested farmer shall at the end collect suckers from our nurseries. The nurseries are helping in multiplying the crop rapidly,” he says.
Thekerani, which is one of the hardest hit areas and whose farmers agreed to uproot and burn diseased plantains, has become the first to reap positive results.
“The first truckload of bananas to markets in Blantyre was seen in April this year. This was the harvest from the suckers distributed in 2016.Theres progress,” Banda says.
Apart from promoting banana production in Thyolo, ASWAP, in its quest to complement agricultural production is also geared to improve road infrastructure in the district.
About 17 roads are earmarked for construction to enable banana farmers have easy access to markets.
ASWAPs desk officer for Thyolo Richard Thole is optimistic that the district will soon reclaim its lost glory in banana production.
“The road network will encourage farmers to be engaged in banana production knowing there will be easy access to markets,” he says.
Thole says among the 17 roads to be built include a 35-kilometre stretch from Thyolo Boma to Khonjeni which will be upgraded to bitumen standard.
The road will also be connected to the railway line at Khonjeni thereby opening the area to better markets.
“By the end of this year, 2019, Thyolo will be back to its status as a major banana producing district in the country,” Thole says, confidently.
He says the introduction of humidity chamber nurseries in Extension Planning Areas (EPAs) is facilitating the spread of suckers to farmers.
A humidity chamber is a miniature greenhouse which holds moisture and heat around plants so they thrive while in the germination and seedling stages.
In the district, the chambers are built using cement, bricks and plastic sheets. They are constructed and managed by the community committees with support from ASWAP project.
Traditional leaders are at the centre of the construction and management of the humidity chambers to ensure maximum protection from vandalism.
“The skills acquired through the chamber nurseries will help farmers to continue propagating the suckers and share them to other members of the community in future.
“With good management, bananas take only six months from planting to harvest; so there is hope that bananas will start flooding markets by the end of this year,” Thole says.