A contagious disease affecting bananas threatens the livelihoods and food security of many rural communities throughout eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a region torn apart by more than a decade of brutal conflict. Called wilt, the bacterial disease turns the leaves of banana trees yellow, rots their fruit and eventually kills the entire tree.
Bananas are a staple crop for the region and a vital part of its economy. Not only do the fruits provide the basis of the local diet, but many people depend on them for their livelihoods. In some places, about 80 percent of household revenues come from banana production.
Losing entire fields of banana to wilt can be especially devastating to small farmers in the region. “It’s distressing to see how many farms have been absolutely destroyed by the disease,” says Muriel Calo, Food Security & Livelihoods Advisor for Action Against Hunger. “This whole area has changed dramatically in the last couple of years.”
For the many families whose lives and livelihoods have been disrupted by violence, the disease is yet another roadblock to recovery.
“Since wilt infected my field, my banana production has plummeted, leaving me with no way to earn money to send my children to school and buy food for my family,” said Bushu Kaoma, a father who lives in the village of Nyabyuka.
Action Against Hunger is implementing an innovative new pilot program to combat wilt in North and South Kivu, provinces especially hard-hit by the disease and ravaged by an ongoing conflict that has killed and maimed thousands of civilians. The organization is helping 80 communities construct wood-framed nurseries where tiny healthy banana shoots are grown in sterilized sawdust.
Local wilt committees trained by Action Against Hunger and supported by local authorities are in charge of watering and caring for the young shoots, which are later planted in community fields where the wilt has been fully eradicated.
These committees, each comprised of five people elected by their villages, are also tasked with looking for signs of wilt and helping control the disease in the shared fields. “It’s good they are setting up village committees and teaching them to manage these sites themselves so these actions can continue after the project ends,” Kaoma said.
Throughout, Action Against Hunger has worked alongside local authorities and organizations to build their capacity to combat wilt. “Our partnerships with local groups are essential to ensuring the sustainable impact of this program,” added Calo.
A major component of the approach also involves training local farmers to recognize wilt in their own fields and to take steps to root out the disease. ACF staff members lead weekly trainings with local farmers on the importance of disinfecting tools, quarantining plant material, and clearing fields of infected trees.
In addition to the trainings, ACF is organizing broad public awareness campaigns that include radio public service announcements, traveling sketch theater groups, and t-shirts and other material about wilt in Swahili—the local language.
“We’re trying to get our message across in fun and interesting ways to keep people engaged,” says Calo.
Action Against Hunger also provides farmers who have cleared their fields of diseased banana plants with seeds to grow alternative crops of corn, beans and peanuts during the six-month period needed for the bacteria to disappear from the soil.
“[Action Against Hunger] gave us hope by giving us tools and seeds, as well as training on ways to improve our agricultural techniques,” said Mabamungo Ruzuba, a mother in the village of Kibenga.
ACF is helping hundreds of families like Ruzuba’s.