Millions of smallholder banana farmers in Tanzania and Uganda are set to benefit from a new $13.8 million project to develop and distribute higher-yielding, disease-resistant hybrid banana varieties. The effort is being funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Rony Swennen, a professor at KU Leuven and head of banana breeding at IITA, is leading the project.

Bananas are both a food staple and an economic backbone in East and Central Africa, where over half of all cultivated land is planted with bananas. Uganda and Tanzania produce over 50% of all bananas grown in Africa. The region's yearly banana crop is valued at $4.3 billion.

However, banana production in Uganda and Tanzania achieves just 9% of its potential yield due to pests and diseases, posing a serious threat to the future sustainability of banana production in the region.

A new five-year project aims to dramatically upscale and speed up existing banana breeding efforts in the two countries. The researchers expect their hybrid banana varieties to have a 30% higher yield and a 50% higher resistance to at least three of the target pests and diseases compared to the current varieties grown by the farmers under the same on-farm conditions. The varieties will also meet over 90% of the quality traits for consumers found in the current cultivars, say the researchers.

"One of the most effective ways to increase production of any crop is to plant high-yielding varieties," says Professor Rony Swennen. "This new project will expand the on-going breeding efforts in Uganda and Tanzania by developing research capacity and bringing expertise from other countries. Hence farmers will get faster access to high-yielding, high-resistance hybrids that are at the same time satisfactory to the consumer."

The project builds on a very successful collaboration between IITA and Uganda's National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), which culminated in the development of the first 26 high-yielding, and disease-resistant hybrid varieties, called NARITA varieties.

The project will also support the on-farm testing of these hybrids in Uganda and Tanzania, will improve the technical capacity of the breeding programmes in the region, will strengthen partnerships with farmers, and will develop local human capacity by supporting 8 PhD projects and 5 MSc research projects.

The IITA, Bioversity International and the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas are also providing substantial co-financing.

For more information:
Rony Swennen
KU Leuven
Tel: +32 16 32 14 20