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Hopes rise for banana wilt disease controls             

Mwangi Mumero @PeopleDailyKe

Researchers at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) now believe it is possible to develop banana varieties resistant to the lethal bacterial wilt disease.

There has been a notion that all banana varieties are susceptible to the disease, which affects the crop in Kenya and the whole of the East African region (see picture of an infected banana fruit).

Writing in the Plant Pathology Journal, a team of scientists working for IITA in Uganda, screened the entire banana collection and identified 13 sources of resistance. 

Previously, only wild-seeded banana called Musa balbisiana was known to have some level of resistance. The researchers also identified several materials derived from wild bananas that can be used for future breeding of resistant banana varieties.

“The findings of this study are significant for the banana breeding community and we will redouble our efforts in developing banana varieties with resistance to the disease,” says Prof Rony Swennen, a plant breeder and one of the researchers.

Caused by a bacteria Xanthomonas campestris, the disease leads to yellowing and wilting of leaves, shrivelling of male buds, premature ripening, internal discolouration of fruits and finally death of infected plants.

The disease causes huge economic losses as well as threatening food security to millions of smallholder farmers in rural households across the East African region.

Researchers say that bananas form an indispensable part of life in the East African region, providing up to one-fifth of the total calorie consumption per capita.

The average daily per capita energy from banana consumption in region is 147 kcal- 15 times the global average and six times the African average.  The region has over 50 per cent of its permanent cropped area under banana — this is around half of the total area under banana cultivation across Africa.

At least 21 million tonnes of bananas –worth US$4.3 billion (Sh434 billion) are produced annually in the nations of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and the DR Congo.

“This discovery is very important for the millions of smallholder banana farmers in the region as one of the most effective ways to control any disease is developing resistant varieties,” says Dr Valentine Nakato, based in IITA, Uganda.

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