The Sunday Mail
Emilia Zindi recently in Honde Valley
Starting a banana plantation is much easier and less complicated compared to other tree orchards as shown by some small-scale farmers who have become successful banana farmers in Honde Valley.
While other tree orchards require much attention as well as lots of chemicals and fumigation, banana trees are much easier to manage with the farmers getting high yields.
A drive to Honde Valley last week gave an insight of how some families have improved their livelihood through banana farming.
One such family is the Chitungo family whose banana plantation has not only led them to venture into mixed farming, but also improved their lives, with both husband and wife leaving their jobs to permanently work on the farm. What is unique about Mr Amos Chitungo’s farm is that he has not benefited under the land reform programme but has managed to utilise his rural home and has developed it into more of a modern banana plantation. This has transformed the family into a shining example in Honde Valley.
Narrating how he started, Mr Chitungo said all what is required is determination to do things. A teacher by profession, he resigned from public service and worked for a few years for a non-governmental organisation.
It was during his tenure with the NGO that his family was labelled as being supporters of the opposition which saw the family being left out when others from his area were being allocated land under the land reform programme.
“Knowing that I was not a supporter of any opposition party, I told myself and wife that no matter what people say about us, we just have to develop our small piece of land at our homestead to establish this banana plantation. Indeed, we just did that and here we are proud farmers of a healthy banana plantation,’’ said Mr Chitungo.
Irrigating his plantation from the natural waters that run down the mountainous area, Mr Chitungo said he was blessed to have a hard working wife. He said the first thing for anyone wanting to engage in banana farming was to get the right climate as bananas cannot thrive under very hot or cold conditions.
“The ideal climate is the tropical one with temperatures ranging between 26 and 30 degrees Celsius. Any temperatures below that will kill the plants,’’ he said.
Mr Chitungo said the other thing a banana farmer should have is adequate water for irrigation as bananas require good irrigation as well as humidity.
The plantation also requires good drainage as farmers are expected to irrigate at least three times a day in order to keep the humidity. He said banana farmers should also look for rich and naturally fertilised soils which are ideal for planting bananas. In the event that such soils are not available, one can create compost where chicken manure can be added.
“Because banana trees grow best in bunches or groups thereby protecting each other from the harsh sun rays, it is equally important for a farmer to create an environment where the plants are sheltered either by way of other trees or through the way they are bunched up together. This will help maintain the humidity in the plantation,’’ he said.
Since banana plants are not trees but type of herb, they are grown through suckers which grow from a dying mature plant that can be transplanted and re-grown.
When choosing the suckers, one must do so from a plant that is vigorous with small, spear-shaped leaves that are at least one and half metres high.
Mr Chitungo said when transplanting a sucker, farmers should be on the look-out for a corm at the bottom of each mature plant before cutting the sucker downwards so as to get as much corm and root as possible.
“These are what should be planted with farmers urged to cut or decapitate the sucker to facilitate good evaporation. Also plant between two to three metres apart and keep the plants moist but not too wet as they do not have leaves yet to evaporate the water at this stage,’’ he said.
He said plant population depend on the varieties with farmers allowed to keep at least four or five suckers developing on a new plant. Some, however, recommend between 1 800 to 2 123 plants per hectare.
Mr Chitungo said a farmer could harvest from 15 to 45 tonnes per hectare, again depending on the variety as well as management of the crop. He is currently getting 30 tonnes per hectare.
Types of fertiliser used include AN as well as potassium with agricultural extension workers available for the recommended rates as well as when to apply these. Potassium levels in the soil affect not only the yield, but also plant growth. There is, however, constant need for nitrogen application throughout the growth period, phosphorous in small amounts, potassium with 80 percent of it being applied before peak flowering and then smaller rates at early stages, magnesium throughout the growth period, calcium, and sulphur among other fertiliser.
“The higher the potassium level in the soil, the larger foliage area is achievable,’’ he said.
Flower development is initiated from the underground true stem 12 months after planting with the fruits maturing in about 60 to 90 days after flowers appearance.
It takes between nine and 12 months for banana plants to produce flowers after being planted with the fruits taking another two to three months to ripen.
Once that cycle is completed, the mother plant dies but at the same time producing bananas and also pups, or tiny plants that grow around the base of the mother plant. This saves farmers from planting of new trees as these pups would grow into big trees and start producing fruits again.
The farmer is therefore saved the re-planting of new trees by so doing and only has the duty to maintain and manage the plantation.
Marketing of his produce has not been a problem as it was the first thing he did before venturing into growing bananas.
With the help of the local company, his bananas have an already market.
His knowledge of banana growing was intensified through workshops he attended where he was taught the grading and packaging of bananas for various markets.
The income from his bananas has seen the family venturing into dairy farming where he buys the cattle feed from profits realised in selling his bananas.
“I am now into dairy farming which I started in 2011 as well with my herd now standing at 27.
“The good thing about my small farm is that I am using natural water from the mountains for both my banana plantation as well as the dairy cattle which need lots of water where pumping is by gravity without electricity,’’ he said.
The diary project is also earning the family good income with production of milk standing at 130 litres a day which they sell to the locals as well as the nearby shops at Hauna Centre.
All that Mr Chitungo is now praying for is to be allocated a bigger farm considering the magnitude of his operations.