How COVID-19 is impacting banana-producing countries

Alliance researchers share survey results and firsthand video testimonials from banana networks in India, Ecuador, and Ghana as they support recovery efforts.

By Rachel Chase and Nicolas Roux

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted numerous agrosystems and associated livelihoods across the globe, with continued and knock-on effects anticipated in the coming months and years. Bananas, globally the most-exported fruit, are an important source of both food and livelihoods for producers across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But under COVID, banana value chains have been affected in nearly all banana-producing countries.

As part of its three-pronged COVID-19 response of monitoring, responding and facilitating recovery, the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT tapped into its regional banana networks to ascertain and evaluate the impacts on domestic banana production, transportation, markets and consumption. Fifty-four country representatives from the networks BAPNET, MusAfrica (formerly Innovate Plantain and BARNESA) and MusaLAC were surveyed.

With responses from over 30 countries, we report here the general impacts across the three regions: Asia and the Pacific, Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, with a special focus on India, Ghana and Ecuador.

Banana market in Trichy, India. Credit: Bioversity International/R.Chase

The global banana situation:

  • Production – There have been shortages of farm labour and planting material leading to reduced production. Where strict lockdowns were in place, farmers could not maintain fields and harvests were lost.
  • Transport – In most countries, lockdown restrictions prevented or slowed movement of bananas to markets, with effects felt all along the market chain (drivers, sellers, buyers). Delivery of new planting material was also negatively impacted.
  • Markets – Many large markets closed, leading to major losses, however smaller local markets were more reliable. The export trade was impacted in many countries, but not in others, such as Colombia and Costa Rica, where companies introduced sanitary measures in order to maintain business. Prices crashed due to closed markets in some places while in others, prices increased due to shortages.
  • Consumption – Where fresh bananas are preferred, consumption was reduced due to shortages and high prices, leading to nutritional impacts and reduced food security. The demand for cooking bananas (that have a longer shelf life) increased as they are considered an essential food in times of crisis.
  • Coping mechanisms – In many countries, home gardens and crop diversification are being promoted, as well as alternative products with longer shelf lives, such as banana flour or chips.
  • Improvement strategies – Future objectives centre on the development of local and sustainable marketing and processing. Some countries want to strengthen the role of governments in biosafety, economic support and crisis prevention planning for farms and tissue culture laboratories (where they produce disease-free in vitro plants).

Highlights:

India

India is the biggest producer of bananas in the world. The pandemic hit just as harvest activities were beginning. Impacts were felt all along the value chain, from farmer to banana buyer. Many migrant workers returned home to their native countries, leading to major losses in the field. The labour shortage also impeded the production of millions of virus-free tissue culture plants needed for the next season, compacted by transport restrictions that halted the delivery of planting material, threatening next year’s yield. The video below highlights some of the people who have been impacted in India.

Dr. S. Uma, Director of ICAR-NRCB, explains COVID’s impact on the banana industry.
Mr. G. Ajeethan, Director of the Tamil Nadu Banana Growers Federation, explains how farmers have struggled with lost income during COVID-19.
Mr. Sugumar, farmer in Tamil Nadu, India, notes the decrease in banana prices.
Mr. Mathivaanan, banana dealer in Tamil Nadu, India, discusses how markets have been forced to dump bananas as waste.

Ecuador

In Ecuador, even though the export banana market has been maintained by large multinational companies, for the small producer there has been a loss of up to 60% of their fruit. There is also an increased demand and price of plantains in local markets because they are an essential food in difficult times. According to Antonio Bustamante from INIAP, “Platano es el rey de la quarantena” (The plantain is the king of the quarantine). This statement highlights the importance of plantains for food security and subsistence in rural communities.

Ghana

Impacts have been severe in Ghana. Lockdown and transport restrictions caused heavy fruit losses on farms, and the resulting shortage of plantains on the market at high prices has led to greater food insecurity. Beloved Dzomeku from the CSIR-Crops Research Institute reported that “Smallholders are now relying more on cereals, roots and tubers to avoid famine and as planting materials are not available, the losses are projected to continue into next year.”

For more details on Ghanaian markets, read this news article.

Solomon Darkey, Crops Research Institute, explains how Ghanian farmers are being affected.

How will the Alliance respond?

Now that the Alliance has conducted the initial impact survey, scientists are better positioned to respond to the short- and longer-term needs of the banana smallholder farmers and others in the domestic banana market.

In the short term

Providing clean planting material – as Nicolas Roux, Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT Banana Program leader and ITC genebank manager explains: “the Alliance’s global banana genebank, the International Musa Germplasm Transit Centre (ITC), can provide clean planting material to any user that requests it, free of charge. Although not for commercial purposes, the plants can help restore diversity that has been lost in germplasm collections during the pandemic.”

The Alliance will repeat the COVID-19 impact survey in 6 months to see how the impacts have evolved and what we can do to facilitate recovery.

In the long term

Conserving and promoting the use of diversity – the Alliance supports NARS and banana communities around the world to diversify their markets and diets, leaving people better equipped to cope with further impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent future impacts from similar scenarios. We are also evaluating the resistance of different banana varieties and hybrids to biotic and abiotic stresses, such as Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4, which is already spreading across important banana producing regions in many countries, resulting in further negative impacts during the pandemic. 

Bananas are brought to market in India. Credit: SPC Tahiti/M.Wong

This research is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Banana (RTB) and is supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Donors. Leading the work are Nicolas Roux, Rachel Chase, Beatrice Ekesa, Miguel Dita and Sijun Zheng of the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT’s Banana Program.


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