The role of culture in banana seed systems in Uganda

In Uganda, bananas are considered more than just food or a source of income – they are entrenched in local meaning and culture. In this blog, Fleur Kilwinger of Wageningen University and Bioversity International explores what this means for banana seed systems research and interventions. 

In September 2016 I started my internship at the Bioversity International office in Uganda to study seed systems for cooking banana, and to collect data for my MSc thesis in plant sciences at Wageningen University. As I visited farms in Central Uganda and talked to farmers, I was very surprised to learn how much banana, or matooke as it is called locally, is entrenched in local meaning and culture.

For Ugandan banana farmers, the banana crop means much more than just food or income. Apart from its importance for consumption; a meal without matooke is not a real meal but rather described as a ‘snack’. The production itself is also surrounded by beliefs and traditions, with certain banana varieties, such as nakitembe, playing a role in rituals. The placenta of a new-born baby girl for instance, has to be buried under a nakitembe banana mat.

Matooke is prepared for a wedding. Each member of the community is supposed to contribute matooke for the day. Some farmers even grow varieties especially for these kind of events or for home consumption. Photo: F.Kilwinger

During my research, farmers’ often expressed a close attachment to their banana plantation and would talk about it as if the plantation itself has a consciousness. Some farmers for example would never allow a fellow farmer to uproot suckers from their plantation, as only the owner is allowed to take “children” away from the plantation. As I describe in my report entitledThe culture of banana cultivation, this has implications for banana management and thus for decisions surrounding seed sourcing and replacement of the banana mats.

Farmers maintain for instance a high varietal diversity on farm but not all these varieties (or cultivars) have commercial value. Some are valued because they have great taste and they’re consumed on special occasions, others are deemed important for the health or the balance of the plantation itself. For instance, there’s a cultivar which is usually planted in the middle of the plantation to represent ‘the man of the plantation’.

The author helps to prepare matooke for a wedding. Photo: F.Kilwinger

In my report I have written about the replacement dynamics of banana mats and the sources farmers use to obtain new banana planting material. Farmers can keep their banana plantations vital in two ways; they can manage existing banana mats in such a way that they thrive for years or even decades, or they can establish a new banana mat by planting a sucker or other type of propagation material. Replacement dynamics refers to the replacement of old banana mats with new planting material, which is necessary when the mats decline in production, are diseased or die. Economic and social factors also play an important role here because uprooting old mats is a labor-intensive practice that therefore depends on the physical strength of the farmer. Besides that, farmers usually obtain new planting material from their own farm or via exchange of suckers among neighbors, friends and family.

This use of suckers from the own farm and the exchange of suckers among farmers can result in a built-up and spread of banana diseases. A potential solution to counteract this is the use of tissue culture (TC) plantlets as planting material. TC planting material, started in laboratories and hardened under protected conditions in nurseries, is supposedly clean from disease such as Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW). Also new varieties bred by scientists with specific advantageous characteristics would usually be distributed as TC plantlets. If TC planting material should be integrated in the local seed system it is essential to understand ‘the culture of banana cultivation’ to ensure that it is appropriate for, and adopted by, local farmers.

A banana finger from a plant infected with Banana Xantomonas Wilt. Photo: F.Kilwinger

A lot of information in the report might be familiar for Ugandan people. However, as a student from abroad I learned many new things during my fieldwork in Uganda. I am happy that I had the opportunity to document this information, and thereby preserve it and hopefully share it further so that it might contribute towards the effectiveness of interventions to improve banana seed systems in Uganda.

This research was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas‘ research flagship on ‘Adapted productive varieties and quality seed‘, and with funding support from CGIAR Fund Donors

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