Going global How one woman in Uganda is taking cooking banana to the international market

In Uganda green cooking banana is a choice crop for many farmers. A key ingredient in the traditional dish known as matoke the crop provides economic opportunity and nutritional benefits for many smallholder farmers in this part of the world.

Annette Nabıgaga is one such farmer. Her small parcel of land is situated in the green, lush valleys in the south west of the country. From her farm you can look out across the valleys ahead, dotted with the bright green of cooking banana trees. In this part of the country, the rains come thick and fast in the wet season, creating a lush and tropical environment. The air is heavy with heat when we arrive and the dense foliage of the cooking banana leaves provide respite from the sun.

The view from Annette's house across fields of cooking banana Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Going global with green cooking banana

Annette welcomes us and begins talking about cooking banana and the possibilities it presents to her and her family. Annette is growing a variety of the locally domesticated cooking bananas known as the East African highland banana. In just a few years, Annette, not content with selling the crop locally, has embarked on a journey to take it global.

From this small piece of land near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Annette grows green cooking bananas that end up in kitchens in Canada and the UK - a world away from this rural village she calls home. A wife and mother of five , Annette started farming to improve nutrition and food security for her family and to make a little money. "I want to improve the status of my household. I want my family to be happy and to have economic security. I want to farm and also expand my opportunities to trade and sell cooking bananas to a wider market," she says.

Three years ago, Annette began growing cooking banana for the local market. She soon expanded to the urban market in Kampala - a busy, chaotic city where demand is high. And since then, Annette, with support from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), has taken another leap and expanded to the international market.

Green cooking banana growing adjacent to Annette's house Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Technical guidance and support

Annette has taken advantage of a partnership between RTB and the Uganda Fruits & Vegetable Exporters & Producers Association who provide technical expertise and guidance to smallholder farmers like her. "My work is focused on building the capacity of local producers to understand export market dynamics so they can pitch directly to that market. I link them to a wider platform so they can access information and understand the market," explains Hasifah, the coordinator for the association.

Hasifah and her team are a key component of the ‘Expanding utilization of roots, tubers and bananas and reducing their postharvest losses’ (RTB ENDURE) project in Uganda which is led by RTB and is working with farmers including Annette. "We are linking farmers who grow specific varieties of green cooking banana that the export market wants with companies who can help them sell. We want to improve the capacity of farmers to be able to step into this market," says Hasifah. The export market is primarily driven by East and Central Africans (Rwandese, Kenyan, Tanzania, Eastern DRC , Burundi) who are living abroad and who create a high demand for the item internationally.

Excited about the possibilities for the green cooking banana trade in Uganda, Hasifah believes that the association plays an important role linking farmers with market: "It has particular quality requirements that our producers have to be able to meet. These market requirements need to be communicated directly to the farmers and that is where we come in."

Annette carefully cleans each finger on the bunch of cooking banana Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Quality and consistency: staple requirements for the export market

Annette does not work alone. Her ability to meet the demands of the export market rely on a network of mainly female smallholder banana farmers, and workers from the local area who she employs to harvest, clean, weigh and box the products.

Annette works closely with a Kampala based export company. She receives an order from the company for a specific variety and volume - often with a very short deadline for delivery - she then sources the products and, brings together her team to package the produce according to export requirements. Orders are usually for 1,000 - 1200 kilograms but Annette is hopeful this will grow as she strengthens the relationship with the export company and establishes a routine to fulfill orders.

Annette sorts and packages green cooking banana ready for transport Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Annette is aware the she must gain the trust of the export company through provision of quality product each time. Hasifah is glad to see this is a priority for Annette highlighting that: "The key issues for export is consistency and quality. Farmers must be able to plan their production to meet export needs. The export market does not stop; they do not want to hear excuses . So we have to groom our farmers to be able to supply all year round so that we are able to fulfill the market demands".

Annette proudly stands amongst her field of green cooking banana Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Meeting the unique demands of the export market

"Each box must weight 10 kilograms. I inspect each banana before it is packed to ensure the exporter will approve it. I look at color, size and ripeness. Once I decide they are suitable for export I clean and package them. For each box I receive 15,000 Ugandan shillings." Annette explains.

Rain clouds gather above the field of cooking banana tha Annette is growing for the domestic and internaitonal market Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Hasifah has seen the demand for variety change over time: "We used to export a lot of Kibuzi. Now the Musakala variety is also growing in popularity as is Mpologama. The market is broadening and we are looking at how to expand our production in line with market needs".

Through the RTB ENDURE project, Bioversity International has trained Annette and local farmers on new approaches to help them meet the requirements of the export market. Hasifah outlines one technique which has been popular with the farmers: "When you stagger production, you are reducing the time between when farmers would have a lot of bananas, and when they wouldn’t - you are balancing production in other words. Farmers take up techniques like this as it means they can consistently produce. It means that they will be able to have produce all year round which improves their ability as a supplier".

Annette packs the cooking banana in accordance with the export company requirements Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

There are challenges. And opportunities.

In the past farming was a real challenge for Annette. "We used to waste a lot of the produce as it would get damaged or ripen to quickly or we would not be able to find the right market.

The East African Highland Banana varieties which are exported are bought in kilograms and the rejected bananas (those not sold to the export market) are sold to the domestic market as fingers packed in poly-ethene bags. Annette now earns more from a bunch than what she was receiving before when she was only selling to domestic market. "Now I bulk these cooking bananas and sell them locally. I also collect and distribute them to local traders who sell them in the city," explains Annette.

Annette is providing employment opportunities to local farmers (mainly female) Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

"My biggest challenge is with transport. Usually I travel with the product to make sure there are no problems along the way. This is the most stressful part for me. Sometimes I have to stay overnight - but I also have to make sure my husband and children are taken care of," Annette explains.

"At the beginning, I think people doubted that I could do this. Maybe because I am a woman and they thought I was unable to manage such a business. But now people have seen my success and have also benefited from it as I have been able to provide work for people in the local area. I am also sharing my knowledge so they can also improve their farms," Annette says with a big smile on her face, clearly proud of her achievements.

Hasifah explains that improving the position of women in the banana value chain is a key part of their work: "We have seen a number of women exporters come on board and we have seen companies emerge that are headed by women, which is fabulous. We also see women traders who are engaged in the banana value chain taking the next step towards entering this new market.”

As Annette continues to clean, sort and pack the bananas she tells us that she is happy with the money that she is making: "I decide with my husband about how the money is spent. We usually spend it on food, things for the house and for school fees for our children. I keep track of all the money I make and how it is spent. I think this is very important."

Annette reviews each bunch of cooking banana to ensure it meets market requirements Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Uniquely placed to access the export market

Hasifah is proud to be working alongside smallholder farmers to take cooking banana to the international market. "I believe that the East African highland bananas are very marketable, especially to the growing East African communities who live abroad in the UK and Canada. We are selling its freshness, organic production, and its sweetness and aroma."

There is a growing international demand for the product from East African communities living abroad Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Hasifah and Annette are both aware that they are dealing with a very competitive market. As Hasifah explains: "We have a lot of work to do. Our farmers have to know that what keeps you in the export market is you being quality compliant. If you have quality and consistent supply and you produce the variety that the market wants then you are there".

As we leave, Annette rushes forward with a bunch of green cooking bananas for us. Each one is perfectly green and ready for eating. They have been expertly cleaned and tenderly placed in a box for easy transport. As she passes them to us, Annette rattles off how we should prepare and cook them for the tastiest of meals. If Annette puts this kind of care and thought into each box that leaves her farm, then the cooking banana market in Uganda is in good hands and has a promising future ahead.

Expanding utilization of roots, tubers and bananas and reducing their postharvest losses

RTB-ENDURE is a 3 year project (2014-2016) implemented by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas with funding from the European Union and technical support of IFAD. Its goal is to contribute to improved food security for RTB-producing communities in East Africa, including producers and other stakeholders along the value chain.

The team

The research team is led by Bioversity International and comprises IITA, CIRAD, NARO, the Ssemwanga Centre for Agriculture and Food Ltd., Kaika InvestCo, Uganda Fruits and Vegetables Exporters and Producers Association (UFVEPA) and other value chain actors in Isingiro, Rakai and Kampala districts.

Words & Images: Sara Quinn, Regional Communications Specialist, International Potato Center

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Sara Quinn

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