How banana flour is helping Ugandan farmers

A presidential pilot project in Uganda is using value-adding to exploit a massive banana surplus, producing banana flour with biofuel as a byproduct. Robyn Joubert reports.

Uganda is the second largest  producer of bananas in the world, yet it hasn’t been able to crack the export market. At the same time, the local market is so saturated that farmers leave bananas to rot on the trees. To breath new life into this vital industry, Uganda president Yoweri Museveni has lent his weight to a value-adding project to develop and commercialise banana flour.

Landlock challenges
Uganda produces more than 9 million tons of bananas a year – or 30% of world production, with the average Ugandan eating 191kg/year. A 2007 Uganda Bureau of Statistics survey showed that 73% of small-scale farmers in Uganda grow bananas as an important cash crop. The local market is saturated, while the overseas market is largely out of reach. Uganda is a landlocked country and bananas are a perishable product, so exports are negligible. Uganda isn’t even among the top 30 banana-producing countries on the global export market.

Also, the most commonly produced bananas are plantains used for cooking. Known locally as matooke, they are steamed and mashed before eating and differ from the sweeter dessert bananas, a major global export commodity. Projections reveal that, even at the low average yield of 7t/ha per year, banana farmers are incurring a net loss. So many middlemen have a piece of the pie that the price of a bunch of bananas can vary from 300 Ugandan shillings (about 90c) at the farm gate to 11 000 Ugandan shillings (about R33) at the market.

The solution – banana flour
The Presidential Initiative for Banana Industrial Development (Pibid) aims to make banana flour from matooke to overcome the problems of the short shelf-life of fresh bananas, high transportation costs, and the long distances to markets.The pilot project has been running for five years and in 2009 started producing banana flour at a factory in western Uganda.

The facility also has a training centre where small-scale farmers are taught new production techniques and how to dry bananas for flour. Rural farmers with access to scientific services and value-added enterprises can access market chains and increase household income. Pibid director Dr Florence Muranga recently pitched the project to investors at the Africa Investor Agribusiness Summit in South Africa.

“Matooke is a very starchy food, more so even than maize or potatoes. We realised we could do more with matooke flour than with maize,” she explains. “If you add matooke flour to wheat or maize flour, you get a better product. With its nutritients it can be used as an alternative to wheat.”

Using bananas from small-scale farmers in western and eastern Uganda, the Pibid facility currently produces 4t/day of flour. At full capacity, the factory would need 25t raw matooke daily to produce 5t/day of flour – and Pibid is looking to expand capacity even further. “That’s why we’re working with farmers to increase production, so that when we start processing in bulk we’ll have a steady supply,” said Dr Muranga.

Marketed mainly to the locals under the brand name “Tooke”, Pibid products include raw matooke flour, an effective substitute for flour when baking, and instant flour milled from precooked matooke and used to make soups and porridge. Pibid has also produced a cookbook to highlight the versatility of this much-loved staple.

“Two bakeries are currently substituting 30% of their wheat with Tooke flour, and once processing on industrial scale, the aim is to get more bakeries on board,“ says Pibid researcher Jolly Gonahasa.Jolly says that preparing matooke traditionally takes three hours. “But if  people use our instant matooke flour, it takes minutes. It saves time and heating costs.”

(Green) bananas
Matooke peels are used to produce biogas to generate power for the drying process. This effective use of resources recently bagged the project the Africa investor (Ai) Biofuels Initiative of the Year award. To further complete the sustainable circle, the banana skin residue will be sent back to the farms for use as organic compost.

The project also wants to form public-private partnerships to start community-based processing centres. “By adding value, farmers can sustainably produce bananas as a food and to increase income,” says Dr Muranga. And using it as an effective substitute for wheat can only heighten matooke’s importance as a staple food in East Africa.

Contact Pibid on +256 414 371 050, or visit www.pibid.org.