Bananas Are Back! A Sweet Taste of Victory in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo
Bananas are a staple food in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), occupying over 30 percent of farmland and providing up to 60 percent of household income for more than 300,000 households. Banana Xanthomonas wilt, or BXW, has been devastating production in eastern DRC for more than a decade and continues to be a major threat to food security in this region. Efforts to control BXW have proven ineffective to date mainly because they've been completed in a piecemeal fashion. A lack of integration and limited application of holistic approaches have contributed to the slow progress in fighting the disease.
Against this background, World Vision embarked on a journey to strengthen local systems through a multifaceted approach that integrated BXW control activities with interventions to improve livelihoods, health and nutrition, and gender equity while also equipping communities to become more resilient against natural shocks and stresses. As a result, the incidence of BXW among targeted communities has decreased from around 70 percent in 2013 to less than 10 percent in 2016. Production of bananas has more than doubled during the same period, which has meant that families that used to be extremely vulnerable are now able to feed their children, pay for health expenses and send their kids to school.
World Vision intentionally engaged a wide range of actors in project interventions in order to catalyze broad-based change and cultivate ownership of sustainable solutions. The USAID-funded JENGA II project worked closely with research institutions such as the National Institute of Agricultural Studies and Research (INERA) to adopt and disseminate technological innovations for combating BXW. Dissemination was coordinated with other government agencies such as National Seed Service (SENASEM) and the Ministry of Agriculture's Department of Extension (IPAPEL) to strengthen delivery of services to farmers at the community level. The project helped establish farmer field schools and seed multiplication groups that have increased access to improved banana cultivars and adoption of BXW control measures for over 6,000 farmers—70 percent of them women. Community Development Committees (CDCs) and Agricultural and Rural Management Councils (CARGs) were mobilized and equipped to enhance resilience through training on disaster risk reduction including establishment of early warning systems. Emphasis on facilitating increased interaction and coordination among actors at all levels is one of the key reasons why the project was successful.
Photo: Once threatened, bananas are making a comeback in local markets, such as this one in Minova.
The project also invested in understanding the local system around bananas—a key prerequisite for sustainable change. A participatory baseline assessment done at the beginning of the program helped map relationships among stakeholders and channels through which essential goods and services flow. The assessment helped the project team identify change agents and leverage their motivations while addressing barriers to behavior change. In addition to providing extension support and improving access to inputs, the project helped formulate local bylaws requiring farmers to adhere to jointly agreed-upon control measures for controlling BXW and mobilized surveillance committees in each village that help monitor and enforce the laws in an culturally appropriate manner.
Another aspect that led to the success of the program was its focus on facilitation. The project invested in capacity building through training and technical support to increase operational efficiency. Handouts were used sparingly and only for strategic purpose. For example, the project provided inputs to vulnerable households temporarily for one season in order to help them cover the risk of having to uproot entire crop of bananas in situations where the severity of BXW was beyond acceptable thresholds. In such cases, farmers were mobilized to work together in groups to build a farmer-to-farmer network that sustainably increased access to better cultivars through seed multiplication. Vulnerable households also benefited from economic empowerment activities, such as savings and lending groups as well as resilience building interventions such as training in natural resource management which has helped reduce dependency. The holistic nature of the intervention package led to greater engagement of women which has helped reduce gender-based violence and increased the empowerment of women within the household and at the community level.
World Vision’s experience highlights the importance of understanding and investing in strengthening local systems. It also underscores the value of multi-sectoral programming as a way to enhance inclusiveness. A focus on facilitation and adaptive learning helped nurture ownership and enabled local actors to develop context-appropriate solutions necessary to sustain behavior change. BXW remains a challenge in many other parts of eastern DRC. Our experience has shown what can happen when there is commitment to invest in holistic approaches to strengthen local systems.