A disease affecting banana plants has spread to five provinces of Burundi, raising concern among agricultural officials, who fear the disease could hit the country's food security.
According to Adelin Girukwishaka, a plant protection officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, the disease, "Banana Xanthomonas Wilt" - commonly known as banana blight - was first detected in November 2010 in Cankuzo province, near the border with Tanzania.
"In January 2011, the disease was reported in the eastern province of Ruyigi and Makamba in the south; the disease has also been identified at Cibitoke and Bujumbura Rural provinces," Girukwishaka said.
Ernest Manirambona, deputy coordinator of the Food and Agriculture Organization's emergency coordination unit, told IRIN: "The disease is now confirmed; it spread to five provinces within six months."
Leonard Ndayishimiye, a farmer in the northwestern province of Cibitoke, said the disease had infected most of his plantation; he is worried his monthly income will drop as a result.
"When the plants are healthy, a single plant can extend to 5m wide, giving me five big bunches," Ndayishimiye said. "However, since the disease struck, I only get one tiny bunch or even nothing, depending on when the plant was infected."
Burundians consume bananas raw, cooked, as a juice or alcohol. Ndayishimiye said: "I eat it as breakfast before going to work, at lunch with beans and sometimes as banana juice in the evening."
Cibitoke, which means "the land where bananas are plenty" in Kirundi, is known for producing banana beer consumed across the country. Many of its residents depend on banana farming for their livelihoods.
Girukwishaka said: "Banana plants cover the biggest cultivated areas and represent more than 60 percent of the population's income. If the banana is affected [by this disease], it will not only mean great problems for farmers but also a socio-economic problem for Burundi."
At the main market in Bujumbura, the capital, the price of green bananas has increased because of the spread of the disease.
A buyer at the market told IRIN she could no longer afford to buy a whole bunch, estimated at 6,000 francs (US$4.80), and was opting to buy the bananas singly.
"I think it is not only climatic conditions that are behind the shortage of bananas in the market; the banana blight is also to blame," the trader said.
"No need to panic"
Celestin Niyongere, head of the fruit and vegetable division at the government's Research Institute for Agronomic Sciences, told IRIN the disease spreads slowly in some banana varieties, especially those that grow in the highlands.
However, he said, "no variety resists the disease even if there are some varieties more sensitive than others".
Niyongere said: "This is the case with the banana variety grown in Cibitoke, Makamba and Rutana; they can be totally decimated in a few months."
However, FAO's Manirambona said there was no need to panic: "The disease has been identified, preventative measures are also well known; we only need to implement them."
Agricultural officials say they are making the population aware of the best field practices.
Farmers have been encouraged to remove male buds in the banana plants since insects, "notably bees, can spread the disease to uninfected bananas 60km away in one day", according to an agricultural officer.
Agricultural officials say local agronomists, in direct contact with farmers, would be trained in June.
Once a banana field is infected, the only remedy is to cut off all the infected plants.
Farmers have also been advised not to re-plant bananas on the same land within six months and to use clean field tools and planting materials.
Manirambona said: "We also need to raise funds to mobilize not only farmers but also give support to the producers of in-vitro plants. People who depend on bananas for their livelihood should get support to encourage them to cut all their infected plants."
Apart from sensitizing the public, the Burundian government plans to distribute at least 750,000 selected bananas shoots in September to ensure that farmers have plants free from the disease.