Plantain and highland cooking bananas are important staple crops in West-Central Africa and Eastern Africa, respectively. They play an essential role in food security, enhanced livelihoods, and resilient agricultural systems.
But breeding bananas and plantains was for a long time considered impossible due to sterility and triploidy – containing only vestigial seeds, the mutant fruits have an extra set of chromosomes and are unable to sexually reproduce. This poses challenges for the development of improved varieties able to withstand threats such as black sigatoka, a common and highly destructive leaf spot disease.
About 12.4 million tons of plantains (93% from West-Central Africa) and 9.8 million tons of highland cooking bananas improved by CGIAR and national partner research were produced in Africa in 2018
In 1987, CGIAR scientists at IITA finally found a way to breed several black-sigatoka-resistant plantain hybrids, demonstrating that banana breeding is in fact possible, through a combination of conventional and novel methods. Their achievement earned IITA the International King Badouin Award in 1994.
Building on this success, the researchers started a breeding program in the mid-1990s for matooke, a starchy highland banana that is a staple in Uganda. Together with the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) they were successful in producing high-yielding, resistant matooke hybrids.
NARO became the first national program in Africa to officially release a banana variety bred in Africa. The banana breeding program of NARO is now internationally recognized as the strongest national program in Africa. To support the breeding program, other genetic studies are being conducted, including biotechnology approaches.
Another plantain hybrid, called PITA, was registered in Côte d’Ivoire in 2016 and has since become popular among growers in Mali and Burkina Faso.
About 12.4 million tons of plantains (93% from West-Central Africa) and 9.8 million tons of highland cooking bananas improved by CGIAR and national partner research were produced in Africa in 2018. Estimates from 2018 production data suggest that about 3.2 million farming households in Africa depended on plantain, while 2.5 million farming households depended on highland bananas.
Header photo: Harvest bananas ready for sale. Photo by IITA.