Preventing the spread of Fusarium wilt in Africa

28 November 2022
Bananas in Africa

ACIAR has launched a new project in Africa to protect small-scale banana growers in Mozambique and Tanzania against Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4).

The invasive soil-borne fungus causes plant disease and can devastate banana plantations — a top staple food in Africa and a vital economic crop in several African countries. 

Led by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (QDAF), the initiative will investigate banana farming systems, the cultivars grown, and production practices in the two countries.

The project also seeks to work with country partners and landholders to identify practical biosecurity measures to reduce risks and mitigate potential damage from the disease on small farms.

‘Fusarium wilt TR4 poses a significant threat to banana production in Africa. Within 4 years, a 1500 hectare Cavendish banana export plantation in northern Mozambique, where the disease was first found, was destroyed,’ Professor Altus Viljoen, South Africa country project coordinator, said. 

‘The fungus later spread to nearby commercial farms, a small grower’s field, and was found on Mayotte Island off the African east coast in 2020, Professor Viljoen said.

The durability of TR4, which can survive in infested fields for decades, and the inability to eradicate it from soil, could make the spread of Fusarium wilt in Mozambique and the rest of Africa catastrophic, destroying the livelihoods of millions of people.

Inception meeting in Tanzania
The new ACIAR-funded initiative commenced with the project's staff meeting in Tanzania last week for an inception meeting. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2017 estimates, 70-100 million people in East and Central Africa (ECA) rely on bananas for their livelihoods. The crop is grown on around 2.5 million hectares in the region, making up 50% of total agricultural production in some countries, with an annual production value of US$4.3 billion.

‘Working with partners in the 2 African countries, researchers will investigate the risk posed by Fusarium wilt TR4 to smallholder banana producers,’ said Irene Kernot, ACIAR Research Program Manager, Horticulture.

‘The project aims to increase understanding of how factors like crop diversity, production systems, lack of information and resources, and the landscape expose the farms to the risk of Fusarium wilt,’ Ms Kernot said. 

The project then aims to identify locally appropriate, practical management strategies with stakeholders to mitigate the risk of TR4 spread. With support from regulatory bodies, these measures could keep African banana fields free of disease.

The research from this project will contribute to the growing body of knowledge on the management of Fusarium wilt TR4. It will also be valuable for the protection of other crops produced in small-scale production systems. 

Additionally, project outcomes will inform research, extension, and regulatory and policy decisions regarding Fusarium wilt TR4 in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where smallholder banana producers are common. 

ACIAR has been investing in research to combat the spread of TR4 throughout the Indo-Pacific since 1990, with knowledge gained through this research vital to restricting the spread of the disease when it reached Australia in 2015.

QDAF is leading the project, in collaboration with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the Ministry of Agriculture in Tanzania, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Mozambique, the Mozambique Institute of Agricultural Research (IIAM), the Tanzanian Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) and Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Learn more via the ACIAR website.