ARUSHA, TANZANIA-- An international project whose goal is to boost banana production in Tanzania and Uganda has brought together a team of international researchers here this week to deliberate on progress in the development of hybrid varieties for farmers.

The experts are meeting at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) here from Monday to Friday to review their progress and plan for next years' activities under the Breeding Better Banana Project, which is focused on breeding varieties which farmers like and which have resistance against the key problems.

However, bananas are difficult to breed because they are sterile and do not produce seeds. Breeders deal with this (challenge) by using fertile parent varieties that produce seed but the process takes a long time, says the Lead Banana Breeder at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the project's team leader, Professor Rony Swennen.

Banana is an important staple food crop and major source of income for millions of smallholder farmers in Tanzania and Uganda, who produce more than half of all bananas in Africa, valued at more than 4.0 billion US dollars, annually. However, farmers are producing just a small proportion, about nine per cent, of the total potential, largely because of the devastating impact of pests and diseases.

The Breeding Better Bananas Project seeks to deliver to farmers improved high-yielding and disease-resistant hybrid varieties which are expected to have 30 per cent higher yield compared with current varieties grown by farmers under similar conditions.

The researchers in this project are working together, using cutting edge techniques in state of the art laboratories across the world to overcome these issues,stresses caused by global clispeed up the process and increase the generation of new varieties with good resistance to pests and diseases, said Prof Swennen.

The project is focusing on the two most popular cooking bananas in the region, East Africa Highland Banana (EAHB) also known as Matooke, and Mchare, which is grown mostly in Tanzania. The project has brought together leading banana researchers from Tanzania, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Czech Republic, India, Kenya, Malaysia, South Africa, Sweden, Uganda and the United States.

The project, now in its third year, has established the first banana breeding programme in Tanzania and the first Mchare hybrids, produced by hybridisation with multiple disease resistant wild bananas, planted in 2018.

The breeding of matooke is more advanced and over 250 Matooke hybrids have been selected for advanced yield and consumer trials in both Uganda and Tanzania. The major diseases that are being addressed by the project are Fusarium Wilt and Black Leaf Streak diseases (Sigatoka disease), while the major pests are the plant parasitic nematodes (microscopic worms) and banana weevils.

The breeding efforts are complemented by studies to understand the spread and damage caused by pests and diseases as well as developing rapid diagnostic tools and faster screening mechanisms to quickly identify resistant varieties.