NYONGOZI, Uganda (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Farming got sweeter for Benard Mugume after he decided to grow organic pineapples instead of bananas.
"Pineapples are my life," explained Mugume, a farmer in Nyongozi, a village in southwest Uganda. He and his wife even attended university thanks to their pineapple proceeds.
Pineapples are a hardy crop grown mainly by smallholder farmers in Uganda’s southern, central and eastern regions, where fruit production is an important agricultural activity.
Some smallholder farmers like Mugume - who for many years grew bananas - have switched largely to pineapples. The reasons: the high potential profit from organic pineapples, and losses from banana pests and diseases such as banana wilt.
"Pineapples as a cover crop have helped me protect the soil from erosion,” Mugume told Thomson Reuters Foundation. Cover crops are grown to conserve biodiversity, soil fertility and water.
Mugume also mulches and makes contour ridges on the mountain slopes where he grows his pineapples, to reduce water run-off. Following the right growing practices is essential for realising the benefits, he adds.
Mugume - one of around 200 farmers in Ntungamo District who grow organic pineapples - says pineapple dollars have also allowed him to diversify into livestock breeding. He feeds his cows with pineapple pulp, and uses manure to fertilise his three-acre pineapple garden in line with organic principles prohibiting the use of chemical fertilisers.
According to the National Organic Agriculture Movement of Uganda (NOGAMU), most of Ntungamo’s organic pineapples are sold as fresh fruit on roadsides and in local markets for about $0.25 each during peak season, and double that in the off season.
Around two thirds of the 179 farmers registered with the local “Pineapple Innovation Platform” have applied for organic certification through NOGAMU. The platform enables farmers, extension workers, traders, processors, buyers, researchers and NGOs to share knowledge and support agriculture development.
In Ntungamo, the innovation platform came up with the idea of supplying dried pineapple and fresh juice, now produced only at a low level due to poor market access. Some farmers travel up to 25km to sell their pineapples to traders from neighbouring Rwanda.
"If sold as certified organic in niche markets, pineapples fetch better prices," said Irene Kugonza, a standards and certification officer with NOGAMU. They are certified to the East African Organic Products standard, she added.
Export markets have increased the attraction of pineapple farming. Kugonza said 1 kg of solar-dried pineapple sells for about $12 on the export market, double the price on the local market. For pulped pineapple, the price quadruples.
Furthermore, organic pineapple supply chains are free of middlemen, meaning that farmers get most of the money, Kugonza adds.
Musa Muwanga, NOGAMU’s chief executive officer, said Uganda's climate, soils and overall ecology are favourable for pineapple production, making organic pineapples competitive. Uganda grows mainly the smooth Cayenne variety, considered to be of superior quality.
Smallholder farmers, most working on gardens averaging five acres, told Thomson Reuters Foundation they earn a minimum of $400 (1 million Ugandan shillings) a month from pineapples.
"Growing pineapples is better than growing bananas, as I have a weekly income and the costs of looking after (pineapples) are small, yet the harvest and price are big compared to bananas," Mugume said.
The Uganda Investment Authority estimates pineapple production at 5,000 acres spread across 2,500 smallholdings. Uganda is considered to be the largest producer and exporter of internationally certified organic fruit and vegetables in Africa.
According to Moses Sabiiti, coordinator for the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) in Ntungamo District, organic pineapple farmers will get a financial boost from tapping export markets for pineapple juice and dried fruit.
Uganda has 44 companies that export organic produce, of which 11 export organic-certified fresh, pulped, frozen and solar-dried pineapple mainly to the European Union, United States, Japan, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and United Arab Emirates. One Ugandan firm, Fruits of the Nile, buys fresh organic pineapples for processing into dried fruit that is sold in Britain.
Uganda is the world’s second producer of bananas after India, and is the major consumer of bananas in Africa. Ugandans are estimated to eat up to 1 kg of bananas each per day, mainly the cooking variety known as matoke.
Like Mugume, many farmers in Ntungamo District used to grow bananas until they were hit by banana wilt, pushing them to diversify into pineapples. Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris pv. Musacearum (XCM) has decimated banana yields, leaving farmers struggling.
And the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has called for action against Fusarium wilt, which recently spread from Asia to Africa and the Middle East. The disease threatens the livelihoods of many farmers dependent on bananas, whose global crop value is worth over $40 billion.
According to FAOSTAT, a data-gathering and analysis service, banana is the eighth most important food crop in the world. The TR4 race of the Fusarium wilt infects the Cavendish banana varieties which dominate international markets.
While there is little scientific evidence that proves the vulnerability of bananas - or the resilience of pineapples - to climatic stress, researchers told Thomson Reuters Foundation climate change could affect these fruits like any other perennial crops through impacts such as flooding, drought, temperature variations and carbon dioxide concentrations.
"It is difficult to predict whether climate change will impact more (on) bananas or pineapples, and therefore if either is more resilient," said Gianluca Gondolini, secretary of the World Banana Forum (WBF).
"However, pineapples are crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) plants, so are more adaptable to arid conditions than bananas, because water availability will be an issue in a changing climate," he added.
CAM is a process by which some plants fix carbon dioxide as an adaption mechanism in arid conditions, helping them use water more efficiently.
"Some producers in areas traditionally devoted to bananas are moving to pineapples (because of) reduced water availability,” Gondolini said. “The other main driver is the market price, which is significantly higher for pineapple."
When it comes to diseases, the picture is complex. Piet van Asten, a systems agronomist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Uganda, said Fusarium wilt and BXW are likely to be among the few that are relatively little influenced by climate change.
BXW is passed on through infected tools and insects under a wide range of climatic conditions, not limited by temperature or rainfall, while Fusarium wilt is soil-borne and found across different altitudes, van Asten said.
Instead bananas will be vulnerable to nematodes, weevils and black sigatoka (a leaf-spot disease), he warned.
"These pests and diseases are often abundant below 1,300m, but above 1,500m, they hardly ever pose a real problem,” he said.
“However, if the climate becomes 2 degrees warmer, then much of the East African highland banana-growing region - like southwest Uganda, most of Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo - will suddenly be 'attacked'.”
Busani Bafana is a journalist based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, who covers climate change and agriculture issues.