Researchers develop a new way to describe plantain diversity in DRC

Researchers studying the morphological (structure and form) diversity of plantain in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have developed an innovative way to describe plantain diversity using descriptors based on performance, grouping them into main, secondary, and rare descriptors.

The morphological identification of plantain cultivars is important since molecular tools appear to have little value in supporting research in plantain taxonomy to differentiate plantain cultivars.

Three new descriptors

In the new system, three sets of descriptors are used: the first are the main descriptors such as bunch size and orientation, plant size and height, which allow a quick and easy separation of plantain cultivars.

Bunch type was a major striking difference and quickly separated plantain cultivars into three main types. Other striking differences were the size of the pseudostem or trunk (giant, medium-sized, and small-sized) and the bunch orientation (which was generally pendulous or subhorizontal, and rarely horizontal and erect).

The secondary descriptors allow the differentiation of one cultivar from another within the same main group of bunch type, pseudostem size, or bunch orientation. Multiple secondary descriptors include pseudostem color, immature fruit peel color, fruit shape, fruit apex, fruit position, number of hands, fruit size, number of fingers per hand, and flower relicts at the fruit apex.

The third set are the rare descriptors, which allow the differentiation of one cultivar from all the others in the subgroup.

According to the researchers, this approach proved useful in differentiating the nearly 100 plantain accessions in the collection of the University of Kisangani (UNIKIS) in DRC. This approach makes cultivar description logical and faster because it moves from general to particular characteristics.

The study, titled The morphological diversity of plantain in the Democratic Republic of Congo by J.G. Adheka, D.B. Dhed’a, D. Karamura, G. Blomme, R. Swennen, and E. De Langhe, focused on the morphological characterization of plantain cultivars collected in the period 2005–2014 in 280 villages across nine provinces of DRC. These cultivars were established in two field collections at UNIKIS.

Picture of A False Horn plantain variety called Tala Lola from Central DR Congo
A False Horn plantain variety called ‘Tala Lola’ from Central DR Congo

Most of the collected cultivars were French plantains (64 out of 98), followed by False Horn (23) and Horn (10) plantains.

Banana cultivars are usually described using Descriptors for bananas (Musa spp.) developed by IPGRI-INIBAP/CIRAD in 1996. The researchers had adapted these existing descriptors to better differentiate the variation and improve future research on plantains. This new work, published in Scientia Horticulturae, however, showed that this descriptor list is not appropriate for describing variation within the plantain subgroup, with 77 out of a total of 117 descriptors not considered useful.

The researchers believe that this existing descriptor list for banana will also not be appropriate in describing variation within other subgroups of banana, like the East African Highland banana, Pacific plantain, etc.

The observed variation was reproduced in the collection during succeeding cycles and confirmed the stability of the cultivars, as well as the value of the new descriptors. The classification of the plantain cultivars at the UNIKIS collection can be used as a standard for investigating plantain diversity for the entire African continent.

Large plantain diversity in DRC

The study results showed that the humid zone of DRC contains an exceptionally large diversity of plantains among the edible Musa subgroups. This means that DRC also has the largest diversity of plantains in Africa. The 100 different cultivars covered in the study represent just a part of the entire plantain variability zone in DRC. More cultivars are expected to be found in regions of the country that still need to be explored. The researchers believe that the diversity of plantain in DRC could be substantially larger than 120 cultivars.

Picture of A Horn plantain variety called Ikpolo Noir found in DR Congo
A Horn plantain variety called ‘Ikpolo Noir’ found in DR Congo

Plantain characterization data from DRC offer a platform for reflections on the pan-African scale of plantain diversity. Assessing and characterizing the complete plantain diversity in Africa is possible by compiling characterization results of all Central and West African countries whereby UNIKIS in DRC will play a key role given its expertise and access to the largest plantain variability.

Since the planting of all accessions in one location is not feasible due to financial constraints, the researchers encouraged plantain curators to continue intensive contact, with regular exchange visits and discussions, to progressively reach an agreement on classification, synonymy, and uniqueness of all plantain cultivars.

In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 30 million people depend on banana as the principal source of dietary carbohydrate, with small-scale farmers making up the vast majority of banana and plantain producers. They grow the crop mainly for home consumption or for local markets. In West and Central Africa, about two-thirds of the banana cultivated and produced are plantain, which need to be processed and/or cooked for consumption.

The other third consists of dessert and other cooking bananas. In Africa, the major producing countries are Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire. According to the FAO, production of plantain in these countries ranks high (12.3 million tons in 2014) among the starchy staples.

The study was conducted as part of a collaboration of researchers from University of Kisangani (UNIKIS), IITA, Bioversity International, and the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement, Division of Crop Biotechnics, Katholieke Universiteit, Belgium.

Media contact: Katherine Lopez,

IITA and partners conduct first proteomic investigation in plantain and banana

Scientists from IITA and partner institutions have carried out the first known proteomic investigation into plantain. The results of the study are featured in a paper, titled “The plantain proteome, a focus on allele specific proteins obtained from plantain fruits” by N.A. Campos, R. Swennen, and S.C. Carpentier. Proteomics entails the study of the expression of proteins in a cell or organism. This is important because proteins are responsible for both the structure and the functions of all living things.

Picture of Plantain fruit. Nádia Campos, KU Leuven.
Plantain fruit. Nádia Campos, KU Leuven.

IITA banana breeder Rony Swennen said the identification and public release of the plantain fruit proteome is an important step for plantain varietal selection and breeding. He said the research is important because little attention has been given to postharvest research in plantain, a staple especially in Central and West Africa and Latin America, which grows most of the world’s plantains.

Fruit development and maturation in plantain is hardly studied unlike in the more popular dessert banana. As a result, he said plantain suffers from many pests and diseases, although it is currently bred for higher yield. The acceptance of new plantain hybrids by farmers needs to be accelerated, hence the importance of better understanding the fruit physiology of plantain to develop hybrids that are more acceptable to consumers and have a better shelf life.

The proteomic research into plantain used an easy and reproducible procedure for protein extraction and identification, resulting in the first proteome (set of proteins) of plantain fruits. The results were compared with the proteome from the dessert banana Cavendish.

The scientists found that both the plantain and Cavendish cultivars were relatively close genetically but showed contrasting phenotypic or physical differences such as size, texture, color of fruit, and flavor. These characteristics, the scientists said, comes from a different physiology and maturation process.

The plantain fruit preserves more starch for longer periods than sweet banana. The type of starch also differs. According to the scientists, there are two types of starch in banana: resistant starch (RS) and non-resistant starch. This classification is linked to the capacity to be digested by the human body. Plantain degrades RS faster, but at maturation, is richer in resistant starch.

The paper concluded that an improved understanding of the fruit maturation process may yield benefits for public health, farming, and agricultural business.

The study was conducted as part of a collaboration of researchers from IITA, the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement, Division of Crop Biotechnics, Katholieke Universiteit, Belgium, and SYBIOMA: Facility for SYstems BIOlogy based MAss spectrometry, KU Leuven.

Media contact: Katherine Lopez,

Interview with Sounkoura Adetonah, Gender Specialist, IITA-Benin on female farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (International Women’s Day 2018)

1. Today is International Women’s Day. How would you assess the role and progress of female farmers in sub-Saharan Africa?

Nowadays, the integration of gender and especially the consideration of women is a very important, and sometimes key aspect, in inclusive agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 78% of women in sub-Saharan Africa are economically active in agriculture, compared to only 64% of men. According to the FAO (1995), women are responsible for more than 50% of agricultural food production in the world and sub-Saharan is no exception. Moreover, women now constitute the majority of smallholder farmers, providing most of the labor and managing most farming activities on a daily basis. Nevertheless, a complex set of rights, obligations, and considerations reflect the social norms, which identify the prescriptions and the division of labor between men and women in agriculture value chains.

2. What has changed despite the strides research institutes have made in introducing various farming techniques and easy to use technologies?

In spite of the strides of research institutes at national and international levels, women often have very limited access to resources, innovations, and to profitable channels. They also have difficulty engaging in more lucrative activities. With limited financial resources, improved technologies are very expensive and not available for them. Since men have more access to information and inputs compared to women, they are more likely to adopt a technology than women.

3. What can be done to improve the lot of the rural farmers?

All social groups must have access to the same opportunities, access to markets for inputs and products. With the introduction of an inclusive funding model, women can have greater access to technology and credit through their organizations. Direct and indirect jobs will be created including those related to services (agricultural advice, use of agricultural machinery, management of cooperatives, brokerage service, information system and insurance) and the empowerment of women will be strengthened.

4. What is your perception of African women farmers?

African women farmers are key contributors to economic growth and global food security, but they still face many challenges. There are significant gender disparities in the way that key resources essential for success in agriculture are distributed across Africa. Access to land, inputs, assets, markets, information and knowledge, time, decision-making authority, and income still present a challenge for women in the sector. The limited access to agricultural extension services prevents many women from adopting the technologies that would help them increase their yields. For example, an estimated yield gap between men and women of 20 to 30% has been observed, and this hinders the growth of the agricultural sector in many developing countries. Also, female farmers receive only 5% of all agricultural extension services, and only 15% of the world’s extension agents are women. In addition, only 10% of total aid received by the agricultural and fisheries sectors goes to women. Women generally use lower levels of technology because of difficulties in access, cultural restrictions on use, or regard for women’s crops and livestock as low research priorities. In terms of the training and education, African women are less educated and trained.

5. What does International Women’s Day (8 March) mean to you and an average woman?

International Women’s Day (IWD) (8 March) is a great day for all women. It is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The campaign theme for this year is #PressforProgress, International Women’s Day is not country, group, or organization specific. It belongs to all groups collectively, everywhere. So together, let’s all be tenacious in accelerating gender parity.

Happy Women’s Day to all women!

Sparing a thought for rural female farmers (International Women’s Day 2018)

by Adebola Adewole

Today is International Women’s Day. March 8 is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. In agriculture, what does gender parity look like? Has there been a significant improvement in the income and lives of rural female farmers? Are they at par with their male counterparts? These questions are germane because the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 78% of women in sub-Saharan Africa are economically active in agriculture against 64% of men. According to the FAO, women are responsible for more than 50% of agricultural food production in the world and sub-Saharan Africa. Yet they still occupy the lowest rungs of the economic ladder and are considered the poorest of the poor.

These women are the bedrock of food and nutritional security as farmers, producers, processors, harvesters, weeders, and retailers in many African countries. They produce the bulk of the food eaten in urban centers through subsistence farming. Then what has changed? Maria Ayodele, IITA Pathologist retorted: “Nothing has changed. There has not been any material and financial improvement in the lives of the rural women farmers as they still wallow in abject poverty because of lack of empowerment and capacity building and failure of government and local leadership authority. We simply do not care.”

She explained further: “Go to any community in Oyo State, women still fry gari in huts, with firewood. There may be only one hydraulic press in a community, which the women will queue up to use. Government or the rich people should provide more of such for the people to use. Yet we say we are celebrating women when we have failed to empower them in these communities.”

Due to the global economic recession, African countries now have a renewed interest in making agriculture a substantial source of revenue. They are partnering with various science and development agencies that include research institutions to develop agriculture. They may have contributed marginally to rural women farmers’ improved livelihoods. “Research institutes have never been geared towards infrastructural development of communities but to provide plant materials of improved varieties like cassava, maize, and other crops,” says Ayodele.

In spite of the strides of research institutes at national and international levels, Sounkoura Adetonah, Gender Specialist, IITA Benin says, “Women often have very limited access to resources, innovations, and profitable channels. They also have difficulty engaging in more lucrative activities. With limited financial resources, new technologies are very expensive and not available for them. Men have more access to information and inputs in relation to women. They are more likely to adopt a new technology than women.

Traditions and culture seemingly conspire to undermine the socioeconomic life of the women. In this age and time, women cannot own land in many communities, neither can they rent. They have nothing to increase the acreage of their farm land. Chief among these factors impinging on their material upliftment and improved livelihood according to Ayodele are “Patriarchal society, insensitivity of government, and politicization of agriculture.”

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day with speeches, music, and poetry, some women believe the day is not worth celebrating. This is because a higher percentage of women are suffering and live in poverty, discriminated against, with a lack of gender parity with men. Bussie Maziya-Dixon quips: “What are we celebrating? Rural women farmers are not worth celebrating because of their dire situation. Nothing has changed”.  Ayodele adds, “International Women’s Day celebrates the progress women have made in all fields of endeavor. But as we celebrate this day, we should think about how to empower the rural women, change our attitude and perception of them as they are the bedrock of African agriculture.” This is a day of reflection and self-evaluation for all women in the world and above all women researchers at IITA.

The resilient women of DRC

by Renee Bullock and Bonaventure Munzunghirwa

The Democratic Republic of Congo is often preceded by its reputation of being unsafe, violent, and unstable. Having lived in Bukavu, the capital South Kivu, for over two years, I have seen women and men’s tenacity, resilience, and tremendous warmth, a side of DRC that often does not reach the press. Bukavu is a bustling town of over 1 million. Upon leaving town, one soon sees verdant, rolling green hills stretching for miles (Photo 1).

Picture of Walungu territory
Figure 1. Walungu territory (Photo: Renee Bullock, IITA)

Rural women have witnessed war and loss, yet persevere in the face of hardship. When men went to fight in the Congo War that ended in 2003, many women remained on the farm and took up roles previously reserved for men. After the war, women engaged in collective action and economic activities. Despite women’s vibrant economic activity, their access to productive resources is limited, and even when women earn their own income, they may not independently decide how to use it because of prohibitive gender norms that sanction women and girls’ ownership and control of resources.

The project “Strengthening Livelihood Strategies of Vulnerable Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” is a pilot intervention that began in 2017 with the aim of enhancing women’s financial capabilities, which refers to the “attitude, knowledge, skills, and self-efficacy needed to make and exercise money management decisions that best fit the circumstances of one’s life”. The main objective of the project is to support women’s empowerment through improvements in financial capability using a combination of approaches in which entrepreneurial knowledge, skills, and attitude are addressed to support positive behavioral changes in household financial decisions. Although women often engage in business and savings, household relations with spouses may constrain women’s opportunity to decide how to spend their money. Such practices can undermine development objectives to improve gender parity.

Twenty-six women from two villages participate in the project; their ages range from 28 to 65 and 67% of the women project beneficiaries are illiterate. Fourteen of the women are married, and seven are widows. The other women manage households while their husbands migrate in search of work, often in mines. Husbands may not return for years at a time.

The women face many challenges, but they are not insurmountable. To build women’s financial capabilities so that they may empower themselves and press for progress in their lives, the project was designed to build women and men’s capacity and change behavior so women gain greater support in their enterprise and savings activities. Men participated in training and gender dialogue groups (GDGs) were used to discuss decision-making and planning of a household budget, for example. In the 4 months since the project started women formed two groups, started businesses of selling rice, beans, flour, and banana, among others, and are saving in a formal account. For half of the women, this is their first experience of owning a savings account; only 27% of the beneficiaries’ households received credit in the last 2 years. One group named themselves Rhugwasanye, which in the local language Mashi, means “Let’s help each other”. The 14 members saved US$275. In addition, women support each other in social, economic, and health issues (Fig. 2).

Picture of Gulimwentuga Women's group
Figure 2. Gulimwentuga Women’s group (Photo: Renee Bullock, IITA)

Widows generally share their resources and make decisions with influential men in their household, including their sons, or brothers-in-law. But, as Mapendo* said, “I am a widow but I always asked for my children’s advice. Since the training, I put into practice the lessons from the training and I can decide on my own and inform my children.”

Picture of Martha sells banana seedlings
Figure 3. Martha sells banana seedlings (Photo: Renee Bullock, IITA)

Martha[1] is a widow who worked as a banana seed provider until her husband died 5 years ago (Fig. 3). Through the project and the startup capital provided she was able to restart her business. She purchased 1‒2 month-old seedlings from a local banana plantation one day per week and sells to women coming from town. This is her first experience of saving through a formal savings scheme and she has saved a modest $20, which she will use to purchase iron sheets.

Judith* is a widow who also works in the banana value chain (Fig. 4). She buys unripe bananas and ripens them to sell to those who brew beer. This is also her first experience in a savings group. She said, “Before the intervention, I didn’t know the importance of saving.” Both women aspire to increase their sales and the scale of their business.

Picture of Judith sells bananas to brew beer
Figure 4. Judith sells bananas to brew beer (Photo: Renee Bullock, IITA)

Eve* is a married woman who is among the top savers in her group, selling rice and beans. Of her husband who participated in the project’s joint training, she said “There has been improvement because today I bring my share, he brings his share, and we decide jointly. Before, he decided by himself.” Her husband supports her. She explained, “If I save, then his income will be used for other household needs.”

Although the project is relatively new, many lessons have been learnt and there is reason to celebrate the successes of women who are pressing for change. Women are making positive changes in their relationships in their household, within their community, and with their fellow group members. These relations are important to women’s ability to improve their financial capabilities. Relationships affect a woman’s capacity to manage her income, whether for business or for savings. Projects must incorporate holistic approaches to tackle poverty’s most pressing issues, across geographies. Through such interventions and women’s and men’s collective efforts, we can #PressforProgress and attain gender parity.

Note: The project “Strengthening Livelihood Strategies of Vulnerable Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

*Not real name

Women’s group in DRC press for economic change

by Renee Bullock, Rosalie Biaba, and Kanigula Mubagwa

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress. Women in DRC are now able to press for economic change in their lives and the lives of their families, to transition from poverty to better, healthier livelihoods through a jointly led project that focuses on health and agriculture. This will be the first in a series of blogs that will feature highlights from the project.

The International Center for Advanced Research and Training (ICART) and IITA have partnered in a project titled “Strengthening Livelihood Strategies of Vulnerable Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” The 2-year pilot program began in 2017 and engages 450 women in three peri-urban locations surrounding Kinshasa, DR Congo. The primary aim of the project is to economically empower women who work in the sex trade by enhancing their access to financial, agricultural, and health services.

Logo of International Center for Advanced Research and Training

Financial hardship is a major driver for women’s entry into sex work. This project addresses economic, health, and gender issues through a unique, holistic livelihood approach to better support women’s transition from sex work to alternative income-generating opportunities.

In the project, female sex workers are aged from 20 to 38, and 84% of them are single. Most independently control the income earned (78%). Their average weekly income ranges from US$12 to 200. Most (99%) of the women want to transition out of this work; they want change.

This project supports women and girls’ efforts by improving their access and participation in savings schemes, establishing new social networks, especially collective action through the creation of women’s groups (10‒15 women each); and through the provision of knowledge and skills’ development. To date, the project has provided training sessions on improved agricultural skills and food processing. Peri-urban agriculture and food processing feature as important, alternative income-generating activities in the project. Currently, 1.5 hectares have been planted with cassava that will be processed into flour to prepare baked goods to sell. A group leader in Kimvula (photo below) learned improved techniques to cultivate cassava and vegetables. She depends on agriculture to support her livelihood and plans to one day own her own plot of land to cultivate. In addition, vegetables have been planted on 0.5 ha to improve the nutritional status of women and their families.

Group 4 President in the cassava field, Kimvula
Group 4 President in the cassava field, Kimvula (Photo: Rosalie Biaba Apasa)

IITA Youth Agripreneurs-Kinshasa (IYAKIN) conducted three training sessions that focused on the production of donuts, bread, bread that incorporates high quality cassava flour (HQCF), and soybean milk. Anna*, 28 and mother of one, attended a training on how to prepare donuts. She then began to sell and noted that the income enabled her to pay rent, school fees for her daughter as well as save. She aspires to expand her business and to sell in a better location to increase her profits.

Picture of Anna sells donuts in front of her house
Anna sells donuts in front of her house. (Photo: Rosalie Biaba Apasa)

Savings is a critical aspect of the project and women have been encouraged to save for at least one year. To date women have collectively saved over $1808.

Fifty young women are receiving vocational training in dress making, hair styling, and literacy. Kungwa, aged 19, is an orphan and is raising two children on her own. She has learned to sew through her engagement in the program and is now earning and managing an income that is sufficient to support her and her family. She would like to open a tailoring business.

Picture of Kungwa sews for a living
Kungwa sews for a living (Photo: Rosalie Biaba)

Through this project, women are empowered to press for change, to transition from vulnerable conditions to better livelihoods. More projects that holistically address economic, health, and social aspects are needed to prepare these women for lasting, sustainable change.

Note: The project “Strengthening Livelihood Strategies of Vulnerable Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.