G(r)oing bananas

It’s mid July in Alberta Canada, and Robert and I are studying banana fertilizer needs on the internet. Somehow, with canola blooming and wheat heading outside our window, it feels a little strange – we’re a long ways from Africa!

A beautiful bunch of bananas like this requires a lot of potassium, an expensive nutrient. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

A beautiful bunch of bananas like this requires a lot of potassium, an expensive nutrient. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

This morning we received an email from Heart of Africa Mission (HAM) Zambia, giving us numbers for banana fertilizer prices. We had promised to purchase fertilizer for them to keep the banana plantation producing, as they were in a difficult financial situation.

Robert figured out about how much they would need before we left Zambia end of April. According to the email they sent us, fertilizer prices have climbed quite a bit since then. I phoned our fertilizer agent here just to be sure – yes, fertilizer prices have come down in Canada since April.

So why are they climbing in Zambia? Who knows? Zambia doesn’t have to react to world markets if it doesn’t want to. What can a Zambian farmer do? It’s one of those things that frustrate us so much – and farmers there even more.

Bananas need twice as much K (potassium) as N (Nitrogen) to produce well. (That’s why bananas are so high in potassium.) Robert just calculated that K in Zambia costs about Cdn$2000/tonne. In Canada it’s about Cdn$925/tonne. Why should it cost twice as much in Zambia as in Canada?

HAM sometimes used chicken manure in between commercial fertilizer applications. Robert found some numbers for the nutrients in chicken manure, and if they are reasonably correct, calculated that by adding K , they should be okay without adding commercial N and P (Phosphorous). That would save them a large amount of money.

The HAM farm management is very dedicated and works hard. But not having any formal agricultural training, they don’t understand enough about soil nutrient requirements, or how to manipulate different fertilizers to achieve an optimal yield. They don’t know enough about timing of fertilizer – what a plant needs and when and why.

Robert discusses banana cultivation issues with the HAM staff. They are dedicated, but often lack deeper knowledge of plant and soil requirements. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

Robert discusses banana cultivation issues with the HAM staff. They are dedicated, but often lack deeper knowledge of plant and soil requirements. (Photo by Marianne Stamm)

Here’s an example: Robert told them to buy urea instead of a much more expensive nitrogen product. They said they’ve done that before but it grew too many leaves. Urea only needs to be applied at half the rate of the other product, which they probably missed – perfectly logical if you don’t know how to calculate actual N rates.

So that’s where some of our consulting skills come in – both to work these numbers out for them, and then to try to teach them some of the background information. It sure works better on site than from a distance though! Phone connections are often poor, and with our different English accents (Robert is Swiss, they Zambian) it can be a challenge.

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