“Eve did not give an apple to Adam but a banana” — says Rony Swennen, a world-leading banana breeder, although he considers himself simply a banana lover. “Banana was one of the first crops domesticated by people, and improved drastically over time thanks to farmers all over the world. I started getting interested in banana in 1979 by working at IITA in Nigeria.
We addressed challenges facing plantain in West Africa—low yield and attack by a fungus called black Sigatoka. And through working with bananas I started learning about life in Africa as well, because banana is not simply a crop, but a way of living. At that time most scientists were not interested in banana and research was very poor. The former IITA DG Ermond Hartmans said: ‘Rony, go full speed and do your PhD!’, so I did. The research I was involved in resulted in a breakthrough with the development of the technology to obtain seeds from the sterile plantain crop, seed germination, and selection of plantain hybrids with yield increases of up to 225%. During that period IITA started its plantain and banana program.
“Today I can capitalize on the work of three generations of banana breeders. We are looking at setting up a more integrated breeding program through collaboration not only with IITA scientists but other banana experts coming from partner organizations. There is a lot of good banana research and expertise now in IITA, but a massive amount of information available on banana and plantain improvement work has been forgotten and is not being used by farmers or even policymakers. There is still so much to be done on perennial crops like banana and plantain. Thanks to new technology and networking, research can go faster, and we can make a lot of difference if we achieve impact through capacity development.”