Until the early 1980’s most cultivated land around Arba Minch, Ethiopia, was devoted to growing maize, cotton and sweet potato. In 1984, experts in Ethiopia’s office of agriculture began discussions with area cooperatives, hoping to convince farmers to plant Cavendish bananas on a portion of their land. This had been attempted previously, with little success. Bananas grew successfully in the rich volcanic soil, but the market for the fruit was not well developed. By 1984, however, demand for bananas had grown in Ethiopia. Eventually, a small group of pilot farmers agreed to plant banana trees on about 10 acres. The government arranged for prisoners to transport and plant suckers from the state farm. Extension staff monitored the growing, harvest, and final delivery to market in Addis Ababa. From that first banana harvest, farmers earned $.20 Ethiopian Birr per kilo. Though this was slightly less than one cent USD, it was more profitable than the crops they had previously grown. Within five years, most farm lands that had access to irrigation in Arba Minch had been converted to banana cultivation.
By the end of 2014, more than 27,000 acres had been planted with Dwarf, Medium height, and Giant Cavendish banana trees. My recent visit to Ethiopia was perfectly timed to witness the banana harvest. Mile after mile of banana plantations lined the highway that runs through the Konso Highlands. Machete-wielding workers cut the banana bunches and piled them alongside the road. Nothing goes to waste. Banana stalks are used as animal fodder and bedding, while banana leaves serve as dinner plates on the dirt floors of huts. All along the highway, laborers were manually loading the banana bunches into large trucks lined with banana leaves to protect the fruit from bruising. But the acid test came when I actually tasted one of these Cavendish bananas. I bought a plateful from a little girl who offered them for sale through my jeep window, peeled one, and took a big bite. My taste buds exploded. Unlike bananas sold in the U.S. these days, which taste like cardboard, Ethiopian bananas are soft, fat, and deliciously sweet.