Disease-free and improved planting materials are proportionally related to yields of agricultural products per hectare, profitability of a farm business and its sustainability.
However, quality inputs such as improved seeds, seedlings and other planting materials that could help the country to achieve food sufficiency are scarce on accounts of poor investments, lack of technical know-how and little attention to seedling and seed production commercialisation.
Quality planting materials mean a serious business. To the nursery seedling producers or seed breeders and dealers, it means earning substantial income and to the farmers, they imply bumper harvests and greater returns on investments. Producing plantain planting materials, experts have said, could help to create jobs for thousands, if not millions of youths in the country.
The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), in its reference manual on plantain economies, said, “Plantains are starchy bananas which make up one-quarter of the total world production of bananas (Musa spp.). Unlike the sweet dessert bananas, plantains are a staple food which is fried, baked, boiled (and sometimes pounded) or roasted, and consumed alone or together with other food.”
The agricultural institute said over 70 million people in West and Central Africa are estimated to derive more than one-quarter of their food energy requirements from plantains, making them one of the most important sources of energy food throughout the African lowland forest zone. IITA said the area between the lowlands of Guinea and Liberia in West Africa and the central basin of Zaire in Central Africa produces one-half of the total world plantain output. It added that West Africa produces two-thirds and Central Africa one-fifth of the African output. In terms of cost per hectare, per tonne and per unit of food energy, plantains are also the cheapest staple crop to produce provided good planting materials are sourced.
Commercial plantain cultivation hubs in Nigeria include forest ecological zone states of Ondo, Edo, Oyo, Osun, Lagos, Delta, Ekiti, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Imo and Bayelsa.The country is grouped among the largest producers of banana (about 2.73 million tonnes) yearly and the largest plantain producing country in West Africa, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).
Banana and plantain are also consumed by almost all Nigerians. The population of over 200 million people makes production of their planting materials and cultivation of the fruits profitably sustainable.
Setting up a plantain sucker nursery
Suckers are offshoots from older plantains which are separated from the stump and used as planting materials by trans-planting. They are often in short supply because each trump of harvested plantains can produce only a few of suckers.
However, researchers have found ways of rapidly multiplying the offshoots through modern propagation techniques. Mr Gbenga Akinwumi, one of the instructors during a training course at the National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT), Ibadan, for youths and women recently, said after harvesting plantains, a few suckers naturally emerge around the stump.
To get more suckers, he explained, a nursery operator would uproot the stump, cut it into two equal parts, and the halves are also cut into two each. The middle of each of the four parts has meristems, which are decapitated by peeling it off. Removing the meristems allows multiple buds around the stump to germinate, producing many suckers when slightly buried in fertile shallow soil.
The trainer added that the stumps are disinfected by dipping them into a soluble fungicide solution for about 15 to 20 minutes. This would, he explained, get rid of bacterial and fungal deposits on the materials and would in the long run produce healthy and vigorous suckers that would also mean better harvests.
The organic solutions to the chemical fungicides, he added, are extracts of bitter leaf and wood ashes.The materials are spread under a shade, allowed to dry for about 24 hours before burying in the nursery field. They are watered daily and after about three weeks, multiple suckers would begin to emerge.
Again, these tiny suckers are separated after two months, each put in a polythene bag and watered under a shed until about three to four months when they are transplanted to the farm or sold to farmers. Akinwumi advised that it is better to establish a nursery four months before the outset of rainfalls. This way, he added, farmers could buy immediately the rainfalls get stabilised.
On its part, IITA said several types of conventional planting materials exist, among which are peeper: a small sucker emerging from the soil; sword sucker: a large sucker with lanceolated leaves; maiden sucker: a large sucker with foliage leaves and bits: pieces of a chopped corm.
It added that a new and most promising planting material consists of in-vitro plants which are small maiden suckers produced from meristem culture, as partly explained by the NIHORT trainer.IITA added that planting materials could be collected from an existing field, preferably an old field which is becoming unproductive, otherwise damage could be done to the roots of growing and vigorous plantains when the suckers are being dug out and many mother plants might later tip over.
It said another is a multiplication plot, which is planted only for the production of suckers and not to produce bunches. In this, suckers are obtained by either decapitation or false decapitation. Both methods consist of removing the growing point (meristems), as explained my NIHORT.
The most modern and disease-free way of multiplying suckers is through a tissue culture laboratory, where in-vitro plants which look like small maiden suckers are produced from meristems. In-vitro plants are healthy, vigorous, free from pests and diseases and have a great future, IITA said.
Economics of and requirements for plantain sucker production
Rapid production techniques described above have made production of clean and ready-to-plant plantain suckers easier and cheaper, and production in nurseries ensures steady incomes to farmers who dare to invest in such a production.At the outset of rainfalls, farmers in the forest ecologies of the southwest, southeast and south-south Nigeria, as well as parts of the north central do prepare land and plant plantain suckers, thus making demand to soar.
A sucker is sold at the unit price of N100. And half a plot of land can be used to produce about 2000 suckers if managed effectively. This will fetch a nursery operator about N200,000 in four months.It takes about three to four months to produce disease-free suckers and therefore it is advisable to start around January/February to ensure they are ready at the time of demand.
Essential requirements of production include a fertile plot of land, a reliable source of water, wetting cans, land preparation equipment such as small-scale automated cultivator or hoes, gloves and a shed nursery where the seedlings are raised.
The plot on which the nursery is located should also be fenced to prevent herbivorous animals from destroying the seedlings.The risks involved in this business, as any other one, include occasional low demand, disease infestation that may result in stunted growth and potential loss of capital if wetting or irrigation is not done regularly.
To mitigate the risk, Dr Lawrence Olajide-Taiwo, Director of Research and Head of Procurement Unit of NIHORT, said plantain sucker producers should have a marketing plan and if possible, secure a contract production before production. This way, he said, the risk of inability to sell would be minimised.
Olajide-Taiwo also advised that having larger plots where suckers could be planted to produce plantains could be considered to serve as a back-up plan if demand for the suckers is poor at a particular period.He also emphasised getting adequate knowledge and tools that are essential for successful operation of the business.