Bananas? Not just for eating...Plant gives new lease of life to landmine victims

Story highlights

  • Landmine victims have formed a co-op to create rope from banana fiber
  • The rope is sold to clients who create household products
  • Co-op members benefit from the opportunity to make more money
  • They have also created a community through this work
On the fertile farmlands of Uganda's Kasese district, miles and miles of lush banana plantations dot the green landscape. This is one of the biggest banana growing areas in the east-central African country, where most people make a living through subsistence farming.
Yet, the nutrient-rich fruit is not the only source of income for farmers in the region. After harvesting the crop, locals also extract banana fiber from the trunk of the plant. This can be used for a whole range of products -- from household goods and handicrafts to bags and textiles.
Taking advantage of the abundance of the natural product, a group of landmine victims have formed a co-operative association to make rope out of banana fiber and sell it for a profit. After using water to soften the leaves, the members of the Kasese Landmine Survivors Association split them into small pieces depending on the color and the thickness of the rope they want to make.
Once the banana fibers are weaved together, the co-op sells it to various clients in bulk. One of their longest-standing customers is furniture designer Evelyn Zalwango, who incorporates the rope into a number of her creations, including beds and chairs. "We realized that this fiber, the color of it, is very beautiful," explains Zalwango.
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As well as being beautiful, the fiber is a viable, cost-free product as it is abundant in Uganda. In 2011 banana trees were growing in 17.5% of the country's total arable land, making it the second most grown crop after maize according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Troubled past
Kasese District, in western Uganda, is especially ripe with the fruit. It is also an area of the country with a difficult history. Many of the workers lost limbs after landmines were planted in this part of Uganda.
The explosives were mainly deployed by rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces during a 20-year insurgency against President Museveni. That conflict ended in 2005, but the scars of war haven't gone away. Many of these workers turned to this trade after losing their ability to farm the mountainous area they come from.
It's these mountains which are part of the reason the community is still small. "So far, we have registered 136," explains Neathu Ahab, coordinator at the Kasese Landmine Survivors Association. "There are many more who are not yet registered with us because of financial support; we don't have enough and some of them are staying in hard-to-reach areas, because the ones that are doing these exercises are not able to reach across mountains."
Those who have been able to make the journey are more mobile in Kasese as it is a relatively flat area, but also benefit from the opportunity to make money. Since the banana fiber project started two years ago, the prices have almost doubled and some workers can make $4 a day -- in a country where UNICEF says nearly 40% of the population lived on less than $1.25 per day in 2011, these workers are at an advantage.
Bringing people together
But Wilson Bwambale, the co-ordinator for the non-profit Anti-Mines Network says the benefit to the workers isn't just cash.
"It is important in two ways," he explains. "One way, obviously, [it is] an income generating activity and the other way is when they come together to weave, it is so kind of peer-to-peer support for each other; they get to understand each other -- in other words, the rope project brings them together."
While the project has seen some success already, Ahab wants to keep growing. The association's co-ordinator knows more training will be needed to take full advantage of this free natural resource, but is clear the benefits would be seen in more fiber products and improved quality. With this output, the landmine survivors would have greater income as well as hope and courage for a brighter future.