West Kenya's banana flour revolution threatens wheat's pride of place By RAY NALUYAGA in Nairobi | Tuesday, January 29  2013 at  13:54

Banana inside the ripening chamber with avocado at the bottom. When locked, avocado produces gas that helps row banana to ripen within two days and a half instead of the usual five to six days. RAY NALUYAGA |   NATION MEDIA GROUP

Using ripe banana as a substitute for sugar when sweetening biscuits--themselves made out of banana flour-- is among the things a women's group from Kisii in western Kenya has come up with in order to beat the economic challengers its members face.

Kenyuni Women Group from Nyaura ward in Kisii district was founded 16 years ago with the aim of helping women from the area escape widespread poverty.

Kisii is a region where banana grows easily and nearly every household has planted some. Growing banana for sale was one of the initial activities the group started, but it was not long before they realised that their effort was mainly benefiting the middle man.

Mr Jeremiah Nyemesa, one of the three men in the group that has 20 women, told Africa Survival Series that on wisening up to this exploitation, they sat down to evaluate their options.

"We decided to engage value addition experts and figure out the way forward, which is when we discovered that we can make flour out of banana,” he said.

Through trial and error, they discovered that not all banana species could produce usable flour. They then classified their products into two: banana to be ripened and that for processing into flour.

Today, banana flour is the most popular in Kisii and even beyond. For its diverse uses, it is correct to say that wheat has a strong rival.

With banana flour, one can bake virtually everything that was once made using wheat flour only. From cakes, bread biscuits and chapati, the banana flour is revolutionising the region's baking industry.

Using traditional methods, the bananas are harvested, peeled, cut to small pieces then dried under the sun before being ground into flour using a mortar and pestle. It is then sifted and packed for sale at the group’s small shop.

"Demand soared within a very short period of time after we introduced it into the market,” says the group leader, Everline Onserio.

To make sure that they met the demand, the group required each member to grow a minimum of 40 banana trees, while those with large parcels of land are encouraged to grow more.

Banana jam

Everline said the group has further adapted quick banana ripening methods to cope with the demand, which apart from being used as sweeteners for other banana flour products are also used to make banana jam.

To do this, the group uses a ripening chamber that resembles a cupboard where the bananas are laid on several top shelves while the bottom one is lined with avocado.

"Locked in the ripening chamber, avocado produces gas that works as a catalyst to banana ripening process and instead of five days, it takes two days and a half to get ripe and ready for use bananas,” she said.

In this way, the group is able to cope with the soaring demand that comes from domestic consumers as well as small scale entrepreneurs who are using banana flour to bake things which they once depended on wheat flour alone.

After this value addition, the group’s income increased almost immediately, jumping from $2,800 to $10,800 a year.

The group also adds value to milk collected from villagers to make a yoghurt-like product called Malla amongst the Kisiis. Nyemesa said Malla though is not made by using the start-up culture that yoghurt uses.

Saying why she chose banana flour over wheat, a cake vendor known as Maria said banana is cheaper by almost half compared to wheat, making her products more affordable and in turn increasing her sales volumes.

Again, using traditional methods, the group grows and dries vegetables which are then packed for sale.

Nyamesa says they decided to preserve vegetables as well because of the need for food security caused by unpredictable climate change.

"By doing this we are ensuring food supply for the future instead of throwing them away as is the case when they are sold fresh,” he said.