When Mr Kefa Ondoma stubbornly abandoned school at P.6 in 1997, he had no idea where he would end up.
All he wanted was to plant some sweet bananas for his own consumption after all his father had unutilised chunk of land and Mr Ondoma was his only boy child.
But once into farming, he realised that he could do good business by growing and producing banana in large quantities.
His resilience has however propelled him to become Arua district’s leading banana farmer in a region where banana is not a staple food.
Mr Ondoma started by planting a few suckers of a local banana variety. He lost some of the plants to pests and ate most of what he was able to harvest.
The small bunches that were sold nonetheless encouraged Mr Ondoma to plant more in the next season.
Mr Ondoma says he preferred banana over other crops because it is a perennial crop which yields all year round. The yields peak from September to November and March to May.
“Banana is not popular menu for lunch and supper for most people in West Nile but an increasing number of people prefer it as accompaniment for tea in the morning and that was what I capitalized on,” he says.
With the crop in the backyard, one is also assured of food security for his family while fetching cash to cater for other needs, he adds.
But he did not have the knowledge and skills to grow and look after banana. He suffered repeated attacks from banana bacterial wilt which at one time forced him to destroy the entire plantation and plant afresh to wipe out the disease.
NAADS comes in
In 2002 a new dawn fell on Mr Ondoma when the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS), the predecessor to operation wealth creation was piloted in Arua district. Mr Ondoma was among the pioneer demonstration farmers.
The 37-year-old resident of Tinakaku village in Cieba parish, Logiri Sub County says the skills training, advise from extension workers and supply of 500 suckers by the government was a game changer for him.
He planted the suckers spacing them three square metres apart as was taught. He practiced banana family planning by making sure he left three to four plants to grow in one place so as not to compete for food.
He did routine pruning to remove dry leaves off the tall, sturdy plants and removed the male buds when the fingers finish developing. This helps him to keep off bees and birds that transmit bacterial wilt from one banana to another.
Mr Ondoma says during pruning, he uses detergent to wash the cutter after removing dry leaves on plants at one spot so that disease from such plants cannot be transmitted to plants on another spot through the implement.
He weeds the gardens frequently and relies on family labour to mulch with dry banana leaves and stalks of mature bananas after harvest. This keeps the plants well aerated and healthy.
His 5.5 acres containing 2,500 bananas is well drained and dissected with contours that trap rain water.
“Banana has exposed me to come into conduct with big people that uneducated person like me would never have met,” he quipped.
It is such knowledge and experience that has turned Mr Ondoma into a consultant on banana farming. People hire him to train workers on their fields or supervise actual planting and management of their farms at a fee.
Two years ago, Mr Ondoma decided to add coffee farming and planted 1,000 seedlings to add to his banana farm.
That venture prompted the government to help Mr Ondoma to set up an irrigation system by construction a solar powered water pumping system.
This year, he expanded his plantation to seven acres, adding 650 more banana suckers to the stalk.
Mr Ondoma does not take his plantains to the market but rather sells from the farm since he is now well-known.
His primary clients are the big hotels in Arua town and Juba based traders who go in trucks to buy plantains from the farm.
Individual buyers also ride on bicycles to buy for family food or resell in the town at a higher price.
School festivals and wedding parties are other occasional opportunities for selling his bananas which he charges between sh8,000 to sh25,000 depending on the size of the fruit.
He says the banana business has kept him immobile because clients drop on him anytime of the day.
Mr Ondoma earns up to sh3m from banana sales during the peak season and sh300,000 monthly during the off peak.
Meanwhile at sh1,000 banana suckers are the quickest cash earner for Mr Ondoma.
He keeps the money in the bank to cater for medium to long term needs while for emergency needs he saves part of his earnings in a village group savings scheme.
Mr Ondoma says banana farming has helped him to not only gain fame but also keep his family well fed and looked after.
He has five children whose school fees he pays without problems.
His dream of sleeping in an iron roofed house has also come true and he is already thinking about a bigger house and a shopping centre.
Mr Ondoma’s banana plantations are frequently disturbed by thieves, especially lazy villagers who steal bunches of plantains from the fields.
He lacks a means of transport that could enable him to sell the produce in the market where the prices are higher than the farm gate price.
Buying a truck to take his produce to the market is one of Mr Ondoma’s top priorities.
He is also planning to increase his acreage of banana plantation as he still has eight acres of idle land that he inherited from his father.
He says planting more bananas would enable him to meet the demands of the huge market both within and in neighbouring countries.
Advice to farmers
Mr Ondoma says banana farming is and endeavour that requires complete attention of the farmer.
This means a farmer must not grow very many different crops so as to give the bananas ample time.
“A farmer needs to spend at least eight hours daily in the field. You have to look after banana plants closely and space them well,” he advised.
He also cautioned farmers to beware of the kind of suckers they plant saying that they need to plant pure suckers instead of water suckers that have wide leaves and waterlogged pseudo-stems that do not give proper yields.