MAPUTO — Mozambique’s Ministry of Agriculture has imposed a ban on the movement of bananas from the northern provinces of Nampula and Cabo Delgado to other parts of the country to prevent the spread of a fungal disease, fusarium wilt, which can wipe out banana production entirely.

Fusarium wilt, popularly known as the Panama disease, is caused by a soil-borne fungus which is almost impossible to eradicate. It stays in the soil for an indefinite period and resists chemical pesticides.

In the 1950s, fusarium wilt wiped out most commercial production of the then dominant strain of banana, the Gros Michel variety. Producers switched to other, more resistant varieties, but the fungus has adapted, and is now threatening the world’s most popular banana variety, the Cavendish.

The disease has spread through Asian countries such as Philippine and Indonesia, and it was from the Philippines that the fungus reached Mozambique.

The disease has been detected in two farms of the Jacaranda company in Cabo Delgado and in the plantation of the Matanuska company in Nampula. Matanuska suffered major losses on 1,550 hectares, which led to the company declaring bankruptcy last month.

Part of the Matanuska crisis can be laid at the door of the Norwegian government’s development finance institution, Norfund, which was one of the founding investors in Matanuska, putting 27 million US dollars into the company.

Initially all seemed to be going well and production at Matanuska began in 2008, and at its peak it was exporting 1,400 tonnes of bananas a day, according to a report in the latest issue of the well-informed Mozambique News Reports and Clippings, published by a London-based journalist, Joseph Hanlon.

However, in 2013, the Panama disease struck, although the fungus had never been seen in Africa before.

The source of the disease has been identified. The head of plant pathology in the Agriculture Ministry, Antonia Vaz, said last month that the fungus came to Matanuska on the boots of two workers from the Philippines. In other words, the company management failed to take the basic precaution of cleaning the footwear of workers from a country where Panama disease is rampant.

Vaz fears the disease can destroy the entire Mozambican banana industry within a decade.

The Agriculture Ministry has now suspended all banana production at Matanuska. The two Jacaranda farms are allowed to continue production, but under strict quarantine.

No bananas can be moved out of Nampula and Cabo Delgado, nor can any seedling or other propagating materials. Access to the affected farms is banned to everybody except their workers, plant health technicians, and other authorised persons.

As for bananas on sale within the two provinces, they should be washed and disinfected with fungicide, and transported under safe conditions. The packaging material, such as boxes and sacks, must be treated so as to remove all soil and dust.