How plantain can boost food security, farmers’ income

Scientists and agricultural extension researchers have said root, tuber and plantain farmers can make greater returns on their investments, prevent post-harvest losses and contribute to all-year-round food availability and security with value addition using simple processing technologies.

A Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) report says on the average, plantain post-harvest losses and transformed (value added) quantities in the world are about 11.5 percent and 11 percent, respectively, while the remaining percentage is consumed as staple food without value addition.

Based on the categorisation of utilisation by FAO, ripe or unripe plantain pulps are cooked in water or vapour and eaten in developing countries mostly. Also, unripe cooked plantain pounded in a mortar is made into pastry eaten with sauce of various types, and this constitutes a staple for millions of Africans.

Again, ripe or unripe plantain pulps are roasted on charcoal fire, eaten with groundnuts, sauce or stew. It constitutes a great percentage of plantain consumption. Equally, unripe plantain pulps are cooked with water, meat or fish, palm oil, salt and various spices.

In semi-industrialised usage, slices of unripe or ripe plantain pulps are fried in palm oil or other vegetable oils, packaged in sachets and eaten as snacks. Elastic pastry (amala) is also prepared from plantain flour and boiling water. And the powder is made by sun-drying or flash-drying and grinding the plantain pulps, as explained by FAO.

Plantain chips
Plantain chips are products of semi-industrialisation of plantain and they constitute a more popular plantain product in Nigeria. They are prepared by frying round slices of unripe or slightly ripe plantains in vegetable or bleached palm oil. According to FOA, plantain chips packed in plastic sachets could stay crispy and wholesome for more than four months at room temperature and away from sunlight.

It says nutritionally, they contain less than 35 percent of fats and between one to three percent residual humidity. The production and marketing of plantain chips in Africa, including Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, FAO added, are on the increase, and principally they feminine activities. However, young boys and men on interstate and major city roads have taken over selling larger volumes of the chips. Some industries have been developed along the plantain value chains, and these industrial or semi-industrial units use various equipment, making it possible to mechanise certain activities in the production chains.

The Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi (FIIRO), in one of its research documents, says the national yearly demand for plantain chips is over 150,000 metric tonnes consumed mostly at homes (as dodo), workplaces and schools, including universities and other institutions of higher learning.FIIRO stated that essential equipment needed for chips production include motorised slicers, stainless frying pans, gas or charcoal burners, sealing machines and packaging materials. Other raw materials are vegetable oil and salt/sugar/honey as well as pepper.

Basic steps in chips production, it added, include sorting of plantain fingers, washing, peeling, slicing, salting, deep-frying, draining/cooling and packaging. A professor of Agricultural Extension at the Federal University of Agriculture (FUNAAB), Prof. Kolawole Adebayo, explained that plantain is mostly consumed fresh, boiled or fried, saying, “The value chain is therefore basic.”He said, “In some parts of the country, sun-dried plantain value chain offers new opportunities in plantain flour and more value addition in terms of packaging, labelling and the growth of niche and even export markets for plantain flour.”

The farm extension scholar said the value chain activities required greater support for farmers so that Nigeria could grow its gross domestic product (GDP) and maximise more benefits from plantain production.Value addition through drying of plantain slices is recommended, he added, advising farmers that to get greater returns on their farm investments, “Fried unripe plantain value chain also offers an attractive option.”

Plantain flour production
Unripe plantain is processed, mostly traditionally, into flour in Nigeria and in other West and Central African countries for various confectioneries and pastry staples.

The preparation procedures include peeling of plantains with the hands, cutting the pulps into small pieces, and air drying them for few days. The dried pulp is then ground in a wooden mortar or a corn grinder. The flour produced is mixed with boiling water to prepare an elastic pastry (amala) which is eaten with various sauces.

The FAO’s document states that the colour of the flour obtained is more or less dark due to the action of browning enzymes. Researcher Ngalani says “Blanching the plantain pulp at 80_C for about five minutes and cutting them into round pieces, followed by draining and drying in a drying oven at 65_C for 48 hours or in the sun for some days resulted in the production of a more or less whitish flour.”

Improved devices for plantain industrialisation
At a more industrial level, air-drying or sun-drying of plantain pulps for days is space-demanding, time-wasting and uneconomical. Processing tonnes of plantains this way would require a lot of space for spreading of plantain slices; would take four to five days of adequate sunlight and would keep production equipment shut for that long, and hence keep marketers and buyers of such products wasting time.

However, these constraints have been eliminated and drying is almost instantaneous with the development and use of parabolic-shaped acrylic solar dryers and flash dryers, devices that dry root, tuber and plantain pulps in hours and minutes respectively.

The Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute’s parabolic-shape solar dryers have proven to be efficient in semi-industrial drying of agricultural products for effective post-harvest management. Acting Executive Director of the institute, Dr Patricia Pessu, explained the functionality of the device to The Guardian during an interview recently, saying, “Losses start from improper drying of crops after harvests. If grains or other crops are not properly dried before storage, mouldiness sets in and insects attack them easily.”

With the solar dryers, she added, the heat is trapped in an enclosure, and, “this implies that the product can dry very fast, contaminants eliminated and products are more hygienically processed. We have come up with different solar tents for different products to reduce the agro-product losses.“We recommend post-harvest technologies based on the product, capacity and the financial capability of the farmer or processor.”

With the intense build-up of heat, blanched plantain slices could dry to acceptable levels in one or two days maximising space, as against four to five days using direct sun or air-drying. Explaining the process of making plantain flour using a flash dryer, a fabricator for World Bank projects in Africa, Mr Idowu Adeoya, who also works with FUNAAB on Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation agricultural projects, said strands of plantain are washed, peeled, sliced and grated (the same way garri is processed) in addition to some special handlings, and the grated plantains are flash-dried in about 30 minutes. He added that the flash-dried granulated matters would be ground into fine powder, allowed to cool and packaged into various sizes.

Five tonnes (5,000kgs) of fresh plantains, he emphasised, would give above one tonne (1,000kgs) of plantain powder for amala and other pastry staples. Plantain farmers could use the facilities of processors for a fee or team up to buy processing facilities of their own, he explained.

A market survey of plantain flour in Lagos indicated that a one-kg pack is sold in supermarkets at the rate of N1,000, while the manufacturers bulk-sell to them at about N800 per kg of the flour. Adeoya argued that farmers would make times three, at least, of their regular incomes if they could process their plantain into flour, saying elderly, diabetic and health-conscious people do demand the product, making it a hotcake.

Plantain flour containing 10 percent of residual humidity and hermetically sealed in plastic sachets, according to a report by FAO, could be kept for many months without deterioration in qualities. Immediate ex-Deputy Vice Chancellor at the Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta (FUNAAB), Prof. Lateef Sanni, who is also a crop value chain specialist, said, “Strengthening plantain value chain means systematic planting, harvesting and processing that seek to increase the yield, reduce post-harvest losses, enhance incomes and thus boosting food security in our nation.”

Prof. Sanni added that a robust profitable plantain value chain would offer value added products to the consumers with easy access, available and affordable opportunities.“Plantain is a nutrient-based crop for the young and elderly, healthy and diabetic patients, men and women, and the rich and poor communities. Plantain value chain offers billions of naira returns to input suppliers, farmers, processors, marketers, transporters and other key actors in the value chain.

“Farmers should adopt staggered planting of plantain suckers to spread periods of harvest and minimise give-away prices,” he said. “They should learn to do minimal farm gate processing.”The don said contract farming could be another option available to the farmers, saying, this should be possible with the current Anchor Borrowers’ scheme of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and states. Cooperative farming scheme, he added, would cluster farmers and processors in an industrial hub to ensure easy marketing.

Director of Research and Head of Procurement at the National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT), Ibadan, in Oyo State, Dr Lawrence Olajide-Taiwo, advised farmers and youths to examine and explore the available opportunities in plantain value addition. He added that plantain sucker nurseries, soap making from peels and ancillary goat/sheep-rearing business could become goldmines, for the peels are used in feeding goats and sheep, thereby reducing cost of production.


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