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Kerning Cultures

Somalia’s Banana Battles

You might remember Somali bananas from your childhood, lining the shelves at your local supermarket. During the late 80s and early 90s, Somalia made millions of dollars exporting its coveted bananas to Italy and the Middle East. But this thriving export business ground to a halt suddenly in 1991, when the country was thrown into the grip of a civil war.

Decades later, farmers have returned home to try and bring the Somali banana back to its former glory. But with so much standing in their way – ruined farmland, the threat of Al Shabab, and the ghosts of warring militias and multinational banana companies – will they succeed?

This episode was produced by Nadeen Shaker and Sawsan Abdillahi and edited by Dana Ballout and Alex Atack. Fact checking was by Deena Sabry and sound design by Monzer El-Hachem. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar and Finbar Anderson.

Find a transcript for this episode at our website.

Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $2 a month.


Hosted on Acast. See acast.com/privacy for more information.

[STING]

MUNA: Can I Interview you about bananas? 

VOX POP: Sure.

DANA BALLOUT: Our story today starts in Minneapolis, the Somali heartland of America. The place is Quruxlow restaurant. And we’re asking people about a staple of Somali cuisine, a mascot to some: the Somali banana.

MUNA: So the question is, where do you think bananas originated from?

VOX POP: Somalia.

MUNA:  Okay? How do you think that story went?

VOX POP: So I’m thinking, there was this farmer, and so he was hungry too, it was really hot, it was like 3pm, the sun was boiling down on him, so then he knocked on the tree trunk and these mystical yellow bananas came. And then he’s like huuuh, he took them, he ran into the village, and he’s like – these are bananas. They’re going to be called  bananas.

MUNA: When do you think the first banana was discovered? 

VOX POP: I think it started with some girl in [unclear] , who saw a banana, maybe in the 500s, you know? Back in the day. Herding camels somewhere. And I think she’s the one that made that choice.

MUNA: What do you think her name was?

VOX POP: My sister’s name is [Luthan] and I feel like a [Luthan] would do it, you know? Old, original Somali names.

VOX POP: I reckon the first Somali was born with a banana in their hand. 

MUNA: When would you say the relationship between Somalis and bananas will end?

VOX POP: Will end? Never. Till jinnah and infinity and beyond. 

DANA BALLOUT: Bananas hold a special place in Somali culture. They’re a staple of the Somali diet; an essential part to main dishes like bassto and suugo or bariis isku kariis

And the bananas that come from Somalia are special. They’re sweeter, tastier, and a bit smaller than the usual ones you see in the supermarket.

And if you grew up in the Middle East or North Africa in the 80s and early 90s, maybe in Saudi Arabia or Lebanon, you might’ve spotted Somali bananas among all the other varieties at the supermarket.

At the time, they were everywhere. Because Somalia was a major player in the African banana business. By the late 90s, it was the largest exporter in East Africa, and tens of thousands of farmers across the country depended on this very humble, but sweet fruit.  

All of that, though, changed in 1991.

Somalia descended into a civil war which completely devastated the country – and with it, the banana industry. Exports dried up, and just like that, Somali bananas vanished.

But, not forever. Today, a story about how a single crop can become so entangled in a country’s history, in its freedom from colonialism, its boom and its bust. 

[ARCHIVE]

DANA BALLOUT: Producers Nadeen Shaker and Sawsan Abdillahi came to this story after catching  news headlines about the resurgence of Somali bananas. It had been years since they’d even seen or heard anything about this fruit. And so, they decided to look further into it.

NADEEN SHAKER: And I texted you and I was like, hey, this is what’s happening. And I know, or I felt from your voice that you were a little bit sceptical about it. 

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: You know, initially when we had to start looking for farmers to corroborate this, I think very early on I spoke to two farmers, and I remember both of them telling us, we can’t sell anything. And I’m like, okay, where’s this comeback?

DANA BALLOUT: Was it just the media getting overexcited, or were Somali bananas truly making a comeback? Today we dig into the true story of the history behind Somali bananas and we’ll find out if  we will ever see or taste Somali bananas again. Here’s Nadeen.

NADEEN SHAKER: When Sawsan and I started investigating the possible return of Somalia bananas, nothing prepared us for what we would find. Articles and news reports from across the world were specifically claiming that Somalis from the diaspora were partly responsible for the banana comeback, because they were returning to Somalia to revive their family farms. But, finding one of those diaspora farmers to talk to wasn’t the exactly straightforward. 

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: I mean, we, we, it’s not like you can go on Google and say like, Somali farmers, you know what I mean?

NADEEN SHAKER: … although admittedly I secretly tried doing that. 

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: So we had to tap into the Somali diaspora network. There was even a Somali farmers group that I was pushed to.

NADEEN SHAKER: After being handed from one person to another, and talking to several farmers in rural Somalia, we finally found Koshin Garane.

KOSHIN GARANE: Hello Nadeen, its very nice to meet you. I know this has been in the works for a long time. My name is Koshin [Kafar] Garane, I’m 38 years old. Born in 1984 in Mogadishu.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Because the internet was so poor in the part of Somalia where Koshin lives, getting on a call with good audio was nearly impossible. So at first, we were sending each other WhatsApp voice notes.

KOSHIN GARANE: I was around 5, 6 years old when the civil war took place in 1991 so I fled with my family. I’ve since lived in many different countries. And since then obviously I’ve come back to Somalia to try and run the family farm. So the farm is around 500 hectares and previously it used to be used as a bananas plantation, completely, whereby we mostly exported to the European Union. Now, however, we use it as a mixed farm, producing a lot of other stuff, mostly grains, sesame, other types of fruit.

NADEEN SHAKER: Very quickly during our interview with Koshin, he led us down this crazy rabbit hole about the larger history of banana farming in Somalia: the outsized role this one fruit played in Somalia’s  tumultuous past. Commercial family farms like Koshin’s are where the banana industry in Somalia was born, and where it eventually unravelled. These farms bore witness to how bananas  were used as an instrument of power by the people who held the reins of the country. Starting with the Italians.

KOSHIN GARANE: I only found out a few years ago that literally it was only the Italians that introduced it. Somalis would never eat bananas. So it’s relatively new, but it’s so incorporated with Somali culture now. It’s amazing.

NADEEN SHAKER: Somalia was colonised by the Italian Empire in 1889. And by the 1920s, Somalia was split into two. The north western part was run by the British and the rest was a colony of Italy. 

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: The Italians came up with the idea to convert their part of the country – an extremely fertile V–shaped river valley called the Shebelle valley in southern Somalia – into huge banana plantations.

KOSHIN GARANE: So they planned for this part of Africa to be like the African Riviera, basically. And the first Italian investors were actually the Italian royal family. And they built like a big farming community where they set up a few plantations; they set up small railways connecting these plantations to Mogadishu.

NADEEN SHAKER: The Italians also established an extensive irrigation system that’s still around today, as well as roads, and even a port in Mogadishu. But only the colonial government was allowed to export bananas.  They established the Royal Banana Monopoly Firm, which had full control of the export and transport of Somali bananas to Italy. It owned a fleet of ships known as the RAMBs, which transported refrigerated bananas from Somalia all the way to Italy. Not only that, Somali bananas had special access in the Italian market because any other banana from anywhere other than Somalia was basically taxed. And to make sure there was a market for the bananas once they arrived, they created a demand for Somali bananas.

KOSHIN GARANE: They actually made it the law that Italian children would have to be served bananas in schools, like as part of their school meal. Every child needs a banana a day for health reasons, nutritional reasons. So, they created that market.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: As Somali bananas rose to become an international commodity, banana exports grew fast under the Italians. Between 1936 and 1955, Somalia produced 94 billion tons of banana. But to keep exports this high, the colonial authorities depended heavily on enslaved Somalis to carry out the labour on their farms.

KOSHIN GARANE: They would round up a bunch of people. They would work. It was kind of a weird form of crop sharing whereby they would work on the banana plantations and they’d be given a little piece of land to grow whatever they need to eat, like maize or sesame or whatever else, cash crop they want to grow. And the other part of their sort of working life, they work on the plantations.

NADEEN SHAKER: Some researchers even documented how women were forcibly sold into marriage to bear children in order to produce more hands in the farms. In other cases, a bachelor tax was imposed on unmarried men.

KOSHIN GARANE: It did start off in a very violent way. A lot of people were kidnapped, a lot of people were enslaved or taken as serfs but later it developed into real industries.

NADEEN SHAKER: After Somali independence from Italy in 1960, Somali land ownership became more common, and land deeds moved from Italian to Somali hands. Many Italians left. And those who stayed grew old and eventually sold off their land – which is how Koshin’s family first bought their farms.

KOSHIN GARANE: The owners of our farm, Slanzi, the man and the wife, didn’t have children. They grew old and I don’t know if they could, you know, manage it by themselves and the security was getting a little poor also. So they moved away to Italy. 

NADEEN SHAKER: Siad Barre came to power as a result of a military coup, and then he started nationalising most of Somalia’s banana plantations – so now, the government owned nearly all of them, alongside the few Italians owners who remained in Somalia. Barre’s government made big investments in the banana industry; he gave out loans to farmers, developed the irrigation schemes to cover more land, and was able to put foreign earnings into programmes like mass education and women empowerment initiatives.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: But all this wasn’t paying off. In 1981, Somalia asked the international community for help, and took out an IMF loan. As part of the loan agreements, a new (joint) venture, dubbed Somalfruit, was established. Under Somalfruit, Somali plantation owners, alongside Italian investors, were given a bigger share in banana production and ownership. Koshin’s dad made the most of this partnership.

KOSHIN GARANE: It was in my dad’s generation that it really got to, you know, start big operations through export with Somalfruit. And this was when it was functioning at its most optimum, I would say.

NADEEN SHAKER: This was the heyday of the banana industry in Somalia. Banana exports to Italy and new markets in the Middle East reached their peak around the late 80s to early 90s. In 1990 specifically, banana exports were higher than in any other year. Somalia was able to sell 75 billion tons of banana and make about 25 million dollars in foreign earnings, making it one of the top exporters in the whole of Africa.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: But Somalia’s economy was walking an ever–narrowing path. The intense focus on selling to foreign markets ultimately ended up creating a banana production culture entirely dependent on exports. On top of that, Somalis got a rather small piece of the banana pie, just a quarter  of it to be precise. This export–oriented model fell on its head when the civil war hit in 1991, and the banana industry collapsed. 

NEWSREEL: [Outbreak of Somali civil war]

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: The civil war began as an armed resistance to Siad Barre’s regime, which grew into a much larger conflict between various competing factions after he was overthrown.

RAPHAEL NJUKO: So what was happening after the fall of Said Barre was that the various factions were vying for power.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: This is Raphael Njoku, a professor of African history and culture at Idaho state university.

RAPHAEL NJUKO: And they saw the banana industry as a source of life wire to their powers.

NADEEN SHAKER: One of the generals who came to power to challenge the socialist president at the time was a man named Mohamed Farah Aidid.

RAPHAEL NJUKO: Farah Aidid was one of the warlords. If you look at some of the World Bank statistics, Farah Aideed for instance required $25,000 weekly or so to support his militia men.

NADEEN SHAKER: Another estimate put this number at around 40,000 dollars weekly – for Farah Aideed to keep his militia in operation.

RAPHAEL NJUKO: So he needed the little tax he was able to extract from the banana industry to keep himself in power and pay off those within his militia. 

NADEEN SHAKER: Basically, Aidid taxed every crate of bananas being shipped abroad to finance himself and his militia. And to get that money, Aidid partnered with a new multinational company in town.

ARCHIVE: [Dole television commercials]

KOSHIN GARANE: So have you heard of Dole, D–O–L–E, the American Food Company? 

ARCHIVE: [Dole television commercials]

KOSHIN GARANE: So, Dole came into Somalia as a competitor to Somalfruit. And this is how the Banana War started.

ARCHIVE: [Dole television commercials]

NADEEN SHAKER: Dole: that red lettered sticker with a ray of sunshine piercing through the O, you see on almost all bananas in the U.S. and worldwide – that same Dole saw an opportunity to cash in on Somali bananas after production was suspended for a few years after the civil war.

RAPHAEL NJUKO: Farrah Aidid partnered with Dole. And Dole, they broke the monopoly of Somalfruit or they challenged the monopoly of Somalfruit. So Farah Aidid empowered Dole to take control of the export industry. And of course they were giving him good amount of returns.

NADEEN SHAKER: And so began the battle between Dole and Somalfruit. Sometimes Aideed would play Dole and Somalfruit against one another, making deals with whoever could produce the most for export. But the competition was fierce and it led to an open conflict between both companies, a conflict that spiralled into violence.

KOSHIN GARANE: So Dole would sort of, you know, impede on Somalfruit’s, trucks, shoot up the trucks as they’re going to ports, you know, generally making it very difficult for operations to continue. And this is how the banana war started, because Somalfruit in retaliation started also, you know, playing the same dirty games, arming themselves and, you know, guarding the banana truck convoys to the port with armed men. And so it went like that. 

RAPHAEL NJUKO: Let me just say that it came to a point where militia men would drive by and shoot the other business employees or even small producers in their farms. You know, it wasn’t much killings, I don’t think it was that. And the fact was, most people, most people run away from their farms because these militia men popping now and then.

RAPHAEL NJUKO: Afraid of their lives, some people run away. And of course then when killings came, sporadic or you know, here and there, people are shot over. What their stand was and who should control the banana industry, that was when the whole industry began to collapse. And I think by 1997, everything came to a standstill.

NADEEN SHAKER: Eventually Dole scaled down on their activities, and in late 1996 pulled out of Somalia due to disagreements over paying the militias. But on the ground, people like Koshin were deeply affected by the in–fighting from the banana war. Irrigation systems were ruined, ports were destroyed. The only option left for most farmers was to flee their farms and not look back.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Koshin’s family which included his eight siblings stayed at the farm, where around 400 militia men were either hiding out or guarding the area at the height of the war. But they needed to find a way out quick, so his dad, who was in Nairobi, got in touch with Koshin’s family through high frequency radio and told them about a ship.

KOSHIN GARANE: A ship that was leaving for Yemen that will depart from a city called Kismayo, which is basically 600 miles or kilometres south of us. But the waves were really large. A lot of people couldn’t swim, dangerous at night, no inflatable life savers. So after 10 miles of the ocean, we came back to land again and we decided to go the car route. We went to the city; my mom had some friends who had a house there, so we stayed there overnight and my dad basically organized for a small Cessna to land at Kismayo to basically take the nine of us.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Then, they boarded a flight to Nairobi. 

KOSHIN GARANE: And one of the most vivid images I have is when the plane landed, there was like a small bag full of Mirandas and Cokes basically, which I hadn’t had for a few good months. So the biggest memory I have of escape was basically flying away on the plane and drinking a cold Miranda as we landed in Nairobi, basically to safety.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: After the break, Koshin begins his journey back to Somalia and starts on a mission to bring the banana industry back to life.

[MIDROLL]

NADEEN SHAKER: After fleeing Somalia, Koshin’s family moved around a lot. He lived in Pakistan and the UK, and then worked with his dad at his NGO in Ethiopia for eight years.

KOSHIN GARANE: The reason why I came back to Africa was because I saw that the future was kind of dim in Europe for a young guy like me, And because I ended up in Ethiopia I always thought that if the Somali situation became better, I’ll obviously come back to the farm. So it was a plan that sort of, you know, revealed itself. 

NADEEN SHAKER: In 2016, he decided to move back and revive his family farm. 

KOSHIN GARANE: Before I came here, I had an image of me coming back here, producing a hell of a lot of bananas, making a ton of money, sitting around with my Panamanian hat, going to the beach, enjoying myself. Sadly, that has not been the case.

NADEEN SHAKER: When he came back, the farm was unrecognisable from the idyllic image he had from his childhood.

KOSHIN GARANE: There is overgrowth in a lot of areas, or a lot of the equipment is just rusted through. It feels very nostalgic because all around you is signs of bygone days of prosperity.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: The civil war left Somali farmland in ruins. Unattended for almost two decades, the land was overgrown with invasive plant species – it tore through entire farms and according to Koshin, was so deadly that if a thorn were to prick you, you’d need to amputate a limb. But he slowly got rid of the overgrowth, and began to get the farm back under control. He tried not to put too much emotion into it.

KOSHIN GARANE: Feelings is, I don’t know. I don’t know how to describe what you feel. But, I’m just started thinking in the terms of objective goals. Like, I came here, I saw the situation, I have a plan of how to bring it back or how to improve the situation so we could make some new production.

Your job as a farmer, it’s never done. You cut weed growth, it regrows. You make a canal, and because of the silting, it’ll be buried up, so you need to dig it again. You grow a crop, you harvest it, you need to replant it. So nothing is in a fully done state at the farm. It’s a cyclical thing.

NADEEN SHAKER: But things have not been easy for Koshin because of  the economic and security situation in the country. He came back with a plan to revive his farm and perhaps start exporting some of the fruit that grew on it. 

Working on this story, we were also excited for what Koshin was doing – me personally I romanticised it in my head a bit: here is someone from the Somali diaspora returning to live off the land, while also helping to rebuild his country. It sounded exciting. So naturally we thought he would be one of those farmers making a comeback. 

NADEEN SHAKER: I wanted to ask how much of the bananas make it to markets abroad? 

KOSHIN GARANE: We don’t export. No, we don’t export now. So our production does not even cover the domestic demand. There’s no talk of export because exports takes a lot of, you know, organisation, linkages working in lockstep, and none of that exists.

NADEEN SHAKER: He told us that a group of NGOs tried pilot projects to export abroad, but they were only that: one–off pilot projects. No one was ready to finance the sector, which is in terrible need of infrastructure and equipment, a facelift to the port and a redo of the roads. It would take billions of dollars of investments, if not more. Plus they would need to find a way to evade the control of Al–Shabab, a militant group based in Somalia, who tax the food trucks passing their checkpoints on the roads.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Koshin, what percentage are we talking? How much are they taking?

KOSHIN GARANE: It’s a bunch of little stuff, but when you add it up, it can go, I think its upwards of 50 percent. You know, for example, so you’d be taxed on your produce, on the bananas itself. Then there would be a separate tax for the car going down a particular highway. Then there’d be a sales tax.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: With Al Shabab forcing farmers to split their profits and the economy already in shambles, Koshin says farmers don’t even produce enough bananas to cover domestic demand. On top of that, they don’t have enough government support to help with upgrading equipment and infrastructure.

We were surprised, and frankly a little disappointed, to find out that Somali bananas were in fact not making a comeback

To be sure and to shake off our denialism, we posed the question to Dr. Hussein Haji, a banana tissue plant breeder and the Executive Director of Somali Agriculture Technical Group, which is working to research innovative solutions in the Somali agriculture sector.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Do you think Somali bananas are making a comeback?

HUSSEIN HAJI: Well, I think sometimes there’s some exaggeration into that. People like for the banana to come back – Somali Banana – and we like too, but there’s a reality on the ground that this would not happen shortly or in a very short period of time.

The country is not ready yet for banana export. There have been so many attempts since the civil unrest until now  but it has not happened yet. Having said that doesn’t mean that it will not happen. The potential is there.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Dr. Haji says that there are some obstacles getting in the way of ripe banana exports and if they were removed, Somalia could truly make a comeback. Lack of security and infrastructure were two of the most important ones. Others included the high cost of banana production in Somalia because of the immense resources put into irrigating banana trees, and not having available banana packing stations.

HUSSEIN HAJI: So it’s something that can be worked out and and it can be brought back, but it needs it needs all stakeholders coming together like, the financial institutions, the commercial farmers, the investors who will be interested for banana export, the banks to support the banana farmers and the technology also.

NADEEN SHAKER: Technologies such as the one Dr. Haji and his group have been developing themselves.

HUSSEIN HAJI: And among the technologies that we have been testing for many years, includes the tissue culture.

NADEEN SHAKER: Tissue culture is basically a type of cloning. 

HUSSEIN HAJI: So basically what you do is you take a small tissue from banana and you multiply it in the lab, and from one plant, maybe you multiply it to a thousand or 2000 plants in the laboratory.

NADEEN SHAKER: Using genetic modification would streamline the production process – making it less labour intensive, less resource intensive – but friendlier on the  environment. And whereas the way bananas have been grown for centuries in Somalia was destructive, this could be a more sustainable way of doing it – a process that could contribute to the rebirth of Somali bananas.

HUSSEIN HAJI: So what is happening now, in fact, we are getting some orders from different parts of Somalia. In fact, last week we shipped 2,000 plants of tissue culture to Hargeisa for a farmer who is interested to start banana plantation in Hargeisa, Somaliland. So, it’s getting momentum and farmers are realizing this the need for the tissue culture plants. So, I hope that in the future when the banana business comes back, all the things will be something that will support and help farmers get a clean plant in the field.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Dr. Haji and his team believe that when the security situation improves in Somalia, everything will fall into place. But until that day comes, they’re determined to push ahead themselves.

HUSSEIN HAJI: You cannot just sit back and say, okay, I’m going to wait for the security to come, so we have decided that we’ll do this work with or without security. So no matter what, because we wanted to make these changes and the time is clicking and you cannot just wait.

I think the Somali community are very resilient. The business community are resilient. Farmers as well. So they want to have a life, they want to live despite the difficulties. And I can guarantee you one thing. If the country’s security is established, a lot of investment will be there available for the country.

NADEEN SHAKER: When that time comes, perhaps the true comeback won’t take the same shape as the banana industry of the 19th and 20th centuries – through a mass export model – but maybe it’ll take a different shape, in which farms like Koshin’s will have a big role to play. But for now, he finds it hard to see the silver lining when he can barely keep his farm running.

KOSHIN GARANE: I’m barely breaking even. But it’s about survival. It’s about maintaining the property as it is so that if there is a change in the political security circumstances, that we may be able to get back to normal.

NADEEN SHAKER: And in this life, away from the city in the seclusion of his land, producing his own food, especially bananas, Koshin has found a new perspective. 

KOSHIN GARANE: I think the banana is a super resilient, super useful fruit for the Somalis. I think that even without exporting it, there will continue to be a demand for bananas in Somalia, which leaves us safe to continue growing it. It’s part of my history. In the olden days, even before the Italians arrived, you know, we used to own a lot of land here, like my particular tribe of people. And so I feel a deep attachment to this land. I’m part of the history or the legacy in terms of my family at this land. And yeah, I see it as a mission to continue that.

NADEEN SHAKER: So bow that we’re almost done with our story, how do you reflect back on our whole experience?

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: I don’t know: I’m never gonna look at bananas the same way af after, after this experience. I’m definitely going to look at bananas in a whole new light. I feel we went into this journey , about Somali bananas, and we’ve uncovered it almost made me reflect on our dependence on Somali bananas, right? Our association with bananas has always been, you know, almost the one thing that can bring back our economy. Should we bring a comeback after we discovered how contentious this crop is? I really don’t think that we should be known as just people who export and produce Somali bananas. I think we definitely need to go beyond that. Stop our reliance on this fruit. Bananas had its time and place. I think it’s time to move on. I’m hopeful.

DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Nadeen Shaker and Sawsan Abdillahi. It was edited by me, Dana Ballout, and Alex Atack. Fact checking was by Deena Sabry, and sound design by Monzer El–Hachem. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar and Finbar Anderson.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: A special thanks to everyone who talked to us for this story: Muna Scekokamar who interviewed people at the restaurant, Koshin Garane, Raphael Njoku, Abdi Samatar, and Hussein Haji. 

DANA BALLOUT: We’ll be back with a new episode next week. Thank you so much for listening. Take care.

[STING]

[STING]

MUNA: Can I Interview you about bananas? 

VOX POP: Sure.

DANA BALLOUT: Our story today starts in Minneapolis, the Somali heartland of America. The place is Quruxlow restaurant. And we’re asking people about a staple of Somali cuisine, a mascot to some: the Somali banana.

MUNA: So the question is, where do you think bananas originated from?

VOX POP: Somalia.

MUNA:  Okay? How do you think that story went?

VOX POP: So I’m thinking, there was this farmer, and so he was hungry too, it was really hot, it was like 3pm, the sun was boiling down on him, so then he knocked on the tree trunk and these mystical yellow bananas came. And then he’s like huuuh, he took them, he ran into the village, and he’s like – these are bananas. They’re going to be called  bananas.

MUNA: When do you think the first banana was discovered? 

VOX POP: I think it started with some girl in [unclear] , who saw a banana, maybe in the 500s, you know? Back in the day. Herding camels somewhere. And I think she’s the one that made that choice.

MUNA: What do you think her name was?

VOX POP: My sister’s name is [Luthan] and I feel like a [Luthan] would do it, you know? Old, original Somali names.

VOX POP: I reckon the first Somali was born with a banana in their hand. 

MUNA: When would you say the relationship between Somalis and bananas will end?

VOX POP: Will end? Never. Till jinnah and infinity and beyond. 

DANA BALLOUT: Bananas hold a special place in Somali culture. They’re a staple of the Somali diet; an essential part to main dishes like bassto and suugo or bariis isku kariis

And the bananas that come from Somalia are special. They’re sweeter, tastier, and a bit smaller than the usual ones you see in the supermarket.

And if you grew up in the Middle East or North Africa in the 80s and early 90s, maybe in Saudi Arabia or Lebanon, you might’ve spotted Somali bananas among all the other varieties at the supermarket.

At the time, they were everywhere. Because Somalia was a major player in the African banana business. By the late 90s, it was the largest exporter in East Africa, and tens of thousands of farmers across the country depended on this very humble, but sweet fruit.  

All of that, though, changed in 1991.

Somalia descended into a civil war which completely devastated the country – and with it, the banana industry. Exports dried up, and just like that, Somali bananas vanished.

But, not forever. Today, a story about how a single crop can become so entangled in a country’s history, in its freedom from colonialism, its boom and its bust. 

[ARCHIVE]

DANA BALLOUT: Producers Nadeen Shaker and Sawsan Abdillahi came to this story after catching  news headlines about the resurgence of Somali bananas. It had been years since they’d even seen or heard anything about this fruit. And so, they decided to look further into it.

NADEEN SHAKER: And I texted you and I was like, hey, this is what’s happening. And I know, or I felt from your voice that you were a little bit sceptical about it. 

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: You know, initially when we had to start looking for farmers to corroborate this, I think very early on I spoke to two farmers, and I remember both of them telling us, we can’t sell anything. And I’m like, okay, where’s this comeback?

DANA BALLOUT: Was it just the media getting overexcited, or were Somali bananas truly making a comeback? Today we dig into the true story of the history behind Somali bananas and we’ll find out if  we will ever see or taste Somali bananas again. Here’s Nadeen.

NADEEN SHAKER: When Sawsan and I started investigating the possible return of Somalia bananas, nothing prepared us for what we would find. Articles and news reports from across the world were specifically claiming that Somalis from the diaspora were partly responsible for the banana comeback, because they were returning to Somalia to revive their family farms. But, finding one of those diaspora farmers to talk to wasn’t the exactly straightforward. 

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: I mean, we, we, it’s not like you can go on Google and say like, Somali farmers, you know what I mean?

NADEEN SHAKER: … although admittedly I secretly tried doing that. 

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: So we had to tap into the Somali diaspora network. There was even a Somali farmers group that I was pushed to.

NADEEN SHAKER: After being handed from one person to another, and talking to several farmers in rural Somalia, we finally found Koshin Garane.

KOSHIN GARANE: Hello Nadeen, its very nice to meet you. I know this has been in the works for a long time. My name is Koshin [Kafar] Garane, I’m 38 years old. Born in 1984 in Mogadishu.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Because the internet was so poor in the part of Somalia where Koshin lives, getting on a call with good audio was nearly impossible. So at first, we were sending each other WhatsApp voice notes.

KOSHIN GARANE: I was around 5, 6 years old when the civil war took place in 1991 so I fled with my family. I’ve since lived in many different countries. And since then obviously I’ve come back to Somalia to try and run the family farm. So the farm is around 500 hectares and previously it used to be used as a bananas plantation, completely, whereby we mostly exported to the European Union. Now, however, we use it as a mixed farm, producing a lot of other stuff, mostly grains, sesame, other types of fruit.

NADEEN SHAKER: Very quickly during our interview with Koshin, he led us down this crazy rabbit hole about the larger history of banana farming in Somalia: the outsized role this one fruit played in Somalia’s  tumultuous past. Commercial family farms like Koshin’s are where the banana industry in Somalia was born, and where it eventually unravelled. These farms bore witness to how bananas  were used as an instrument of power by the people who held the reins of the country. Starting with the Italians.

KOSHIN GARANE: I only found out a few years ago that literally it was only the Italians that introduced it. Somalis would never eat bananas. So it’s relatively new, but it’s so incorporated with Somali culture now. It’s amazing.

NADEEN SHAKER: Somalia was colonised by the Italian Empire in 1889. And by the 1920s, Somalia was split into two. The north western part was run by the British and the rest was a colony of Italy. 

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: The Italians came up with the idea to convert their part of the country – an extremely fertile V–shaped river valley called the Shebelle valley in southern Somalia – into huge banana plantations.

KOSHIN GARANE: So they planned for this part of Africa to be like the African Riviera, basically. And the first Italian investors were actually the Italian royal family. And they built like a big farming community where they set up a few plantations; they set up small railways connecting these plantations to Mogadishu.

NADEEN SHAKER: The Italians also established an extensive irrigation system that’s still around today, as well as roads, and even a port in Mogadishu. But only the colonial government was allowed to export bananas.  They established the Royal Banana Monopoly Firm, which had full control of the export and transport of Somali bananas to Italy. It owned a fleet of ships known as the RAMBs, which transported refrigerated bananas from Somalia all the way to Italy. Not only that, Somali bananas had special access in the Italian market because any other banana from anywhere other than Somalia was basically taxed. And to make sure there was a market for the bananas once they arrived, they created a demand for Somali bananas.

KOSHIN GARANE: They actually made it the law that Italian children would have to be served bananas in schools, like as part of their school meal. Every child needs a banana a day for health reasons, nutritional reasons. So, they created that market.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: As Somali bananas rose to become an international commodity, banana exports grew fast under the Italians. Between 1936 and 1955, Somalia produced 94 billion tons of banana. But to keep exports this high, the colonial authorities depended heavily on enslaved Somalis to carry out the labour on their farms.

KOSHIN GARANE: They would round up a bunch of people. They would work. It was kind of a weird form of crop sharing whereby they would work on the banana plantations and they’d be given a little piece of land to grow whatever they need to eat, like maize or sesame or whatever else, cash crop they want to grow. And the other part of their sort of working life, they work on the plantations.

NADEEN SHAKER: Some researchers even documented how women were forcibly sold into marriage to bear children in order to produce more hands in the farms. In other cases, a bachelor tax was imposed on unmarried men.

KOSHIN GARANE: It did start off in a very violent way. A lot of people were kidnapped, a lot of people were enslaved or taken as serfs but later it developed into real industries.

NADEEN SHAKER: After Somali independence from Italy in 1960, Somali land ownership became more common, and land deeds moved from Italian to Somali hands. Many Italians left. And those who stayed grew old and eventually sold off their land – which is how Koshin’s family first bought their farms.

KOSHIN GARANE: The owners of our farm, Slanzi, the man and the wife, didn’t have children. They grew old and I don’t know if they could, you know, manage it by themselves and the security was getting a little poor also. So they moved away to Italy. 

NADEEN SHAKER: Siad Barre came to power as a result of a military coup, and then he started nationalising most of Somalia’s banana plantations – so now, the government owned nearly all of them, alongside the few Italians owners who remained in Somalia. Barre’s government made big investments in the banana industry; he gave out loans to farmers, developed the irrigation schemes to cover more land, and was able to put foreign earnings into programmes like mass education and women empowerment initiatives.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: But all this wasn’t paying off. In 1981, Somalia asked the international community for help, and took out an IMF loan. As part of the loan agreements, a new (joint) venture, dubbed Somalfruit, was established. Under Somalfruit, Somali plantation owners, alongside Italian investors, were given a bigger share in banana production and ownership. Koshin’s dad made the most of this partnership.

KOSHIN GARANE: It was in my dad’s generation that it really got to, you know, start big operations through export with Somalfruit. And this was when it was functioning at its most optimum, I would say.

NADEEN SHAKER: This was the heyday of the banana industry in Somalia. Banana exports to Italy and new markets in the Middle East reached their peak around the late 80s to early 90s. In 1990 specifically, banana exports were higher than in any other year. Somalia was able to sell 75 billion tons of banana and make about 25 million dollars in foreign earnings, making it one of the top exporters in the whole of Africa.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: But Somalia’s economy was walking an ever–narrowing path. The intense focus on selling to foreign markets ultimately ended up creating a banana production culture entirely dependent on exports. On top of that, Somalis got a rather small piece of the banana pie, just a quarter  of it to be precise. This export–oriented model fell on its head when the civil war hit in 1991, and the banana industry collapsed. 

NEWSREEL: [Outbreak of Somali civil war]

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: The civil war began as an armed resistance to Siad Barre’s regime, which grew into a much larger conflict between various competing factions after he was overthrown.

RAPHAEL NJUKO: So what was happening after the fall of Said Barre was that the various factions were vying for power.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: This is Raphael Njoku, a professor of African history and culture at Idaho state university.

RAPHAEL NJUKO: And they saw the banana industry as a source of life wire to their powers.

NADEEN SHAKER: One of the generals who came to power to challenge the socialist president at the time was a man named Mohamed Farah Aidid.

RAPHAEL NJUKO: Farah Aidid was one of the warlords. If you look at some of the World Bank statistics, Farah Aideed for instance required $25,000 weekly or so to support his militia men.

NADEEN SHAKER: Another estimate put this number at around 40,000 dollars weekly – for Farah Aideed to keep his militia in operation.

RAPHAEL NJUKO: So he needed the little tax he was able to extract from the banana industry to keep himself in power and pay off those within his militia. 

NADEEN SHAKER: Basically, Aidid taxed every crate of bananas being shipped abroad to finance himself and his militia. And to get that money, Aidid partnered with a new multinational company in town.

ARCHIVE: [Dole television commercials]

KOSHIN GARANE: So have you heard of Dole, D–O–L–E, the American Food Company? 

ARCHIVE: [Dole television commercials]

KOSHIN GARANE: So, Dole came into Somalia as a competitor to Somalfruit. And this is how the Banana War started.

ARCHIVE: [Dole television commercials]

NADEEN SHAKER: Dole: that red lettered sticker with a ray of sunshine piercing through the O, you see on almost all bananas in the U.S. and worldwide – that same Dole saw an opportunity to cash in on Somali bananas after production was suspended for a few years after the civil war.

RAPHAEL NJUKO: Farrah Aidid partnered with Dole. And Dole, they broke the monopoly of Somalfruit or they challenged the monopoly of Somalfruit. So Farah Aidid empowered Dole to take control of the export industry. And of course they were giving him good amount of returns.

NADEEN SHAKER: And so began the battle between Dole and Somalfruit. Sometimes Aideed would play Dole and Somalfruit against one another, making deals with whoever could produce the most for export. But the competition was fierce and it led to an open conflict between both companies, a conflict that spiralled into violence.

KOSHIN GARANE: So Dole would sort of, you know, impede on Somalfruit’s, trucks, shoot up the trucks as they’re going to ports, you know, generally making it very difficult for operations to continue. And this is how the banana war started, because Somalfruit in retaliation started also, you know, playing the same dirty games, arming themselves and, you know, guarding the banana truck convoys to the port with armed men. And so it went like that. 

RAPHAEL NJUKO: Let me just say that it came to a point where militia men would drive by and shoot the other business employees or even small producers in their farms. You know, it wasn’t much killings, I don’t think it was that. And the fact was, most people, most people run away from their farms because these militia men popping now and then.

RAPHAEL NJUKO: Afraid of their lives, some people run away. And of course then when killings came, sporadic or you know, here and there, people are shot over. What their stand was and who should control the banana industry, that was when the whole industry began to collapse. And I think by 1997, everything came to a standstill.

NADEEN SHAKER: Eventually Dole scaled down on their activities, and in late 1996 pulled out of Somalia due to disagreements over paying the militias. But on the ground, people like Koshin were deeply affected by the in–fighting from the banana war. Irrigation systems were ruined, ports were destroyed. The only option left for most farmers was to flee their farms and not look back.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Koshin’s family which included his eight siblings stayed at the farm, where around 400 militia men were either hiding out or guarding the area at the height of the war. But they needed to find a way out quick, so his dad, who was in Nairobi, got in touch with Koshin’s family through high frequency radio and told them about a ship.

KOSHIN GARANE: A ship that was leaving for Yemen that will depart from a city called Kismayo, which is basically 600 miles or kilometres south of us. But the waves were really large. A lot of people couldn’t swim, dangerous at night, no inflatable life savers. So after 10 miles of the ocean, we came back to land again and we decided to go the car route. We went to the city; my mom had some friends who had a house there, so we stayed there overnight and my dad basically organized for a small Cessna to land at Kismayo to basically take the nine of us.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Then, they boarded a flight to Nairobi. 

KOSHIN GARANE: And one of the most vivid images I have is when the plane landed, there was like a small bag full of Mirandas and Cokes basically, which I hadn’t had for a few good months. So the biggest memory I have of escape was basically flying away on the plane and drinking a cold Miranda as we landed in Nairobi, basically to safety.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: After the break, Koshin begins his journey back to Somalia and starts on a mission to bring the banana industry back to life.

[MIDROLL]

NADEEN SHAKER: After fleeing Somalia, Koshin’s family moved around a lot. He lived in Pakistan and the UK, and then worked with his dad at his NGO in Ethiopia for eight years.

KOSHIN GARANE: The reason why I came back to Africa was because I saw that the future was kind of dim in Europe for a young guy like me, And because I ended up in Ethiopia I always thought that if the Somali situation became better, I’ll obviously come back to the farm. So it was a plan that sort of, you know, revealed itself. 

NADEEN SHAKER: In 2016, he decided to move back and revive his family farm. 

KOSHIN GARANE: Before I came here, I had an image of me coming back here, producing a hell of a lot of bananas, making a ton of money, sitting around with my Panamanian hat, going to the beach, enjoying myself. Sadly, that has not been the case.

NADEEN SHAKER: When he came back, the farm was unrecognisable from the idyllic image he had from his childhood.

KOSHIN GARANE: There is overgrowth in a lot of areas, or a lot of the equipment is just rusted through. It feels very nostalgic because all around you is signs of bygone days of prosperity.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: The civil war left Somali farmland in ruins. Unattended for almost two decades, the land was overgrown with invasive plant species – it tore through entire farms and according to Koshin, was so deadly that if a thorn were to prick you, you’d need to amputate a limb. But he slowly got rid of the overgrowth, and began to get the farm back under control. He tried not to put too much emotion into it.

KOSHIN GARANE: Feelings is, I don’t know. I don’t know how to describe what you feel. But, I’m just started thinking in the terms of objective goals. Like, I came here, I saw the situation, I have a plan of how to bring it back or how to improve the situation so we could make some new production.

Your job as a farmer, it’s never done. You cut weed growth, it regrows. You make a canal, and because of the silting, it’ll be buried up, so you need to dig it again. You grow a crop, you harvest it, you need to replant it. So nothing is in a fully done state at the farm. It’s a cyclical thing.

NADEEN SHAKER: But things have not been easy for Koshin because of  the economic and security situation in the country. He came back with a plan to revive his farm and perhaps start exporting some of the fruit that grew on it. 

Working on this story, we were also excited for what Koshin was doing – me personally I romanticised it in my head a bit: here is someone from the Somali diaspora returning to live off the land, while also helping to rebuild his country. It sounded exciting. So naturally we thought he would be one of those farmers making a comeback. 

NADEEN SHAKER: I wanted to ask how much of the bananas make it to markets abroad? 

KOSHIN GARANE: We don’t export. No, we don’t export now. So our production does not even cover the domestic demand. There’s no talk of export because exports takes a lot of, you know, organisation, linkages working in lockstep, and none of that exists.

NADEEN SHAKER: He told us that a group of NGOs tried pilot projects to export abroad, but they were only that: one–off pilot projects. No one was ready to finance the sector, which is in terrible need of infrastructure and equipment, a facelift to the port and a redo of the roads. It would take billions of dollars of investments, if not more. Plus they would need to find a way to evade the control of Al–Shabab, a militant group based in Somalia, who tax the food trucks passing their checkpoints on the roads.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Koshin, what percentage are we talking? How much are they taking?

KOSHIN GARANE: It’s a bunch of little stuff, but when you add it up, it can go, I think its upwards of 50 percent. You know, for example, so you’d be taxed on your produce, on the bananas itself. Then there would be a separate tax for the car going down a particular highway. Then there’d be a sales tax.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: With Al Shabab forcing farmers to split their profits and the economy already in shambles, Koshin says farmers don’t even produce enough bananas to cover domestic demand. On top of that, they don’t have enough government support to help with upgrading equipment and infrastructure.

We were surprised, and frankly a little disappointed, to find out that Somali bananas were in fact not making a comeback

To be sure and to shake off our denialism, we posed the question to Dr. Hussein Haji, a banana tissue plant breeder and the Executive Director of Somali Agriculture Technical Group, which is working to research innovative solutions in the Somali agriculture sector.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Do you think Somali bananas are making a comeback?

HUSSEIN HAJI: Well, I think sometimes there’s some exaggeration into that. People like for the banana to come back – Somali Banana – and we like too, but there’s a reality on the ground that this would not happen shortly or in a very short period of time.

The country is not ready yet for banana export. There have been so many attempts since the civil unrest until now  but it has not happened yet. Having said that doesn’t mean that it will not happen. The potential is there.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Dr. Haji says that there are some obstacles getting in the way of ripe banana exports and if they were removed, Somalia could truly make a comeback. Lack of security and infrastructure were two of the most important ones. Others included the high cost of banana production in Somalia because of the immense resources put into irrigating banana trees, and not having available banana packing stations.

HUSSEIN HAJI: So it’s something that can be worked out and and it can be brought back, but it needs it needs all stakeholders coming together like, the financial institutions, the commercial farmers, the investors who will be interested for banana export, the banks to support the banana farmers and the technology also.

NADEEN SHAKER: Technologies such as the one Dr. Haji and his group have been developing themselves.

HUSSEIN HAJI: And among the technologies that we have been testing for many years, includes the tissue culture.

NADEEN SHAKER: Tissue culture is basically a type of cloning. 

HUSSEIN HAJI: So basically what you do is you take a small tissue from banana and you multiply it in the lab, and from one plant, maybe you multiply it to a thousand or 2000 plants in the laboratory.

NADEEN SHAKER: Using genetic modification would streamline the production process – making it less labour intensive, less resource intensive – but friendlier on the  environment. And whereas the way bananas have been grown for centuries in Somalia was destructive, this could be a more sustainable way of doing it – a process that could contribute to the rebirth of Somali bananas.

HUSSEIN HAJI: So what is happening now, in fact, we are getting some orders from different parts of Somalia. In fact, last week we shipped 2,000 plants of tissue culture to Hargeisa for a farmer who is interested to start banana plantation in Hargeisa, Somaliland. So, it’s getting momentum and farmers are realizing this the need for the tissue culture plants. So, I hope that in the future when the banana business comes back, all the things will be something that will support and help farmers get a clean plant in the field.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: Dr. Haji and his team believe that when the security situation improves in Somalia, everything will fall into place. But until that day comes, they’re determined to push ahead themselves.

HUSSEIN HAJI: You cannot just sit back and say, okay, I’m going to wait for the security to come, so we have decided that we’ll do this work with or without security. So no matter what, because we wanted to make these changes and the time is clicking and you cannot just wait.

I think the Somali community are very resilient. The business community are resilient. Farmers as well. So they want to have a life, they want to live despite the difficulties. And I can guarantee you one thing. If the country’s security is established, a lot of investment will be there available for the country.

NADEEN SHAKER: When that time comes, perhaps the true comeback won’t take the same shape as the banana industry of the 19th and 20th centuries – through a mass export model – but maybe it’ll take a different shape, in which farms like Koshin’s will have a big role to play. But for now, he finds it hard to see the silver lining when he can barely keep his farm running.

KOSHIN GARANE: I’m barely breaking even. But it’s about survival. It’s about maintaining the property as it is so that if there is a change in the political security circumstances, that we may be able to get back to normal.

NADEEN SHAKER: And in this life, away from the city in the seclusion of his land, producing his own food, especially bananas, Koshin has found a new perspective. 

KOSHIN GARANE: I think the banana is a super resilient, super useful fruit for the Somalis. I think that even without exporting it, there will continue to be a demand for bananas in Somalia, which leaves us safe to continue growing it. It’s part of my history. In the olden days, even before the Italians arrived, you know, we used to own a lot of land here, like my particular tribe of people. And so I feel a deep attachment to this land. I’m part of the history or the legacy in terms of my family at this land. And yeah, I see it as a mission to continue that.

NADEEN SHAKER: So bow that we’re almost done with our story, how do you reflect back on our whole experience?

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: I don’t know: I’m never gonna look at bananas the same way af after, after this experience. I’m definitely going to look at bananas in a whole new light. I feel we went into this journey , about Somali bananas, and we’ve uncovered it almost made me reflect on our dependence on Somali bananas, right? Our association with bananas has always been, you know, almost the one thing that can bring back our economy. Should we bring a comeback after we discovered how contentious this crop is? I really don’t think that we should be known as just people who export and produce Somali bananas. I think we definitely need to go beyond that. Stop our reliance on this fruit. Bananas had its time and place. I think it’s time to move on. I’m hopeful.

DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Nadeen Shaker and Sawsan Abdillahi. It was edited by me, Dana Ballout, and Alex Atack. Fact checking was by Deena Sabry, and sound design by Monzer El–Hachem. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar and Finbar Anderson.

SAWSAN ABDILLAHI: A special thanks to everyone who talked to us for this story: Muna Scekokamar who interviewed people at the restaurant, Koshin Garane, Raphael Njoku, Abdi Samatar, and Hussein Haji. 

DANA BALLOUT: We’ll be back with a new episode next week. Thank you so much for listening. Take care.

[STING]