KIGALI, Rwanda — Open the door to the government's banana ripening room and the cockroaches run for cover on the sweating concrete walls. The aroma is familiar, thickly sweet and overpowering. Everything feels sticky.
Thousands of fingers of green fruit grow yellow here, packed to the rafters in the stifling heat.
"When you put bananas together, they produce a warmth all their own," a banana factory official, Bernardin Kagina, said admiringly.
Bananas are more than a farm crop in Rwanda. They are part of the fabric of daily life. And they are everywhere.
In the ripening room at the banana processing plant. At the market. On top of mountains. On the backs of bicycles and people-drawn carts. Next to grass huts. On brochettes. In sofas and on wall coverings. In jam and juice. And in bottles of a husky young wine, vin de bananes.
This tiny French-speaking nation in the heart of Africa, a hilly tract of rich volcanic soil smaller than the state of Maryland, grows 2.1 million tons of bananas a year. And eats or drinks them all.
At 700 pounds per person, that is the highest rate of production in Africa and among the highest in the world.
"The status of bananas in Rwanda is really quite exceptional, even for Africa," says Yvan Dejaegher, a European agricultural economist working with the Rwandan government.
Rwanda lies in the heart of Africa's banana bowl, a crescent that runs from Liberia on the Atlantic Ocean through the equatorial midsection of the continent to Tanzania on the Indian Ocean.
Grown by 97% of Farmers
Bananas are grown throughout the region, but nowhere are they as important as in Rwanda. Nearly 40% of the cultivated land here is covered with the tall, broad-leafed plants, and 97% of the country's farmers grow them, along with other crops, the government says.
These days, the challenge in the land of the banana is finding new uses for the fruit, the peels and even the plant stalks.
Making more and better use of bananas is especially important as Rwanda, already the most densely populated country in Africa, struggles against the growing pressure on farmland caused by a rapidly swelling population.
Although Rwandans grow a few bananas for eating raw, as fruit, most people prefer their bananas fried, boiled or grilled and served with beans or tomatoes at the dinner table.
"People are eating more bananas now because there are more ways to eat them," said Patricia Nyirababimana, a banana trader at the Jiakondo Market near Kigali.
"Also, our bananas are smooth and they taste good," the 28-year-old businesswoman added as she lifted a 50-pound banana bunch neatly onto her head for carrying.
Shadrac Bimyemzi, a lawyer in Kigali, says he'd eat bananas every day, but his wife limits him to three meals of bananas per week. Bimyemzi has 4-month-old twin girls he plans "to start on Rwanda bananas by the time they are 6 months old."
Only about a fourth of Rwanda's bananas are eaten, though. Most of the rest are for drinking. Banana wine is the country's most popular beverage.
"I don't know if it's better than other wine, but it certainly is good," says Christophe Boneze, a program officer for the United Nations.
President Juvenal Habyarimana frequently calls on the people to be more creative in their use of bananas, using fewer bananas for wine, which cannot be exported because it is so perishable, and more for productive exports.
The country has made some progress toward discovering new applications for its most plentiful commodity.
Craftsmen use the thin, durable skin from those stalks to make chairs, tables, place mats, coasters, trash cans and baskets, for example. Whole rooms can be decorated, a la banana. The walls of the U.N. office lobby here, for example, are covered in strips of banana plants.
Rwanda hasn't found much of a market for any of its banana products outside the country, however. The major drawback to selling banana wine abroad, aside from its rather unusual taste, is its shelf life--shorter than that of the average quart of milk.
The country doesn't export its bananas, either, because most of its varieties are starchy rather than sweet--ideal for cooking and wine-making but not very tasty as raw fruit. Most bananas eaten in the United States, the world's largest importer, are sweet varieties grown in Latin America.
Banana Bread Lags
For the last 10 years, the government office devoted to developing industrial uses of Rwanda's bananas, a research laboratory and factory atop one of the capital city's many hills, has tried to "make decent food out of bananas," in the words of one European diplomat who remains unconvinced.
The factory, known as Ovibar for its acronym in French, makes banana wine, of course. But its 150 employees also produce a banana liqueur, a banana jam and about 1,500 gallons a year of pungent banana juice that resembles apple cider.