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Bananas: food and beverage

Where did bananas come from?

Bananas (or the Musa species), have a long history of cultivation and have even been depicted in Indian cave paintings dating back to 500 and 600 BC. They are thought to have come to India from south-east Asia and to have been carried by traders to east Africa.

Background Information on Banana

Plantain and bananas serve as important food crops in much of Africa.   Together they provide more than 25% of carbohydrate needs of over 70 million people on the continent.   Cultivated bananas are derived from two species of the genus Musa , M. acuminata and M. balbisiana .   M. acuminata originates in Malaysia, while M. balbisiana originates in India.   Bananas cultivated in Africa are diploid and triploid genetic combinations of “A” and “B” genomes contributed by one or both of these species. Banana is a clonally propagated plant.

Sub-Saharan Africa produces about 35% of the world's bananas and plantains.   Banana and plantains have been estimated to supply more than 25% of the carbohydrates of approximately 70 million people in Africa's humid forest and mid-altitude regions.

Bananas and plantains are consumed in a wide variety of manners in Africa.   Dessert bananas are consumed raw as snacks and desserts.   Plantains are fried in various ways and eaten as side dishes and fast foods.   Roasted as whole, chips. Cooking bananas normally - green bananas (unripe) and highland bananas are pounded into thick porridges "Mtori". Beer bananas are fermented and consumed as traditional Beer "Mbege" and  banana wine in mostly in Northern regions of Tanzania.

Other uses : Banana flour, powder, Jam, Juice, Sauce, biscuits   and so on;


The preparation of alcoholic beverages is done at household level in many African communities, and the banana fruit has widespread use in the production of beverages, but the most notable is the alcoholic beverage brewed by the Chagga people in Kilimanjaro region in Tanzania, known as ‘mbege'.

The preparation of ‘mbege':  

The ingredients of this famous Chagga alcoholic drink ‘mbege' are as follows:

  1. Ripe Banana – the main substrate
  2. Finger millet – (‘mbege') catalyst, nutrient and flavour
  3. ‘Msesewe' – Extract from a bark of quinine tree (Rauvolfia Caffra) that adds bitter, acquired flavour and tends to slow fermentation
  4. Water – for boiling the mixture

The ingredient proportions are roughly one part of banana to three parts of water. The ‘mbege' is added as one part to 12 parts of the brew while one part of the ‘msesewe' is added to 40 parts of the brew.

Bananas are harvested and placed over the fireplace or in the ceiling of traditional Chagga huts where the temperature is high enough to speed the ripening. When they are ripe, usually after 5-7 days, the fruits are peeled and boiled in water until the mixture turns reddish brown. The level of browning is based on the person's preference with regard to the final product. After boiling, the mixture is allowed to cool before transferring to a plastic, earthen pot, or wooden container, where it is incubated for 4-5 days. The mash is mixed with more water and filtered through a bed of savannah grass and ferns on a bed of broad banana leaves mounted on a slopping trough. The filtrate is left for some hours prior to the inoculation with malted millet (‘mbege') flour, hence its name ‘mbege'.  The Finger millet is sorted, and then soaked in water overnight, drained, incubated at room temperature until germination occurs, followed by sun drying (picture: malted millet being dried on an animal skin could be contaminated and may be detrimental to the quality of the brew) then ground to make coarse flour by using a grinding stone. (This stage of millet malt preparation is completed before the ripening of bananas.) The flour is mixed with water and simmered just below boiling temperature to form a porridge that will be inoculated to the already prepared banana juice. ‘Msesewe' from the bark of a matured tree, which is bitter in taste, it is washed, cut into small peaces, boiled and filtered, The filtrate is added to the banana juice 12 hours prior to drinking. Sometimes the bark is ground to flour and mixed with banana during boiling. From start to finish the preparation of ‘mbege' can take 7-10 days.

The benefits:   The preparation of ‘mbege' is hard and labour intensive but the socio-economic benefits dictate the need: (Picture: Using a traditional drinking container made from calabash, a group of relatives and friends are sharing a drink of ‘mbege')

  • Encourage social gatherings
  • Adopted in traditional courts as fines for the guilty party
  • Used in celebrations like weddings
  • Required in solemn occasions like funerals
  • Private business transactions are best conducted with ‘mbege' on the table
  • Household income can be improved by selling ‘mbege'
  • An alcoholic drink with nutritive qualities from the unfiltered malt and yeast

Banana wine:

Some brand of Banana wine in Arusha:

Malkia brand

  • Golden & clear in appearance
  • Sweet in taste and with a fruity smell
  • Shelf life > 1 year
  • Contains 9% alcohol
  • Packaged in 330ml glass bottles & a carton has 12 such bottles

Meru brand

  • Dry in taste
  • Shelf life > 1 year
  • Contains 9% alcohol
  • Packaged in 330ml glass bottles & a carton has 12 such bottles


  • Golden colour
  • Beer like taste
  • Fermentation process short
  • Alcohol content > 7%

The Banana Did You Know.........?

  • The word banana comes from the Arabic word "banan", meaning finger
  • The word banana is African
  • The "trunk" of a banana plant is not made of wood, it is made of tightly overlapping leaves, similar to a leek.
  • The leaves of a banana plant can grow upto 4 metres in length & 70 centimetres in width.
  • Each plant produces just a single stem, with between 100 & 200 bananas on it.
  • Banana plants require twice as much rainfall each year .
  • Bananas are now one of world's favorite fruit.
  • The English Rugby Team eat bananas every day.
  • The banana plant is not a tree, it is the world's largest herb.
  • Many world-class athletes such as professional tennis players, footballers and cyclists include bananas in their training diets to boost their energy and stamina. Bananas are also high in potassium - useful in avoiding muscle cramp
  • Banana is the biggest selling item of all the many thousands sold in a supermarket.
  • A banana plant takes less that 18 months to grow from a small shoot to the point where its fruit is ready for harvesting. It will produce only one "stem" of bananas - once these have been cut, the plant dies and rots back into the soil.
  • If you laid all the bananas grown in a year end-to-end they would encircle the globe 200 times.
  • The people of  Africa each eat at many as half  kilograms of bananas every day.
  • As well as being eaten as a food, bananas are used to make medicine and health products, and the stalk and leaves to make cloth and even dwellings!
  • A shipwrecked sailor was rescued in the best of health after surviving on bananas for a whole month.
  • Bananas are known as the energy fruit because they provide a quick-but-sustained energy boost in a natural, nutritious and easily digestible form.
  • Did you know that the long fibres (and I do mean long - up to 5 metres)  in bananas are excellent for making paper? Long fibres give paper its strength and the extremely long fibres in the banana plant can make banana fibre paper very strong.
  • Banana bandages? In the Pacific Islands when people get burns they often use a banana leaf as treatment. Banana leaves are obviously a very convenient shape for wrapping around a limb or such, but what is very interesting is that bananas contain a marvellous substance, a surfactant,  that has a particularly beneficial affect when it comes to healing burns. 

Some Notes by Josephine T Kimario

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