Blog post by Robin Buruchara, Regional Director for Africa, CIAT

Robin Buruchara

Dr Robin Buruchara

The idea that agriculture must not only feed us enough, it must also feed us well, has gained much traction on the development and research agenda in recent years. As with gender before it, nutrition has become part of the mainstream research agenda, not least within the CGIAR, which mainstreamed nutrition into most of its crop breeding programmes earlier this year.

One of those crops is the common bean.

Led by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the CIAT-coordinated Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), research into common bean improvement is underway in 29 countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Healthy, versatile and affordable, beans are an important crop for household food security. They provide as many as three harvests a year, dry beans can be stored for long periods without deteriorating, and provide food at all stages of their growth – leaves, green pods, green seed and dried grains.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where undernutrition remains a significant problem, particularly among women and children, beans are a major staple for more than 144 million people in rural and poor urban communities.

Around a fifth of the population suffers from iron deficiency anaemia, with low iron intake linked to high rates of maternal mortality, and low zinc associated with stunting in children. The fight against malnutrition starts with the diet.

Producing beans with higher levels of iron and zinc can help address malnutrition which affects the poorest people.

“Biofortified” beans – bred to contain higher nutrient content – through participatory breeding by farmers and researchers, contain more than double the iron and 70% more zinc than regular beans.

PABRA has developed 44 micronutrient rich bean varieties, with a further ten under evaluation, in partnership with HarvestPlus. Thirteen countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have released biofortified bean varieties, which in some cases, such as Rwanda, have become popular market leaders.

Beyond the benefits of nutrition

Yet, this is only part of the story. Under PABRA, the CGIAR’s research on beans reaches beyond the bread and butter of variety improvement and food production for food and nutrition security. It also builds resilience through nutrition education, gender empowerment and livelihood improvement – all of which have an indirect yet palpable impact on reducing levels of malnutrition.

PABRA works with communities to enhance household diet diversity by encouraging consumption of home-grown produce, access to nutrient dense and diverse foods through markets, and training on preparation of diverse bean-based products and recipes.

In addition, beans are a ‘woman’s crop’. Around 6.3 million hectares of beans are grown every year by smallholder farmers, most of whom are women. Beans provide women with employment and income, allowing them control over some household income and empowering them to influence household decision-making and allocation of resources for food, health and care.

Fast cooking bean varieties and the introduction of labour-saving technologies such as better equipment to prepare the land, mulching to reduce weed growth, and shelling and winnowing tools to improve post-harvest grain handling, allow women to spend less energy and fuel on both producing and cooking beans, and more time caring for themselves and their families.

Moreover, the income from beans enables farmers to meet urgent household needs including purchase of food and healthcare, further influencing household nutrition. By linking farmers to markets, CIAT ensures that farmers generate wealth from profitable food trade.

Yet, improving nutrition goes beyond smallholder farmers and bean producers. Those vulnerable to malnutrition also need access to affordable nutritious food through their local markets. So there is a need to ensure bean value chains are nutrition sensitive. PABRA carries out training in post-harvest management and nutrition, and the promotion of technologies to improve handling and storage to reduce wastage, spoilage and nutrition loss.

Malnutrition is a complex global problem and that needs a multi-faceted solution. By focusing on food and nutrition security through improving productivity and nutrient content of beans, and by building resilience through empowering women, building capacity and developing stronger markets, CGIAR research is providing that platform for change.

PABRA research falls within and links several CGIAR Research Programs – Grain Legumes; Policies, Institutions and Markets; and Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.

About the author

Dr Buruchara has spent the majority of his career supporting bean research and development with CIAT in Africa, first as a plant pathologist and later as PABRA coordinator. He was instrumental in its development, fostering and diversifying the partnerships, enhancing the institutional capacity of the alliance and increasing the country membership of PABRA to include the West African countries.