Iron-rich beans to combat anaemia

Iron-rich climbing beans are proving popular with farmers in highland Rwanda - Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Iron-rich climbing beans are proving popular with farmers in highland Rwanda
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Beans are a staple food in Rwanda. Normal varieties only have low levels of minerals, but the HarvestPlus programme has supported the Rwanda Agriculture Board to breed new varieties rich in iron and zinc. The beans are also high yielding and popular with consumers because of their colour. And with high levels of iron, they can help in tackling anaemia, which affects up to 30 per cent of women in Rwanda and more than half of children under five. By making the new beans available in small packs, HarvestPlus aims to distribute them to 200,000 farmers per year. It is also supporting iron-rich bean breeding in other countries, such as Uganda, DRC, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya.

Interview by:
Date published:
February 2012

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Sawa HarvestPlus is a global programme aimed at reducing hunger and providing micronutrients to billions of people directly through the staple foods which they eat. Dr Lister Katsvairo is the country manager for the iron-rich beans programme in Rwanda.

Katsvairo Biofortification is just the process of increasing the iron and zinc content within the beans using the conventional, normal breeding system. It is not genetically engineered. It is simply just taking one bean variety and another bean variety and allowing them to cross pollinate. Biofortification is a bit scientific. I think the best term that we might use for the ordinary farmer is high iron and high zinc beans.

Sawa Do they change colour, because someone who talks of zinc and iron might want to see the colour of the beans changing?

Katsvairo No, the zinc or the iron will not change the colour of the bean, because iron and zinc are traits you don't see. So we will breed for colours that we know will give farmers a better chance in the market, and we will breed for high yields to give the farmers a yield advantage, because we would then piggyback on these agronomic traits.

Sawa And then what about marketing? Are they going to be selling, or a kind of programme for exporting or...?

Katsvairo The whole initiative, why we chose beans and iron for Rwanda initially is because statistics have shown we have got 30 percent anaemic cases in Rwanda. So our prime goal is to try to solve that hidden hunger, the malnutrition within our community. So we would actually want farmers to grow and consume. However we do know farmers are business people. Every time they are producing a product they are looking at the market. Because in the beans, that's where he sees the food for the family, the fees for the children, the clothes for the family and over and above everything else, potential growth and expansion for the business. So we do know that they will sell.

Sawa Rwanda Agricultural Board has so far released ten varieties of iron rich beans to the farmers. Five more varieties are about to be released and the research continues. Domitile Mukakubana is a researcher who has been involved in producing these varieties.

Domitile At the beginning we took all the varieties we have already released, and then we analysed for iron and zinc. Then we found some varieties which reached the target for the HarvestPlus project. Before talking about the quality nutrition, you just talk about the yield. That is why all those iron-rich bean varieties, they have a high yield. That is the first characteristic. You can't talk about the iron which the farmers are not seeing. You show them the production.

Sawa A farmer like Celestine Nzabarirwa registers a bumper harvest of the iron-rich beans last season.

Nzabarirwa (Translated) Last season I grew biofortified beans and my production from my field was a lot compared to the local varieties that I had been using. And when I also looked at the beans in the field I was so happy and said that I wish that I could have grown biofortified beans in my whole plot. I'm so happy I bought these biofortified beans. By being happy I will also encourage my neighbours to grow biofortified beans which will help to improve their health when they consume them.

Sawa Nsabimana Bernadin is about to harvest his beans for the first time.

Nsabimana (Translated) I am so proud that I have planted biofortified beans because I'm now going to nourish my body, whereby we'll be able to last longer. My future plan is multiplying a lot of biofortified beans, because we have an international institution, HarvestPlus, which will be coming to buy these biofortified beans so that it can disseminate to other farmers. Also, I will encourage my neighbours to cultivate a lot of this biofortified beans, since they will help us to improve our livelihoods.

Sawa Through farmer organisations like Rwanda Farmers Federation, farmers have been able to get seeds of different varieties of iron-rich beans.

Uwisunze (Translated) My name is Uwisunze Maria Patricia and I am an agronomist for Rwanda Farmers Federation, IMBARAGA.

Sawa How do you feel working with farmers in promoting these fortified beans?

Uwisunze (Translated) I feel so proud working with the farmers because first, when you talk to farmers they are happy that they have got good seeds that give them more yields than what they have been planting. Secondly, their produce for the last season was bought, and HarvestPlus distributed to other farmers.

Katsvairo We are currently distributing to farmers in small packs. Our target is 100,000 smallholder farmers given seed per season, and Rwanda has two seasons so that means we are trying to reach 200,000 farmers per year. We are working in a good number of countries, with beans in particular. We do have beans in Rwanda. We have beans in DRC. We have beans in Uganda and we are spilling over to other countries. We are spilling over into Burundi. We have sent for regional trials to Malawi, to Tanzania and to Kenya. End of track.


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