Biofortified beans: ‘Super seeds’ reach refugees in Uganda

To promote food security and self-sufficiency in Uganda among smallholder farmers and refugee communities, new bean varieties have been bred to tolerate the changing climate. The highly productive seeds have also become popular among traders and seed companies who have a ready market for their product.

NAROBEANs in Uganda have become popular among consumers due to their fast-cooking, superior taste and climate resilient qualities. © Georgina Smith/CIAT

In Uganda, high yielding, drought and disease resilient bean varieties are enabling smallholder farmers and over 1 million South Sudanese refugees to boost production and feed their families. The resilient seeds, known as ‘NAROBEANs’, were bred by the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance, the National Agricultural Research Organization and other international partners, to tackle malnutrition and reduce anaemia in the country.

Prior to release of the NAROBEANs, 16 different varieties were evaluated for their yield potential, ability to accumulate micronutrients, such as iron and zinc, and farmer preference. Five varieties – including three bush and two climber growth types – fulfilled all requirements, were tested for growth suitability across six agro-ecologies in Uganda, and identified for release. Many of the evaluated seeds were sourced from the Center for Tropical Agriculture’s (CIAT’s) genebank in Colombia, which houses 37,000 common bean varieties – the largest collection in the world. “These beans have been bred conventionally over many years, combining iron sources from our CIAT genebank in Colombia with locally adapted germplasm,” says Dr Wolfgang Pfeiffer, global director of product development at HarvestPlus, based at CIAT’s headquarters in Colombia. “It is a long process to track down varieties with higher iron content, and then ensure that they can also tolerate harsh conditions in our environment, like drought,” Pfeiffer explains.

Uganda currently hosts an estimated 1.4 million refugees, most of whom are from South Sudan, and has a progressive policy which provides them with land to live and farm on, encouraging self-sufficiency. In 2017, to further promote food security among refugee communities, FAO contracted a large commercial producer to supply refugee camps with 21 t of the new varieties, which have been found to yield up to three times more than local varieties. “Instead of buying expensive supplements, communities can now buy and grow these beans as a way of boosting nutrition and reducing anaemia, knowing that they will get yield despite drought,” says Stanley Nkalubo, team leader and breeder at Uganda's National Crops Resources Research Institute.

The ‘super’ beans have become popular among consumers due to their fast-cooking, superior taste and climate resilient qualities, and Ugandan farmers are able to make a profit of 1,200-2,500 UGX/kg (€0.28-0.6) when selling to traders. “On 1 acre you can get almost 250 kg [of the new varieties], but using the local variety, you get 40, 50 or 70 kg. That is the difference. And the new ones are very easy to cook and don't waste much fuel,” says Charles Latiego, a farmer in Gulu district, Uganda. Seed companies are also taking up production of the NAROBEAN varieties, including Pearl Seeds Limited whose main objective is to contribute towards poverty eradication and livelihood improvement of small, medium and commercial farmers by providing a constant supply of high quality seeds. “In a season, we sell about 250 to 300 t of beans. So many people are after them, it’s a first come, first served basis,” says Richard Masagazi, managing director at Pearl Seeds Limited.

Sophie Reeve

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.