Geoffrey Mabirizi Nsereko is, by Ugandan standards, a large scale farmer. Rain had soaked the ground by the time we alighted at his farmhouse in Mityebiri village, Rakai District.
From this spot the beans, which had brought us from Kampala to see, lay spread over seven acres of land, flapping their ears under a mild wind.
Nsereko’s farm sits on 360 acres of land. On it is a ranch and gardens of watermelon and coffee, the things he has traditionally kept there.
In 2015, however, Nsereko decided to start to grow beans on a large scale, but not the ordinary beans. These are called biofortified beans.
Through crossbreeding, scientists at the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Namulonge have increased the iron content in them.
“Crosses are made between preferred varieties that have low iron content with another variety with high iron content but that may not have the characteristics that farmers and the market want,” says Dr Stanley Nkalubo, a bean breeder and Team Leader for Legumes Research at NaCRRI.
The idea of biologically adding iron in beans is to help communities like ours, which are not into processed and packed foods, and so much into eating beans, access iron in good quantities.
Nsereko’s family eats just a small portion of the beans. The rest he sells to an NGO called Community Enterprises Development Organisation (Cedo). Cedo in turn sells the beans to other farmers in Rakai, mainly smallholder farmers, clearly stating that these are iron rich beans.
NaCRRI, a seed breeder; Nsereko, a seed multiplier; and CEDO, a seed distributor, are in a chain of individuals and organisations that target to feed a billion of the world’s people with biofortified foods by 2030.
“Generally speaking we have reached 20 million people with biofortified crops,” says Vidushi Sinha, senior communications specialist, HarvestPlus.
By the end of 2015, more than 100 biofortified varieties across 10 crops had been released in 30 countries, according to Howarth Bouis, the man who founded HarvesPlus 14 years ago and winner of the 2016 World Food Prize for his pioneering work in biofortified foods.
“In Uganda we mainly grow iron rich beans and orange fleshed sweet potatoes enriched with Vitamin A.
Beverley Postma, who succeeded Bouis in 2016 as HarvestPlus’s Chief Executive Officer, was that afternoon among the people who walked through Nsereko’s beans – named NARO1, NARO2 and NARO3 – the names mainly emphasize that the beans are from the National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO).
“NARO bean two is the best. It is high yielding,”
Nsereko explains to his guests. “When you do dry planting it responds very fast to rain,” he adds. Dry planting means putting the seed in the ground as one waits for rain.
Over 600,000 Ugandan families grow bio-fortified crops, mainly sweet potatoes and beans, and the target is to increase the number to three million households by 2021.
Lack of iron in the body leads to a reduction in the number of red blood cells, a condition known as anaemia, making one prone to illness and infection as the body’s immune system is weakened.
Severe anaemia puts pregnant women in high risk of complications before child birth and when they are breastfeeding.
Iron can be added to processed foods for nutritional purposes or prescribed as medicine by a physician.