Beans: Uganda’s favourite legume reinvented

Farmers Robert Loda and his wife Olivia Asinde harvest Narobean6 beans from their garden in Kabuki Village, Mauta Parish, Bukatube Sub-county in Mayuge District in November last year. Photos/Bamuturaki Musinguzi

What you need to know:

  • Ugandan plant breeders and farmers have developed an innovative assortment of nutrient-rich beans—crops that can greatly reduce the region’s vulnerability to food crises and a growing array of erratic and challenging climatic conditions and threats. 

Female farmers under their umbrella Bakuseka Majja Farmers Group in Mayuge District, eastern Uganda, say since they started growing the new biofortified, fast-maturing, resilient, high-yielding, and fast-cooking variety of beans—developed by the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA)—their diet and incomes have improved. 

The chairperson of the Bakuseka Majja Farmers Group, Daphne Byagonda, says National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) partnered with their association in 2018 by introducing Narobean1, 2, 3, and 7 in Kabuki Village, Mauta Parish, Bukatube Sub-county in Mayuge District.

“We found ourselves yielding heavily compared to our local seeds. This enabled us to get more income by selling to different people in our communities who desired them,” Byagonda said, adding that she has bought land measuring 30x100 metres at Shs1.8m from the proceeds of selling her beans. 

Climate change
Ugandan plant breeders and farmers have developed an innovative assortment of nutrient-rich beans—crops that can greatly reduce the region’s vulnerability to food crises and a growing array of erratic and challenging climatic conditions and threats.

They are breeding beans with specific traits—fast cooking time, drought resilience, disease resistance, and high iron and zinc content. 

PABRA is working to develop new, more productive, resilient varieties of beans that provide a crucial link in the chain to protect African communities on the frontlines of climate change and a growing food crisis. 

Working in tandem with the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), also referred to as Alliance Bioversity-CIAT, PABRA is protecting African beans from climate devastation.

In recent years, ominous climate assessments have warned that rising temperatures and an increase in drought caused by climate change could dramatically shrink areas in Africa suitable for bean production. The nutrient values in beans as well have not been spared. 

PABRA’s essential partner in the country is Uganda’s Naro, which includes 16 public agriculture research institutes spread around the country. Their work has been instrumental in ensuring the rapid adoption of PABRA’s improved bean varieties on local farms. This partnership is a key reason that, from 2003 to 2021, bean harvests on local farms doubled from 0.7 to 1.5 tonnes per hectare. 

Better bean varieties and farming strategies have also provided a 36 percent boost in household income for Ugandan farming families. The partnership also has helped supply relief agencies with resilient bean varieties used in drought response in other African countries. 

Beans researcher in Africa - Clare Mukankusi. Photo/Courtesy

Gene bank
Dr Clare Mukankusi, a Ugandan scientist and the Global Breeding Lead of Common Bean at the Alliance Bioversity-CIAT, says CIAT and Naro have worked closely together to tackle the challenges of the bean value chain in Uganda.

CIAT has been a great resource for Africa as it hosts the biggest collection of beans in the world in the gene bank in Colombia. The gene bank called Future Seeds holds up to 36,000 bean accessions that are rich with genes for resilience and nutrition, among others. 

CIAT has made use of the gene bank to develop bean varieties that are currently being grown in Africa and Uganda as well. More than 75 percent of the bean varieties grown in Africa originated from the CIAT bean breeding programme in Colombia, Mukankusi adds. 

Naro is currently well-capacitated with a research team that focuses on the bean value chain in Uganda. In addition to developing bean varieties from its crossing programme, Naro receives bean varieties developed by CIAT-Colombia, CIAT-Malawi and CIAT-Uganda to test within Uganda. 

Drought varieties
Narobean6 (SCN11) and Narobean7 (SCR26) are products of this process as they originated from the programme in Colombia. The drought varieties were, per Mukankusi, part of a nursery that was shared by CIAT across Africa. 

“It has higher iron and zinc content, and it is good for pregnant and lactating mothers, and children,” Mukankusi says of the Narobean6 variety, adding, “We promise to develop beans that cook 30 percent faster with 15 percent high iron content and 10 percent higher zinc content after five cycles of breeding.”

With one cycle needing one and a half to two years to near completion, the varieties “will be released into the testing system after five cycles, which will be in 2029,” Mukankusi says.

She adds: “Each cycle we release relatively faster cooking beans in the testing system. For instance, first cycle: 5-10 percent faster, second cycle: 10-15 percent faster, third cycle: 15-20 percent faster, fourth cycle: 20-25 percent faster and fifth cycle: 25-30 per cent faster.”

The Narobean6 variety of beans. The drought-resistant varieties were part of a nursery that was shared by CIAT across Africa.

Women at the centre
PABRA is a consortium of 30 bean-producing countries in Africa. It involves more than 350 partner public and private organisations. Since 1996, it has released more than 450 new bean varieties. All of these were bred to be more resilient, abundant, nutritious or marketable varieties than their ancestors. 

As is the case across most of sub-Saharan Africa, women are Uganda’s primary bean producers. They are as such a key focus of PABRA’s work. This includes efforts to address bean-related challenges women face in the field and the home. A combination of early-maturing bean varieties and new farming strategies have reduced the workload for women bean farmers. 

The Bakuseka Majja Farmers Group, which was formed in 2017 with 30 members, today boasts of more than 80 members. The association mainly invests in agriculture, poultry, and animal husbandry. It also promotes early childhood developments in the community, with a key goal of increasing empowerment through information, sharing, saving, and credit and the development of skills for self-reliance.

The group is involved in seed production and promotion, as well as marketing biofortified beans. It is linked to SAWA Agricultural Development Company Limited, which utilises the bean produce to process pre-cooked beans. 

“These Naro beans are better because they mature fast, they are delicious and are of high yields. They consume less firewood to cook,” Byagonda purrs, adding, “The biggest advantage is that they contain iron. Most pregnant mothers would die at home after giving birth due to a lack of iron. We now encourage them to eat these beans for the iron when they are pregnant. They no longer take folic tablets.” 

Leap of faith
The Narobean6 variety has also flung wide open the door of opportunities. While pruning her beans in Kabuki Village, Olivia Asinde tells Saturday Monitor that the variety “is doing very well here.” Last season, Asinde and her husband, Robert Loda, planted Narobean6 beans on one acre. They anticipate harvesting 400 kilogrammes. They practice mixed organic farming on 17 acres of land, where they grow beans, cassava, maize, sweet potatoes, mangos and passion fruits.

Elsewhere, Christine Joyce Kanyago, a retired 53-year-old midwife and mixed farmer, has taken a leap of faith.

“This is my first time planting beans so I don’t know much about the market for beans. They have matured very fast. I was informed that with proper management, I could harvest half a tonne of beans from half an acre,” she says.

Smart agriculture
PABRA and CIAT have quickly responded by releasing a steady stream of stress-tolerant beans. For example, in Uganda, local farmers who planted drought-tolerant beans and used local weather forecasts to adjust their planting times harvested twice the amount of other farmers. 

PABRA’s efforts to protect African bean production from an assortment of climate pressures is part of CGIAR’s broader commitment to providing sustainable solutions to food threats caused by climate change. Countries that are the focal point of CGIAR’s work—and that includes Uganda—are also among the most vulnerable to climate change. 

PABRA researchers in Uganda have carried out an innovative effort to develop bean varieties that cook much faster than other types using novel breeding methods. Beans can sometimes take hours to fully cook, a significant burden for women managing multiple farm and family responsibilities.

“The fast-cooking beans will be unique as they will save time and energy for the people involved in cooking beans,” Mukankusi says of the uniqueness of these fast-cooking beans. “Long cooking time is a disincentive to consumption since it demands large amounts of water, fuel and time, and normally firewood or charcoal is collected by women and children at great personal risk and cost to the environment and imposes a health risk through prolonged exposure to smoke during cooking.” 

“Fast-cooking beans will benefit smallholder African women and children through access to improved common bean varieties with shorter cooking time, higher protein and increased Fe (from Latin ferrum ‘iron’) and Zn (Zinc) nutrition. The benefits will also extend to other bean value chain actors, particularly the hoteliers, traders, processors and consumers,” she adds. 

Short cooking time
Mukankusi says these varieties have not yet reached the farmers. The first cycle (5-10 percent faster cooking), is expected “to reach the farmers in 2025.” Varieties that will cook 30 percent faster, with 15 percent higher iron, and 10 percent higher zinc, will reach farmers in 2033. 

“The new varieties have genetic inheritance for short-time cooking,” Dr Stanley Tamusange Nkalubo, the team leader and breeder, Legumes Research Programme at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI), Namulonge, in Kampala, says of why these new varieties take a shorter time to cook. 

Asked how they are ensuring the research and breeding process addresses the control of disease and pests, Nkalubo replies: “There is a deliberate effort for us to breed for resistance to pests and diseases, but you cannot handle all of them at once.” 

“So, what is done is that when we breed for resistance to one or two diseases, then, the resulting or developed lines (progenies) are screened in the field where the bred for diseases/pest and other diseases/pests are prevalent such that the lines that are selected and eventually released are resistant to the diseases/pests they were bred for, but also show resistance/tolerance to other diseases/pest in the environments where the trials/selections were undertaken,” Nkalubo adds. 

Asked if they have shared these varieties with other African countries, Mukankusi says: “We have already shared the cycle 1 and 2 materials with other five East African countries and partners (ISABU-Burundi, EIAR-Ethiopia, KARLO-Kenya, TARI-Tanzania and RAB-Rwanda) with whom we are collaborating. These countries are following similar processes as Naro in Uganda.” 

Common beans
So could the new varieties be a threat to the indigenous beans that we have had in Uganda for generations?

“Not at all. We are using conventional means of variety development and so these beans will not be any different biologically from the normal beans we know,” Mukankusi says. 

According to PABRA, the colourful menageries of beans produced and consumed widely in sub-Saharan Africa can be traced to so-called “common beans.” This runs counter to other legumes like chickpeas or cowpeas that were first domesticated thousands of years ago in Latin America. They have been cultivated in Africa for centuries, likely introduced in pre-colonial times by traders through East African ports like Mombasa and Zanzibar. 

According to PABRA, common beans supply more than 200 million Africans with an affordable, sustainable source of protein and other important nutrients. In Africa, they typically account for about a third of daily protein intake.

On the farm, they naturally fertilise soils with nitrogen, which is why they are often mixed in with maize plants. In the market, they offer farming households a reliable source of income—and most Africans rely on farming for employment. 

This rare combination of qualities is why beans are now the focus of global efforts to shift to sustainable, affordable, healthy diets. 

Asked about the nutritional value of these new varieties of beans compared to those that have existed in Uganda, Nkalubo replies: “Normally, beans have an iron content of less than or equal to 50 milligrammes per kilogramme (mg/kg) concentration, and zinc concentration of less than 25mg/kg. The biofortified beans have an iron concentration of more than 70 mg/kg, and zinc of concentration of more than 30 mg/kg. This increased micronutrient concentration gives them the added nutritional value that is essential in combating hidden hunger, or malnutrition caused by micronutrient deficiency.”

Drought impact
As to how drought is affecting the growing of beans and food production in general in Uganda, Nkalubo says: “Like for all crops, drought affects beans equally, but being a short season crop, sometimes they escape or the crop may be lost if the farmers time poorly.

The good thing is that we have developed varieties that are tolerant to drought and if farmers get intermittent rainfall, they may be able to have a good crop. But all this depends on the timing of the season.” 

On the ranking of beans on the Ugandan menu, Nkalubo, says: “Beans are the number one legume grown and consumed in Uganda (per capita consumption is currently close to 30kgs per person per year).” 

“For preference, a lot of people may prefer meat, but in reality, they can’t afford it and as such, beans compulsorily are ranked the number one legume on the menu,” Nkalubo adds. 

As to why there has been a sharp demand for beans in the last few years, Nkalubo says: “This is for many reasons, including demand arising from neighbouring countries. Lots of farmers are selling their produce for better prices to foreigners, poor harvests arising from prolonged drought causing a reduction in production, and value addition being undertaken requiring increased volumes, among others. So, there is quite more than one reason for this increased demand, not to mention the increased population and number of schools required to feed the increased number of students.” 

The sharp demand has led to an increase in the price of beans, and Nkalubo says the high price for beans can only come down with increased productivity. 

“That is increasing the product while reducing drudgery that is known for bean production, and also increasing area of production, but also all farmers taking on improved varieties. Also here, we need more than one intervention.” 

When asked if this is not disadvantageous to poor families that cannot afford the current high cost of beans, Nkalubo responds: “Definitely yes, but as we know, most families, especially those that have some bit of land, produce their own beans.

In one way, the high price may also increase their income as they sell off the surplus. So, an increased price may not be bad after all for the small-scale farmers engaged in bean production.”

Quick facts on bean production in Uganda 
In both the first and the second seasons, maize, beans, sweet potatoes, cassava and matooke were the five key crops produced in the 2020 cropping year, according to the Annual Agriculture Survey (AAS) 2020 by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos). 

Beans were produced by 45 percent and 53 percent of agricultural households in the first and second seasons, respectively. Bean production was estimated at approximately 670,000 MT in 1.13 million hectares and an estimated yield of 0.8 MT/ha on average, the 2020 AAS report shows. 

Beans are a major source of protein for most households in Uganda and are widely grown throughout the country. The year 2020 data shows 39 percent of agricultural households cultivated beans during the first season and 46 percent in the second season. 

A look at the sub-regional level indicates north Buganda had the highest annual production at 120,000 MT, followed by Bunyoro (111,000 MT). The sub-regions with the lowest annual production were Teso (7,100 MT) and Bukedi (6,100 MT). Bunyoro and Ankole reported the highest annual yield (1.0 MT/ha). The lowest annual yields were in Bukedi (0.6 MT/ha) and Teso (0.5 MT/ha). 

According to the 2020 AAS report, the production trend shows a decrease in bean production since the years 2008/2009, followed by an increase in the year 2020. Beans production increased by 53 percent to 670,000 MT in the year 2020 from 438,000 MT in the year 2019.

The increase in production appears to be a result of increased planting and a slight increase in the national yield.

In fact, the area planted with beans increased by 31 percent in the year 2020 compared to the previous year, and the annual national yield of the year 2020 was 0.8 metric tonnes per hectare compared to 0.6 MT/ha in the year 2019. 

The data on the use (disposition) of beans production reveals most beans were sold unprocessed (41 percent). This is slightly lower than the year 2019 in which the second season proportion of bean harvest was sold unprocessed.

Nonetheless, a large amount of beans were still in storage at the time of enumeration (31 percent). Furthermore, 27 percent had been consumed by the producing households and 19 percent of the second season production of the survey 2020 was set aside as seed for the following season.

Bean export markets
Uganda is Africa’s second-largest bean producer after Tanzania. In addition to being a staple of local diets, in many areas, bean crops account for nine percent of household income. Uganda also exports beans to other African countries, according to PABRA.

In his State of the Nation Address in June 2023, President Museveni said Uganda now exports more to Africa, with 86 percent exports to Africa and 57 percent to East Africa. In 2022, Uganda exported 57 million bags of coffee worth $858.7m (Shs3.3 trillion), fish worth $168m (Shs639b), sugar $145m (Shs551b), beans $132m (Shs502b), maize $131m (Shs498b), and industry products $348.9m (Shs1.3 trillion).