Mary Ndimbo knows what beans mean for millions of smallholder farmers in Tanzania – particularly women. Her work at Uyole Agricultural Research Institute, in the country’s Southern Highlands, helps her keep in contact with them on a regular basis.
Her office is full of beans, some stored in paper bags, others in small, white, plastic trays. All of them have something in common: they are improved varieties, bred using different types of beans from local research stations and CIAT’s genebank in Colombia. The aim is to help farmers improve their yields and incomes from nutritious beans, while retaining key characteristics that make the beans popular with consumers and buyers.
“I like to see small-scale farmers getting varieties that are high yielding, but which are also resistant to pests and diseases,” she said. “That’s what inspired me to do breeding – because I know you can produce many varieties with as many traits as you want.
“This inspired me to come up with varieties that are good for small-scale farmers and especially for women.”
Ndimbo has dedicated her career to improving beans. “Of course, in the beginning, beans were used primarily as food for the family, which is why they are traditionally considered a ‘women’s crop’,” she explains. “That’s because it is usually a woman’s responsibility for putting food on the table.”
“Now, beans are becoming a ‘man’s crop’ as well, because they are a more popular cash crop.”
However, they remain a very important source of income, nutrition and empowerment for women too. Women’s groups (i.e. the ones she works with) have managed to earn enough income from beans to form rotating cash funds, which enable each member of the group can get a loan on a rotating basis, helping each other to buy goods, including agricultural equipment and seeds.
“Beans take a short time from planting to harvest – around three months, so they are an important, regular source of income for the family,” she explains. “Even the cost of production is little, so that’s why most women are involved in the production of beans for food and now as a source of cash too.”
Beans: From a woman's crop to everyone's crop
As nitrogen-fixing legumes, beans are also used in rotation with other crops, to improve soil fertility – especially by small-scale farmers who can’t afford inorganic fertilizers, she adds.
In a large field set in the Uyole research station, she inspects a row of beans being tested for resilience to drought; her white lab coat marking her out among the tall climbing beans.
She says one of the most important characteristics to pay attention to is seed color. It’s important for consumers. “Color in this area of Tanzania determines the market. So, we cross higher-yielding beans making sure the seeds/grains retain specific color types.” Yellow and white beans sell best here; in fact the local varieties are more expensive than some improved varieties because they are the preferred color for local dishes.
But if new varieties can be bred to have the same colors as traditional ones, retaining the same taste and size as beans used in local dishes, they will fetch higher prices in the market too, she notes. Especially those bound for markets in South Africa and Malawi.
“Sometimes, we breed varieties which have higher iron and zinc quantities,” she adds, noting that improved nutrition in children and women is one of the key goals in releasing improved bean varieties. “I am making it my goal to keep improving beans, because I know that this will improve the lives of millions of children, and women like me.”