The sun peers through the early morning mist as Michael Kilango passes through the doors of the Uyole Agricultural Research Institute, in Tanzania’s Southern Highlands.
The station, in the heart of sunflower plots and bean fields, is teeming with researchers with one mission: to make sure farmers get improved varieties of different seeds – from common and snap beans to maize and soya beans.
The morning starts as Michael paces through a green field and surveys the latest batch of improved Uyole beans, named after the station. He carefully checks the leaves and steps back, gesturing at the expanse of the research plot.
“We have different sections for breeding and agronomy work,” he says. “In my bean breeding work we deal with varieties from different sources. Some we receive from CIAT’s headquarters in Colombia, or partners in Malawi and Uganda; others come from farmers in Tanzania.”
“We plant the beans, evaluate them, cross them. In the end, we’re making sure we get the best variety for our farmers,” he explains. This process includes selecting the beans with characteristics that farmers like.
They need to be a particular size, color, shape and taste; otherwise they might not sell or be eaten. It’s like a race, with the breeders coaching the beans through a list of obstacles and hurdles until they pass the finish line for release into the world.
As mid-morning approaches, it’s time to visit the market. A hub of activity and color, this bustling corridor is where food of all kinds is traded across Tanzania’s borders – to Malawi, Zambia and South Africa.
Pointing to a woven bag of brown beans, he explains that the beans need to cope with a host of environmental challenges – but once they’ve passed those hurdles, one thing is for certain: they have to be in demand at the market.
“In Southern Tanzania areas, people prefer sugar beans. With Uyole beans – a type of ‘sugar’ bean – we are looking for high yielding varieties, which are also resistant to pest and disease. And at the same time, they have to have the right market characteristics,” he says.
A group of feisty traders eye him suspiciously as he runs his fingers through a batch of beans stacked up for sale by the side of the road. “These are mixed improved and local beans,” he explains. A lifetime of working with the small seeds has honed his expert eye – to any casual observer it’s impossible to tell the difference.
“This is the Uyole 03 bean variety,” he proudly notes, lifting a handful out of the batch. “They are high yielding compared to local varieties, they cope well with infestations of local pests – and importantly, they are bound for the South African market, which means they bring in a good income too.
“The traders here say they prefer these beans because they know they’re in high demand – they are easy to cook compared to local varieties and yet have all the characteristics of other local beans.”
He puts the beans back in the bag and enthusiastically thanks the women at the trading stall for their time.
“The reason I’m interested in breeding work is that I know how to get improved bean varieties to our farmers which are in demand in the market. Our farmers – especially women – won’t be disappointed; they know they will be able to make money after their hard work. That’s what makes me happy at the end of the day – that’s where I’ve focused my education and the work I am doing in breeding.”
Driving back to the research station at the end of day, the sun is setting across the sunflowers as Michael explains why he doesn’t mind long days in the field. “I’m passionate to work with smallholder farmers because often they are left out, not everyone wants to work with them. I have decided to focus on working with smallholders, so that I know they will get the best varieties we can find, which will also bring them the best income and food for the table.”