Visions of a sustainable food future
Claire Mukankusi, plant breeder
“The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) is a free trade area for 20 countries, which has allowed us to significantly speed up the release of new beans”
Beans without borders
My dream has always been to reach the poorest in Africa though science. And now, as a “doctor of plants,” as my children call me, I help regulate the flow of beans between the world’s largest bean genebank in Colombia and many countries in Africa.
Beans are essential in sub-Saharan Africa. In East Africa alone, they are the second most-traded commodity, and a meal is often considered incomplete without them. In many African countries, every woman, with only a very small piece of land, can grow and sell beans, to put a nutritious meal on the table.
Thanks to decades of research, we have already made huge progress in improving beans. They are now more nutritious and affordable, and the plants are more productive and hardy in the face of heat and drought.
But if we’re going to meet the Sustainable Development Goal “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition,” we’re going to need to raise the bar even higher.
As a breeder, I rely on genetic diversity to make progress. If one bean variety is lost forever, we might never know how its unique attributes could have helped us – and future generations – tackle specific challenges. That’s why the 37,000 accessions at CIAT’s global bean collection in Colombia, and the 3,000 at our genebank in Uganda are at the heart of the work of the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) to improve beans for the continent.
Safely conserving these beans is key to breeding new varieties, to empower farmers to increase their production, resilience, and incomes.
We also need to increase the range and availability of beans with improved qualities – like high iron, tolerance to pests and diseases, and resilience to heat, drought, and low soil fertility.
But to do that, sharing data and bean samples is vital. For the last 20 years, PABRA, the largest network of bean researchers in Africa – has brought together partners from across Africa to share data, expertise, and bean samples. Yet in too many cases, policy is not keeping up – sometimes this means there are long delays in developing improved beans and getting them to farmers.
There are some exceptions. The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) is a free trade area for 20 countries, which has allowed us to significantly speed up the release of new beans. It means that, for the first time, we can use data from high-iron varieties released in Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda, to launch the same varieties in Tanzania and Kenya, where ecological conditions are similar, instead of duplicating lengthy testing procedures in each country.
Such policy developments enable us to have a greater impact, for example, to mainstream better beans in school feeding programs to address malnutrition, or to help farmers beat drought in their fields.
Our strong network of national research programs must galvanize to take advantage of such opportunities, to ensure improved beans can move faster across boundaries, available to more people at affordable rates. But further progress across Africa requires us, as a scientific community, to also traverse country boundaries and share everything we’ve got: from knowledge, data, and breeding lines or germplasm for better beans ready for the table. Our farmers depend on it.