Sunny Mbeeta Abwooli knows how to whip up a delicious meal, especially when it involves one of her favorite ingredients: beans.

“We have many varieties of beans,” says Sunny, pointing to a colorful basket of different bean types. “They are different in color, taste; how they grow. They are all important in my home because they’re easy to grow; to keep during times when food is scarce – even easy to cook and prepare.”

But since witnessing the severe impact of drought and changing weather conditions on her bean yields, she’s done more than just prepare them for the table.

In recent years, as chairwoman of the Kyamaleera Woman’s Handicraft Association, Sunny and 300 other farmers in western Uganda – more than half of them women – have partnered with scientists.

Beans to beat drought, disease and malnutrition

In Uganda, common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) are eaten at almost every meal and are integral to food security and the fight against malnutrition. Each variety has a different color, size or taste, and is preferred in different parts of the country for different reasons.

Between 2012 and 2013, the 300 farmers in western Uganda were given 15 different bean varieties to test on their plots. Some were improved varieties, bred by researchers to improve characteristics like drought resilience or high iron content; some were locally preferred and others released varieties.

Over three seasons, the farmers – together with researchers from the National Crops Research Resources Institute (NACRRI) in Uganda and CIAT – tracked height, yield; number of pods per plant and disease resilience of each.

All 15 varieties were maintained for the three seasons, and at the end of the trail, farmers replanted the varieties which they considered performed best, without the participation of researchers.

Best beans and surprising results

Pointing to a small, round, black variety from the northern part of Uganda, Sunny offers up a nugget of information that emerged during her participation in the research. These small black varieties did best during her trials – and those of many others. But this bean was not selected by farmers as best. Why?

Although they were found to beat drought and survive excessive rainfall better than some local yellow and red varieties, they are black. These beans are not a traditional part of the diet in Western Uganda, and so they were not selected by farmers.

Dr. Clare Mukankusi, a breeding coordinator with the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance, explains: “We wanted to see if farmers would make trade-offs depending on the weather – to see which varieties they would select and why.”

“When farmers saw that NABE2 – the black variety – could withstand excessive rainfall and drought, they said they would grow it in those weather conditions. But we found that marketability – based on seed size and color – was the main driver for farmer selection.”

“Although the black beans might be a great way to beat drought, most farmers are looking for income at market first,” said Clare. Despite climate risks, farmers are likely to grow beans which they are already familiar with, and which they know sell in local markets and fetch a good price.

Putting rural women first

Yet the research also found that women were more inclined to make trade-offs between climate adaptability and marketability; they were more likely to grow the black beans. “That’s probably because women worry more about nutrition security in the home, and putting food on the table,” she added.

“What the results show us as breeders, is that while growing different bean varieties can ‘buffer’ farmers against the impacts of climate change, we need to keep market demand in mind, at the same time as yield performance, or resilience to drought and excessive rainfall conditions,” said Clare.

The need to educate farmers about the nutritious benefits of legumes, so that nutrition is a more important factor in making decisions about which beans to grow, was also a key lesson. “Even a woman who has a small piece of land will grow beans. They can fight malnutrition; improve livelihoods, nutrition and incomes – not just for women and men across the continent, but for future generations,” said Clare.

In August this year, five top bean varieties tested by Sunny and other farmers were officially released in Uganda. They are now available for millions of other farmers to grow, based on locally preferred taste, color, cooking time, climatic conditions, soil suitability and tolerance to pests.

While these five bean varieties were distributed to Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya, Madagascar, Ethiopia and South Sudan – each country still has to do its own evaluations to select best varieties for local conditions and preferences. That’s why the participation of local farmers in selecting best varieties is key.

Read the report: Participatory Evaluation of Common Bean for Drought and Disease Resilience Traits in Uganda

Call to action

  • Further research is needed to assess conditions in countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, DRC, Tanzania and Madagascar, to find out which beans best suit local needs.
  • We need to continually develop farmer preferred and market demanded varieties able to withstand changing climatic conditions.
  • We also need to fast-track the release of varieties regionally, to promote regional trade.

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