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In 2016, Malawi suffered the worst drought in 30 years, attributed to a particularly severe El Niño weather cycle. It left the country’s central and southern maize-growing areas in ruin.

But while the maize withered, some beans developed by CIAT and its partners were bucking the trend. Weathering the drought, the pods were plump and ready for harvest. As a result, local farmers started calling them “magic beans.”

The beans had been bred to mature early – in around 60 days instead of the usual 90 or so. It’s an escape mechanism against the crippling effects of drought. The beans also have longer roots, helping them reach water deeper in the soil.

Mesoamerica, the area from Central Mexico down to northern Central America, is the ancestral home to the magic beans. Their ancestors were collected and conserved in the CIAT genebank in Colombia, and screened for interesting traits. That’s where they were found to have the potential to withstand drought. They were crossed and selected for drought tolerance by bean scientists at CIAT headquarters and then sent to Malawi.

Next followed research station trials, then field tests with farmers, via the CIAT-led Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), together with the Malawi’s Department of Agricultural Research Services. These helped researchers pinpoint the two most promising varieties.

More recently, the team in Malawi has been testing the beans with different combinations of chemical fertilizer and manure, as well as intercropping them with maize. Seeing the success of these trials from the roadside, other farmers have started asking where they can get the seeds. CIAT scientists hope the beans will be commercially released soon, offering farmers a safety net when the rains fail.

Initial trials of the “magic beans” in Malawi were supported by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Subsequent work was part of Africa RISING project, a multi-donor, multi-partner effort led by Michigan State University and funded by USAID.

Through the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), over 550 new bean varieties have been released across sub-Saharan Africa, and millions of farming households have accessed quality seed of improved and preferred bean varieties. PABRA is coordinated by CIAT and currently works to improve bean production in 30 countries.

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What’s next?

The performance of the “magic beans” could be further enhanced through research to:

  1. Incorporate other desirable attributes in drought-resilient bean materials, such as larger seed size and shorter cooking times.
  2. Determine optimum plant density in a maize-bean cropping system to maximize yields.
  3. Combine traits for drought resilience with heat resilience as well, since drought-affected areas in Southern Africa are also associated with higher temperatures.