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 in Uganda,” says Sunny, pointing to a basket of different kinds of beans. “They are different in color, taste, and how they grow.”

Beans can help in the fight to combat malnutrition. For women in particular, they are a good way to earn money, since traditionally they often control the income from beans.

But the severe impact of drought and changing weather conditions on Sunny’s bean yields has been a blow. And so – together with 300 other farmers in western Uganda, she has partnered with scientists to find better, more resilient beans for her community.

Together with the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) researchers and partners from HarvestPlus, the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Uganda and CIAT, she and other farmers tracked height, yield, number of pods per plant, and disease resilience among new bean varieties.

Their input is vital to improve current bean varieties and ensure new beans – like those bred to contain extra iron, released in 2016 – will be accepted by local communities. Dr. Stanley Nkalubo, the breeder and leader of the Legumes Research Program at NaCRRI, who evaluated and recently released new high-iron varieties in 2016, said:

“Instead of buying expensive supplements, communities can now buy and grow these beans as a way of boosting nutrition and reducing anemia – a major health concern in Uganda – also knowing they will get yield despite drought.”

The first high-iron, drought-resilient beans have already been released in Uganda and distributed to Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya, Madagascar, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.

Each country still has to evaluate these varieties for local conditions and preferences – through participatory research with farmers.

CIAT continues to work with local partner organizations across Africa and with farmers like Sunny to improve beans with characteristics such as high iron, based on locally preferred taste, color, cooking time, climatic conditions, soil suitability, and tolerance to pests and diseases.

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, a critical supporter of bean research in Africa through CIAT and PABRA – since its establishment in 1996 to promote collaborative research – said:

“Beans are an important source of nutrition and income for smallholder farmers, many of whom are women and the rural poor involved in the bean trade. Investment in scientific bean research will lead to the development of new varieties of beans that are climate resilient, higher in nutrition, and more marketable. PABRA, through its network of experts from around the continent and its bean innovation platforms, plays a key role to ensure the increased impact of research.”

What’s next?

  • Support ongoing research to develop bean varieties able to withstand changing climatic conditions, meet other farmers’ preferences, and that have the characteristics demanded by bean buyers.
  • We also need to fast-track the release of varieties regionally, to promote regional trade.
  • Biofortified beans must be part of public health policies to address malnutrition. To support this, nutritional education for farming communities and extension workers is needed to show the importance of biofortified beans and other nutritious crops that can constitute a healthy, balanced “food basket.”