Monday, January 18, 2010


Esther Nakkazi in Rwanda

The journey to Kigali started off on the Rwanda Air twin-engine propeller Dash-100, a small 37-seater plane. It was on short notice by Centre for International Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), but it was worth the journey on the earsplitting, rickety plane and heavy rains as we landed at the airport in Kigali.

The good news was that on January 15, 2010, Rwanda scientists at the Institut de Sciences Agronomiques du Rwanda (ISAR) released 15 new bean varieties that are going to benefit thousands of farmers in the central and east African region.

Rwanda and Beans:
For this beans field-learning trip, I think I have learned so much about climbing beans, I am contemplating becoming a bean farmer or changing my name to Ms. Esther Bean.

But seriously, here are some facts about Rwanda and beans, particularly climbing beans, which fascinated me so much, and interestingly, I had never seen them grow in the field.

Rwanda is one of Africa’s most densely populated nations. It relies on beans as the main staple food, source of protein and calories as such beans are consumed on a daily basis by almost everybody. The very poor can eat them alone. 

Luckily, beans described as a ‘poor mans’ meat’ and a second-class protein can be the sole source of protein with very little or no first class protein (animal) supplement. 

That is why Rwandans, who reportedly are the highest consumers of beans in the world at 50-60kgs kgs per capita (per person per year), grow strong and healthy by eating only beans as a source of protein.

They eat the leaf, as a vegetable, the grain at major meal times- lunch, dinner, and kids eat beans for breakfast with tea before going to school. In other countries when one eats a meal like Irish or sweet potatoes than beans, the other food is the bigger portion but in Rwanda, the beans per meal are more than the other food.

Rwanda has one of the highest diversity of beans in Africa. It has so much variety in terms of color, types-bush beans and climbing beans as well as Rwanda farmers have immense knowledge on beans.

The new bean varieties released by ISAR on 15th January. 

For instance according to Augustine Musoni, a bean breeder with ISAR, since the year 2000-2010, Rwanda in partnership with CIAT has developed 35 beans varieties. They have thus, managed to get high yielding, disease resistant and climate change tolerant beans that can easily grow elsewhere in the region.

Rwanda also has the mandate to breed for climbing beans in the region under CIAT. In Rwanda, beans are grown in especially the northern region. 

For our tour, we visited Ruhengere, a 2 hours ride from Kigali, and also Kirambo and Musanze in Bulera district. I must say that Rwanda is a beautiful country with many hills. I can describe it as a high rising brown cake, decorated with green icing sugar with thick chocolate (brown dirty water) flowing along its hills.

With its high population and declining land size, climbing beans allow maximum use of limited land and are comparable to having skyscrapers in cities in terms of space utilization.

Women and Beans:
Beans are described as a woman’s crop. Women in Rwanda plant, cultivate, harvest, store, sell, cook the beans and they are very much involved in the selection of bean varieties developed by plant breeders. 

The farmers’ experience in growing beans is excellent, actually, Rwandan women could be the most experienced about growing beans in the world, with a lot of knowledge the ladies are said to know their beans very well.

They can tell which beans can grow in a particular type of soil and season. Hence, Rwanda bean breeders, have a deep connection with Rwandan women via beans. The breeders cannot release a variety until they get confirmation from women who touch, cook and taste them in the participatory variety bean selection.

“When we are breeding we get women to select the varieties. They have the traditional expertise, they will look at the seed in their hands and just say this variety cannot be grown here or it will not do well,” said Musoni.

A woman farmer in Rwanda tending to her climbing beans.
Women also give beans names in Rwanda. The beans bear scientific names but are also given local names.

One of the varieties released on January 15th was CAB 2 – scientific name, Gasirida, local name after a woman farmer Cansilde Gasirinda.

The women also name some beans after what they look like in terms of colors, shape- ‘red kidney’, or other characteristics like weight, ‘coltan’ because they are heavy and fetch more money just as the mineral coltan.

Jacqueline Mujawamariya, 31 years old has spent many years growing, tending, eating and selling beans. She eats beans with Irish potatoes and posho and does not remember that many days when she had a meal with no beans.

As a bean farmer and trader, she has bought a calf from her beans proceeds. She described the climbing beans –as ‘sweet’ compared to bush beans. But also the climbing beans technology –is comparable to the 'Jack and the Beanstalk', which is extremely useful where land pressure is soaring and the need for higher yields is very intense.

CIAT and Beans:

The partnership between the Centre for International Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) and Rwanda’s ISAR has developed improved climbing beans that slink up stakes two meters high- tripling, and even quadrupling yields.

These beans require stakes and relatively more labor, but they give back assisting in soil nitrogen fixing, as well as reduction of soil erosion in sloping areas that experience heavy rain. 

In Rwanda, the immediate pay off from the high yields of climbing types has catalyzed farmers’ adoption of soil fertility improvements, such as organic amendments and the use of agroforestry. This has led to better soil conservation and more sustainable agro-ecosystems for areas.

According to Dr. Robin Buruchara, Africa regional Coordinator CIAT, the national programmes like ISAR in Rwanda, or Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Uganda, are given lines for breeding that they make adaptable to the needs of the country.

For instance, the ‘marker assistance selection’, which is basically conventional technology is used to breed varieties that are selected by farmers. CIAT, the custodian of beans varieties, however, does not allow the varieties to be sold after being bred even after the country program adds value because they are a ‘public good’.

That hopefully, is knowledge enough for you to become Mr/Ms. Bean like I would like to become  a bean farmer like the Rwandan women.