Monday, August 22, 2011

Climbing beans changing Rwanda's small-holder farmers fortunes

By Ochieng’ Ogodo


[KIGALI] AT 47, Alphonsin Nyirambranjinka, a peasant farmer in Rwengeri sector in Muganze district, Northern Rwanda, has been around for long. Like any other small-holder farmer here, she has had to grapple with declining bean yield, especially with African soils already very depleted.
Beans are the main staple food in Rwanda-one of Africa’s most densely populated nations-and are relied on as a prime source of protein and a huge part of calories.
Here, beans are consumed on a daily basis by almost everybody-from the very poor to the rich. Whether served alone or with other dishes, it’s an imperative component of the meal table content.
But now, Nyirambranjinka can breathe a sigh of relief thanks to ingenuity of science that has bred various varieties of climbing beans now being adopted in Rwanda and Eastern Africa.
“I started farming beans in 1973 with the bush beans. But yields have been on a downward trend and from a half hectare of land I could only manage about 500 kilograms from one season,” she reflected.
But in 2005 she shifted to cultivating climbing bean type. The first time she got one and a half tonnes but she lacked knowledge on better cultivation methods because of lack of extension services.

Yields has tripled
With the new seed variety and extension services available from the Rwandan Agricultural Research Institute (ISAR) the yield has tripled over the last few years and she is now one of proud peasant farmers depending on a climbing bean variety.
She sells the surplus in the local market and money netted is used for other household needs like buying utensils and furniture. Because of her agricultural activities Rwanda Ministry of Agriculture recognized her with a Fraizer milk cow donation.

“From cultivation of this type of beans I have had tangible benefits,” she said with a wide smile as she fished out beneath her dress, slightly above her breasts, a Motorola cell phone she bought using money from sale of beans.
Out of climbing beans cultivation she has educated her children, two of whom are out of high schools and another in secondary school. She is also able to put food on the table for the family.
She is part of the farming community working closely with ISAR from where she gets training, seeds as wells as extension services. According to Nyirambranjinka the new seed variety not only gives good yields but good taste when eaten and is disease and rain tolerant in her high potential area that northern Rwanda is.
“If I plant seeds provided by ISAR then I have no problem with disease and rainfall,” she said. She has no regrets about her shift from bush beans to climbing ones. “This type of beans is changing our lives and raising high our fortunes. The good thing is that it can be intercropped with other crops like maize and does not interfere with them at all,” she said. Maximising use of her land she also grows maize, Irish potatoes and vegetables.
Like Nyirambranjinka, 56 year old Ngiraba Twere has abandoned bush beans variety for the climbing one. For a piece of land that yielded three sacks he can now take home more than 10 bags at harvesting time. “I can now afford to sell some and still remain with what meets our dietary needs at home,” said the father of four.

More income from beans
Although he grows sorghum, he now prefers giving large chunks of his land to climbing beans as “it brings more income than sorghum.”
In the past he has had problems with weevils that destroyed and left their bush bean fields bare but now he can afford plentiful harvest from the new variety. And for people who gets no government subsides, Twere who hails from Lurindo district in Northern Rwanda, said this said this is a most welcome variety.
Dr. Robin Buruchara said a research spanning ten years by the Rwandan Agricultural Research Institute (Institut des Sciences Agronomiques du Rwanda - ISAR) in collaboration with International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has developed beans that slink up stakes two meters high tripling and even quadrupling yields.
On January 15, 2009 they released new varieties that were bred for lower elevations between 800 to 1600 meters above the sea level, which are medium altitude climbers.

They do well in nutrient poor soils and are also diseases resistant. The beans take three months to ripen and thus offer possibility for four planting seasons annually with a hectare yielding 3-4 tonnes each harvesting season.
Beans are an important source of nutrients, providing the average Rwandan with about 39 percent of their dietary protein intake. Besides they account for 13 percent and 18.72 percent of carbohydrates and lipids respectively, and are potent sources of iron and zinc.
This, according to Buruchara who is the regional Coordinator for CIAT in Africa, is the outcome of sustained research and promotion that has made the climbing beans variety to be increasingly gown across income and gender groups. Today 65 percent of Rwandan farmers grow climbing beans varieties.
Buruchara said the collaboration worked on conventional breeding to improve resilience to diseases and tolerant to rainfall. They took various germplasm from CIAT bean germplasm bank-the largest in the world-based in Cali Colombia and after crossing them they came up with varieties suited for different elevations in the region.
“We worked in partnerships to develope improved varieties through conventional breeding coming up varieties that have better yields and more nutritious but also disease resistant and rainfall tolerant,” he said.
These beans varieties require stakes and in comparison take more labour they help fix soil nitrogen and also curtail soil erosion in sloping areas with heavy rain.
Scientifically referred to as Phaselous vulgaris L., Buruchara said, the improved climbing varieties have gained popularity and are now increasingly grown in Eastern and Central Africa notably: eastern Kenya, eastern DRC, Rwanda, south west Uganda and Burundi .

Improved climbing varieties
According to Augustine Musoni, bean breeder and coordinator of bean research at ISAR, northern Rwanda has had pockets of bush and climbing beans grown. But a devastating roots disease wreaking havoc coupled with declining soil fertility threatened the livelihoods and food security of many people.
“The varieties were vulnerable and the disease wiped all the germplasm they had. But with research and the introduction of improved climbing beans people saw improved resistance to diseases like anthracnose, root rot and ascochyta blight,” he explained.
At policy level, Musoni said, the government is promoting climbing varieties and currently it is estimated that between 50,000 to 100,000 hectares in Rwanda are under climbing bean varieties cultivation.
On land ownership, he said, Rwanda has 0.1 hectare per capita and ensuring maximum yield from the fields is therefore crucial. “You can get five tones on average per hectare when you plant climbing beans and even with potential for more yields but only 500 kilograms on the same piece of land with ordinary varieties like bus beans.”
The beans variety does not only offer small scale farmers plenty of yield despite land scarcity resulting from population pressure that continue to translate into more land division but also allow farmers to use leaves, pods fresh grains and dry grains for food as well as source of income from sales. It is a seed of hope.
The writer is the winner of the English-Speaking Africa and the Middle East region for the 2008 REUTERS-IUCN Media Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. He can be reached at or
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