Snack bars with a winning twist: beans in the international spotlight

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When Harriet Aber entered the LovePulses Showcase competition with her special bean-amaranth energy bar, she never imagined it would take her from Uganda to Chicago.

Yet her novel and nutritious snack won her second place in the LovePulses Showcase competition, presented at one of the biggest food expo events in the world at the Institute of Food Technologists, Chicago earlier this year.

Harriet – a nutritionist at the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and Makerere University – like the bean experts who gathered last week in Kampala to close the UN declared International Year of Pulses – has had an exciting year.

She is among the hundreds of dedicated bean researchers in Uganda and across Africa, who have drawn attention to a crop we take for granted – yet that is critical for contributing to better, more nutritious diets in Africa.

For Harriet and the community of pulse researchers working on the vitally important common bean, consumed by over 400 million people a year as part of their regular diet, this year has been about celebrating beans – and making them more available to consumers.

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CIAT’s Dr. Robin Buruchara, Director of the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), a major partner in bean research in Uganda, said: “It’s been a fantastic year for raising awareness of the importance of beans around the world – particularly in Africa, and especially in Uganda.”

“But as this International Year draws to a close, the international bean research community will not be dimming the lights on the importance of beans for food and nutrition security across the continent. In fact, the awareness raising campaign this year has highlighted the need for more research to come.”

Clare Mukankusi, also from CIAT and a PABRA bean breeder, said the role that beans can play in meeting targets laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals is vital, contributing to sustainable food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, nutrition and income generating goals.

“If we’re going to continue to reduce hunger and improve nutrition in Africa, the common bean can help us do it,” she said. “That’s why this is just the start – we’re building on research to improve more beans for more people.”

“Beans are essential, yet legumes in general are not getting the attention they deserve at policy level, and researchers are not empowered with the resources they need to get better beans in the hands of more farmers,” she added.

“This needs to change, and we’re working with our national, international and regional partners through the PABRA network – which offers us a faster way to introduce and disseminate innovations in bean research across Africa.”

Harriet Aber Nutritionist, National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and Makerere University

Harriet Aber Nutritionist, National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and Makerere University

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Researchers are not empowered with the resources they need to get better beans in the hands of more farmers.

Clare Mukankusi

Bean breeder, CIAT and PABRA

Research has already shown that investment in bean genetic improvement is paying handsome dividends, she noted. For example, households growing improved varieties in Rwanda and Uganda, have increased yields by 53 and 60 percent respectively. The beans are becoming increasingly popular in other major bean producing countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Improved beans have strong, positive impacts on food security in East Africa. For example, CIAT studies indicated that food insecurity would be 2 and 16 percent higher in Uganda and Rwanda respectively without the improved varieties.

In Ethiopia, beans improved for canning by the private sector have revolutionized bean production and marketing, with the number of farmers engaged in the value chain increasing by 200 per cent from 0.5 million in 2004 to 1.5 million in 2015.

Since 1996, more than 550 new bean varieties have been released across Africa by PABRA members – including high iron varieties which reduce iron deficiency and anemia in young women in Rwanda.

Harriet’s Bean Amaranth Energy bar, containing popped amaranth and honey – and Jane Tsela Bean Jam entry from Swaziland which came third in the same competition – are examples of the innovative approaches bean researchers have already used to ensure quality, affordable and nutritious beans reach more people – achievements they will build upon in coming years.

Call to action:

  • CIAT and PABRA continue to work with bean programs in more than 30 countries across Africa to strengthen capacity in national research programs and support cutting-edge bean research for improved food and nutrition security in Africa.
  • We will continue to work towards sharing scientific data on bean research – for example establishing common cataloging procedures across all countries – so we can accelerate learning, and fast-track the development of better beans in national feeding programs.
  • The International Year of Pulses has raised global awareness of the importance of beans in our diets. We will build on this momentum to ensure beans are more accessible, affordable and nutritious for the public.
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