Insufficient iron in diets is a leading cause of anemia, a condition that particularly affects pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as children under the age of five. Through collaborative plant breeding efforts with farmers and other partners, CGIAR scientists have developed and scaled up hundreds of varieties of iron-biofortified beans in an effort to address the problem. 

Many varieties are developed through the Pan Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), a bean research network established in 1996 as a uniquely collaborative, multi-stakeholder platform of research for rural transformation that develops climate-resilient and high-yielding nutritious bean varieties and complementary technologies. PABRA aims to enhance food and nutrition security, incomes, resilience to climate change, and gender equality for improved rural and urban livelihoods in 32 African countries.

To date, PABRA members have released 536 varieties of beans, developed in response to farmer and market demand, and made them available to more than 30 million households. Newer improved varieties have significantly replaced those from the 1980s, which were still widely used in the 2000s. Common bean yields have increased in 14 countries over the past 20 years. Improved varieties, including biofortified ones, contribute to improved nutrition, health, and household livelihoods. These have made significant contributions to food security in most countries in Africa.

To date, PABRA members have released 536 varieties of beans, developed in response to farmer and market demand, and made them available to more than 30 million households.

In Burundi, PABRA in partnership with the private sector and the Institut des sciences Agronomiques du Burundi (ISABU) in 2015, scaled-up production of composite bean flour for weaning infants and lactating mothers. Besides meeting the nutritional needs of children and women, the innovation aimed to generate income for entrepreneurs and farmers supplying biofortified beans. One entrepreneur, Christella Ndayishimiye, expanded her team of employees from one to 21 (61% of whom are women and youths), and now distributes her products to 19 wholesale shops and 139 retailers in Burundi, 10 traders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and two traders in Rwanda. Her earnings are more than $102,350, with which she bought a vehicle to ease the distribution of her products. She is now mentoring other women processors across PABRA member countries.

Under the HarvestPlus Program – part of the CGIAR Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) – 40 iron-biofortified bean varieties have been released in six African countries so far, including in Rwanda. About one in five women and four in 10 children in Rwanda are anemic. Rwandans also have the world’s second-highest per capita rate of bean consumption.

CGIAR scientists through HarvestPlus, the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT (then CIAT, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture), and the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board partnered in 2004 to develop iron-biofortified beans for Rwanda; the first varieties were released in 2010, and 10 varieties have been released to date. By the end of 2018, an estimated 20% of beans produced in Rwanda were high-iron varieties, consumed by 15% of the population, or 1.8 million people. Iron bean yields were about 20% higher than other available varieties, providing $57–78 additional profit per hectare for smallholder farming families growing them.

The Rwanda effort has been an innovative proof of concept for sustained biofortification delivery. In 2019, the entire iron bean program was handed over to the Rwanda Bean Alliance, which includes representation from value chain actors, and engages in activities from research through consumer education.

Header photo: Documenting the impact of improved climbing beans in Rwanda. Photo by N. Palmer/CIAT.

Further reading

Video: How Iron Beans Gained Ground in Rwanda

Blog: Iron Beans in Rwanda: A Nutrition Success Story

Blog: Building partnerships to fight malnutrition


The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) and its members (National Agricultural Research Systems and bean value chain actors in 32 countries) including, Totahara Ltd (a woman-owned bean flour company in Burundi), Institut des Sciences Agronomiques du Burundi (ISABU), National Agricultural Research Organisation-Uganda (NARO), the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board(RAB), the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute (TARI), numerous Rwandan and Burundi partners, Eastern Agricultural Development Company (EADC)-Uganda.


The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Global Affairs Canada (GAC), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Feed the Future Initiative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), the MacArthur Foundation, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), HarvestPlus core funding, the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (GLDC), the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA), the International Development Research Center (IDRC), the African Development Bank through Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT), the Alliance for African Green Revolution (AGRA), and Colombian and African Government members of PABRA.

This article was first published on CGIAR Website in recognition for best innovations as they celebrate 50th anniversary