The humble common bean has great potential to improve the health, food security and incomes of the most marginalised communities in Africa, not to mention making a significant contribution to national economies. As a result, beans are becoming an ever more important crop.
The growing importance of beans
The common bean is rapidly evolving from a subsistence to a market-oriented cash crop.
It is the most important, widely grown and consumed grain legume in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa, where about 6.3 million hectares of land is used to grow beans every year. Per capita bean consumption in Eastern Africa is the highest in the world – in western Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi people eat their body weight in beans every year (around 50 – 60 kg). And beans are quickly gaining importance in countries such as Cameroon and Guinea in Central and West Africa.
Expanding bean markets
Bean sales exceed US$500 million annually and have an export value of about US$110 million (FAOSTAT, 2010).
The growth of specialised niche bean markets (such as snap beans and navy beans for canning, for both domestic and foreign markets) has contributed greatly to this, along with rapidly expanding urban populations, which drive bean trade. Bean products are now served in popular high-end hotels and restaurants, offering smallholder farmers more lucrative and sustainable markets for their products.
When it comes to farming, beans are a highly attractive and versatile crop. Early maturing, higher yielding and hardier varieties can provide farmers with bumper harvests up to three times a year, guaranteeing productivity and household food security throughout the year. In addition they enhance soil fertility; can be planted with other crops such as maize, cassava and banana; after harvesting they can be stored for a long time without deteriorating; and they are easily converted to cash to meet urgent household needs.
Greater food security
On a continent where populations are growing rapidly, increasing farm productivity and attaining food security are agricultural priorities.
Improved bean varieties, particularly climbing beans, offer great potential for increasing yields. So, where bean farming households in rural areas retain around 50 per cent of beans for domestic consumption (except for snap bean of which more than 95% is sold), greater yields helps put more food on plates. Not to mention, increased sales and higher household income.
Beans are not only a superior source of protein, they are also one of the best sources of iron and zinc; two of the most common nutritional deficiencies affecting more than 2 billion people in the world. So it stands to reason that beans play an important role in combating malnutrition, particularly micronutrient-rich varieties, in combination with other food crops.