Geoffrey Mabirizi Nsereko is, by Ugandan standards, a large scale farmer. Rain had soaked the ground by the time we alighted at his farmhouse in Mityebiri village, Rakai district, just a few kilometres from the Uganda-Tanzania border post of Mutukula.
The sun, shining gently that afternoon, made the trees in his compound appear smiling. Ripe mangoes hung invitingly from a small tree at one corner of the compound. I picked a stick and poked some. Angella picked each that fell to the ground. From this spot the beans, which had brought us from Kampala to see, lay spread over seven acres of land, flapping their ears under a mild wind.
Nsereko’s farm sits on 360 acres of land. On it is a ranch and gardens of water melon and coffee, the things he has traditionally kept there. In 2015, however, Nsereko decided to start to grow beans on a large scale, but not the ordinary beans like those my mother grows in Luweero district. These are called biofortified beans. Through crossbreeding, scientists at the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Namulongo have increased the iron content in them.
“Crosses are made between preferred varieties that have low iron content with another variety with high iron content but that may not have the characteristics that farmers and the market want,” says Dr. Stanley Nkalubo, a bean breeder and Team Leader for Legumes Research at the NaCRRI.
Lack of iron in the body leads to a reduction in the number of red blood cells, a condition known as anaemia, making one prone to illness and infection as the body’s immune system is weakened. Severe anaemia puts pregnant women in high risk of complications before child birth and when they are breastfeeding.
Iron can be added to processed foods for nutritional purposes or prescribed as medicine by a physician. The idea of biologically adding iron in beans is to help communities like ours, which are so little into processed and packed foods, and so much into eating beans, access iron in good quantities.
Nsereko’s family eats just a small portion of the beans. The rest he sells to an NGO called Community Enterprises Development Organisation (CEDO). CEDO in turn sells the beans to other farmers in Rakai, mainly smallholder farmers, clearly stating that these are iron rich beans. NaCRRI, a seed breeder; Nsereko, a seed multiplier; and CEDO, a seed distributor, are in a chain of individuals and organisations that target to feed a billion of the world’s people with bio-fortified foods by 2030.
“Generally speaking we have reached 20 million people with biofortified crops,” says Vidushi Sinha, Senior Communications Specialist, HarvestPlus. HarvestPlus is part of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR). In this chain, it facilitates the research and marketing of biofortified crops. Angella Atero, with whom I savoured Nsereko’s mangoes, works for HarvestPlus in Kampala as a Demand Creations Specialist.
By the end of 2015, more than 100 biofortified varieties across 10 crops had been released in 30 countries, according to Howarth Bouis, the man who founded HarvesPlus 14 years ago and winner of the 2016 World Food Prize for his pioneering work in biofortified foods.
“Notably, in 2015 we welcomed the release of zinc rice and iron lentil in Bangladesh, vitamin A maize in Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, iron cowpea in India, and iron bean in Colombia,” Says Bouis in a statement. In Uganda we mainly grow iron rich beans and Orange Sweat Potatoes enriched with Vitamin A.
Beverley Postma, who succeeded Bouis in 2016 as HarvestPlus’s Chief Executive Officer, was that afternoon among the people who walked through Nsereko’s beans – named NARO1, NARO2 and NARO3 – the names mainly emphasize that the beans are from the National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO).
“NARO bean two is the best. It is high yielding,” Nsereko explains to his guests. “When you do dry planting it responds very fast to rain,” he adds. Dry planting means putting the seed in the ground as one waits for rain.
“I am impressed with the experimentation,” says Postma after listening to Nsereko. “We just need to find a way of passing on the knowledge. Scaling up is possible but will require constant learning.”
The group had earlier visited Vincent Lwanyaga who grows Orange Sweet Potatoes – these are fortified with Vitamin A for purposes of building immunity in consumers. Lwanyaga multiplies vines, which he sells to other consumers at Shs 15,000 a sack, but also produces potato tubers for the market. Abdu Mugerwa, who sells potatoes at the roadside near Lwanyaga’s farms, says children prefer the Orange Sweet Potato to the white one because of the colour.
Over 600,000 Ugandan families grow bio-fortified crops, mainly sweet potatoes and beans, and HarvestPlus’s target is to increase the number to three million households by 2021.