This story brings together some unlikely elements; the country of Burundi, one of the smallest, poorest, and least developed countries in Africa; a female plant breeder with a vision and desire to improve the nutrition of women and malnourished children; and poor farmers wanting to group together and make more income to support their families.
Burundi is one of the saddest countries in Africa. It’s overpopulated, impoverished, ruled by a dictator and riddled with ethic and political tensions. The capital Bujumbura is the centre of the violence with periods of insecurity followed by relative calm during the last three years. There are few donors willing to invest in Burundi and some have left the country. As a consequence, the hotels are empty. The restaurants are empty. There are lines to purchase petrol. The unemployment rate is sky high. No one wants to invest in Burundi. There is no seed industry and almost no fertiliser or other inputs available for crops and, as a consequence, yields are very low. There is one more thing. There was a bad drought in 2017 and people are starving in the Eastern half of the country with 21,000 children severely malnourished. Despite this Burundi gets little foreign aid.
Capitolene Ruraduma is a remarkable woman. In a profession dominated by men, she was the only female plant breeder in ISABU which is the National Agriculture Research Institute of Burundi. Capitolene had a vision that her male colleagues did not share; to improve iron nutrition for women and children in a country where anemia is rampant.
Capitolene started breeding improved high iron beans in 2011. These beans are 70% higher in iron and 40% higher in zinc than the normal bean. They are called bio-fortified beans because they are naturally bred for high nutrition. An organisation called HarvestPlus, which specialises in crops for better nutrition, sent her some high iron bean samples. Capitolene then stacked the Burundi bean pipeline full of high iron varieties of every colour of bean grown, including bush type beans and pole beans. Burundians are big bean growers and eaters. In fact, more than 90% of the population eats beans on a daily basis. So, the high iron beans will really make a difference to nutrition.
Other plant breeders have a different agenda. Some like large bean sizes, some like early maturity. Capitolene went for nutrition and yield as priorities. The high iron beans are also very high yielding, making many poor families are glad she did.
Having beans such as the ones that Capitoline is breeding is like having a genie in the bottle. But how do you let the genie out of the bottle in a country with no seed industry? How do you scale up? The answer is farmer seed cooperatives! That’s when there is no business, so you go into business yourself.
World Vision Burundi took on the job of seed multiplication which is the equivalent of letting the genie out of the bottle. This was done by first importing 20 tons of high iron bean seed from Rwanda to jump start the program. This seed was given to 10 seed cooperatives to go into business. The seed cooperatives are comprised of 20 to 25 farmers who multiplied the seed after receiving training on seed production.
Seed production requires much more care than normal bean production, such as better weeding and rouging of plants that appear to be other types. The high iron beans are also pole beans and require poles for trellising. The fields are inspected twice by government inspectors. Once harvested, members then carefully inspect the beans and take out the off-colours (as impurities). Finally, if all goes well, the beans are certified by the Government Seed Inspector. The beans are tagged as certified seed. This enables a farmer to sell the seed at three times the normal price because improved varieties of beans are in demand in Burundi. Good seed is precious because it is foundational to improved yields.
Non-governmental organisations have been scooping up this seed because of the difficulty finding improved bean varieties for their programs. This in turn is helping scale up high iron beans in the rest of Burundi. In 2017, the World Vision bean cooperative sold 100 tons of bean seed, and that was in a drought year! The high prices are helping farmers to get out of poverty.
Of course, not every farmer can afford to pay for high quality seeds. World Vision has established a voucher program where poor farmers can obtain seed at agricultural stores at a heavily discounted price. It is only a small amount of seed but it is enough to start multiplying. This genie in the bottle is even available for poor people!
This brings us back to our local Hero – Capitolene Ruraduma. You will never hear much about Capitolene because she lives in a very poor country. She prefers speaking French to English. And she has reached the Burundi’s mandatory retirement age of 55 and has since been retired by the government. However, Capitolene has created a bean flour which can be used by companies. It’s also created a bean and sesame porridge that small children can eat to gain weight. Capitolene cares about people. World Vision has hired Capitolene to lead their high iron bean projects. Capitolene can now see the results of her beans from start to finish and enjoy the fulfillment of her work; that of bringing malnourished children back to full health.