Friday, June 10, 2011 Roger Thurow - Outrage and Inspire -
Kakamega, Kenya

For some farmers in western Kenya, the hunger season I wrote about last week is coming to a mercifully early end.  A new variety of bean is ready for harvest.

“The farmers say this bean meets the hunger,” says Reuben Otsyula, the scientist who bred this little black bean.  “They can see the hunger is coming and the bean meets the hunger and pushes it back.”

It is called KK15 in agriculture nomenclature, but farmers call it a savior.  The bean is early maturing and high yielding – usually a champion combination.

The early maturing means it is ready to harvest perhaps two months before the maize, the country’s staple which won’t be ready to harvest until the end of July at the earliest.  So the bean dramatically shortens the hunger season by providing farmers with something to eat in May and June while waiting for the maize.  And, with the bean naturally containing good levels of zinc and iron, it is important in the fight against micro-nutrient deficiency.

The high yield means it provides a crucial income boost to farmers when they have little else to sell.  A 90 kilogram bag of these beans can fetch 4,000 shillings on the market, which is the equivalent of about three bags of maize at harvest time.  Farmer Judith Akaniche says the beans help keep her children in school by providing income at a time when tuition fees are due. “Farmers like these beans because they are really economical,” said Lucas Malupi, the chairman of a local farmers’ group.  He was bending over in a field, inspecting the bean plants.  “You can grow them in a small plot.  They get a good price.  It matures quicker, in about two-and-a-half months, so you can harvest one crop and then plant another one.”

Best of all, KK15 and a number of other beans from Otsyula’s lab at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute have been bred to resist a disease called root rot, which devastates many other bean varieties.

But here’s the strange thing about this bean: It is available to very few farmers.  Otsyula has had it ready for distribution for a couple of years already, but it has reached only a smattering of farmers who have been participating in some trials.  The reason is a sad refrain for African agriculture: new seed varieties developed to benefit the continent’s vast legion of smallholder farmers are often held up in bureaucratic wrangling and missteps before they become commercialized.

“It’s disheartening,” says Otsyula, whose beans have traveled a most circuitous route for three years and are probably still a year from wider commercial distribution.  Only now are his seeds getting into the hands of a private seed company for further development.

Much of the funding of Otsyula’s work has come from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.  “If the beans don’t get to the farmers,” says Joe DeVries, who heads AGRA’s seed program, “then it’s like we did nothing.”

The long odyssey of Otsyula’s beans, from his lab to the farmers, is a cautionary lesson for President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, which prizes research as a top priority in accelerating agricultural development in the world’s poorest country.  All the research, and all the money spent on it, comes to naught if there isn’t a policy framework in the individual countries that urgently ushers the benefits of that research to the farmers.

And there’s a second lesson: listen to the farmers.  They will tell you what they need.

“When we take the beans to the market,” Lucas Malupi says, “all the farmers are asking, “Where can I get that?”

The demand is there.  Now the farmers need the supply to match.



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