A primary objective for most development projects is to ensure that their momentum and impact continue after the project ends. To do so, project planners must look beyond implementation per se and devote resources and effort toward laying the foundation for sustainability.
In this vein, I was happy to see a recent article in The New Times of Rwanda about strong and growing demand in that country for iron-biofortified beans. HarvestPlus, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB), initiated development of iron bean varieties for Rwanda in 2003, and delivery to smallholder farmers began in 2012. Both HarvestPlus and CIAT (which has since merged into the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT) are part of the CGIAR global agricultural research partnership.
In Rwanda, a country with the world’s highest per capita bean consumption, these nutritious biofortified varieties were primarily intended to help address widespread iron deficiency, which is a leading cause of debilitating anemia and other serious health issues. An estimated 38 percent of children under five and 17 percent of women in Rwanda suffer from anemia.
When eaten regularly, these conventionally bred (non-GM) iron beans provide up to 80 percent of daily iron needs; they are an affordable nutrition response tailored for smallholder farming families who mostly eat what they grow, and whose diets are anchored in staples. Research has also shown that consumption of iron beans improves cognitive performance (specifically, memory and attention), and physical productivity.
HarvestPlus, with multiple public and private sector partners in Rwanda, ramped up production of iron beans, established systems for their delivery to farmers, and linked farmers to post-harvest markets where they could sell surplus grain. We provided capacity strengthening to 15 crop aggregators—the vital links between farmers on one end, and processors and food companies on the other. Several food companies have also helped reach thousands of Rwandan urban consumers—such as with packets of ready-to-eat precooked beans produced by FarmFresh. This company has also worked to expand the reach of iron beans to school children through school feeding programs.
Reaching Critical Mass
HarvestPlus completed its Rwanda program during the first half of 2019, after we surmised that iron had achieved a critical mass in the market to usher in sustainable growth. By the end of 2018, iron beans accounted for an estimated 20 percent of all beans produced by Rwandan farmers, with an estimated 420,000 smallholder farming households growing them. At the consumption end, about 15 percent of the population eating them regularly.
With seed-to-farmer-to-consumer value chains established and functioning well, it was time to leave them in the charge of local partners. But has it continued since then?
To find out, in late 2020, our monitoring and evaluation team conducted in-depth interviews with a sample of 120 farmers in 12 districts who had been growing iron beans at the end of 2018. The team also interviewed several key bean seed and grain value chain actors. Overall, we found that the iron bean seed and grain markets had remained robust, despite market and economic disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic during much of 2020.
A few key findings:
- More than four out of five (82 percent) of the farmers interviewed said they had grown iron beans in the most recent season.
- The RAB, Rwanda’s official crop research agency, continues to breed iron-biofortified bean varieties and has an active pipeline: in May 2021, eight new varieties (four bush bean and four climbing bean varieties) were approved for release to farmers.
- Seed multipliers continue to play a critical role in the value chain by ensuring sufficient and quality seed supply for farmers. Of 12 seed multipliers interviewed, only one had not multiplied iron beans in the most recent season, but this was due to crop rotation practices rather than waning interest.
- The multipliers who continued to multiply iron bean seed reported an average 11 percent increase in production volume compared to late 2018.
- Demand for iron bean seed continues to exceed available supply. In fact, a few prominent NGOs said in September 2020 that they were unable to procure enough seed to distribute to their farmer participants.
Significantly, to address the seed supply shortfall, the RAB recently authorized production of “early generation” seed by private companies—a landmark move in the development of a market-driven seed value chain. In fact, five private companies had jumped into action by early 2021. The government also provided valuable regulatory leadership; notably, it published detailed product standards for iron beans, which helps boost interest and confidence among market participants.
Meanwhile, the aggregators we interviewed in late 2020 reported a combined increase of nearly 30 percent in aggregation capacity compared to late 2018. This is an impressive trend and reflects a vibrant market for iron beans, in both bulk form and in value-added products.
High Yields Help Fuel Growth
To be sure, Rwanda’s iron bean sector is still developing and, unsurprisingly, faces a few challenges. Coordination among value chain actors should continue to be improved to avoid bottlenecks—for example, seed multipliers need timely and reliable signals on farmer demand so they can plan output accordingly. Further down the value chain, a growing iron bean export market to neighboring countries pinches urban retailers’ ability to meet domestic consumer demand. Rwanda is effectively becoming a regional producer of these nutritious beans, helping to address iron deficiency across borders as well.
Even so, the iron bean market is set to become well-established in a relatively short period of time. Apart from the bean’s nutritional value, farmer demand is driven by these varieties’ high yields compared to other available bean varieties. As for their health impact, through the end of 2018, HarvestPlus economists estimated that consumption of iron beans saved 5,000 cumulative years of productive life (as measured by Disability-Adjusted Life Years, or DALYs) that Rwandans otherwise would have lost to disability or premature death. The beans also make business sense: each dollar invested was estimated to yield USD 2.9 in health and productivity benefits.
Partnerships Are Key
The success of this Rwanda iron bean model hinged on more than 300 productive partnerships in the public, private, and NGO sectors, and great vision by the government and others in channeling these partnerships towards a sustainable, cost-effective and at-scale outcome. Technical assistance and capacity strengthening efforts led were critical; by 2018, some 5,000 lead farmers and 1,000 agricultural extension workers had been trained by HarvestPlus and its partners in iron bean cultivation and agronomic best practices. The RAB, multipliers, aggregators, and food processors all received thorough technical, operational, and marketing training while value chains were built out, setting the stage for domestically-driven activity.
HarvestPlus is currently working on replicating this “enabler” model in multiple countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America to advance scaling up of biofortification and improve lives. Nearly 400 varieties of biofortified beans, rice, wheat, maize, and other common staples have been released so far in 41 low- and middle-income countries, with many more varieties in testing phase in these countries and 20 others. About 50 million smallholder farming household members are currently benefiting from these crops.
The time has come for rapid scale up of biofortified crops globally to help make food systems more nutritious, affordable, and equitable.
HarvestPlus would like to acknowledge generous support for our work in Rwanda from the following donors: the United States Agency for International Development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
View a video about iron beans in Rwanda