Zimbabwe continues to shine in the field of agricultural research, with local plant breeders coming up new improved bean varieties that can enhance productivity and the country’s overall food security. One such centre which has been at the forefront of agricultural research is the Department of Research and Specialist Services (DR&SS) in the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement.

For decades, the DR&SS has been the hub of crop variety improvement, helping to promote the adoption of new improved crops and strengthening the country’s seed systems and seed marketing.
All this is central to food and nutrition security strategies here in Zimbabwe.

And, recently a dry bean breeding team at the DR&SS led by Mr Bruce Mutari released one navy bean cultivar, Protea, and one sugar bean cultivar NUA674 for nutrition security that could help save Zimbabwe up to US$120 000 a month in import charges.

Dr Dumisani Kutywayo, director of Crops Research Division under DR&SS, says it is the first time that the country has its own canning bean cultivar, and similarly, the first time to release a sugar bean cultivar enriched with iron and zinc

The two cultivars are products of demand – market led-breeding, a principle which Mr Mutari says ensures researchers develop cultivars that respond to the needs of the consumer market.

Protea is readily available for uptake by both seed houses and the canning industry, while NUA674 is under multiplication and will be available for seed houses by December this year.

Both cultivars were developed by DR&SS in collaboration with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) through the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) project in Zimbabwe, with funding support from the Swiss Agency for development and Cooperation (SDC).

The project, which has been in existence for more than 15 years, is a partnership of CIAT-PABRA with DR&SS and other partners – public, private and NGOs.

This project seeks to improve food security, nutrition, incomes, natural resource base and gender equity for better livelihoods of smallholder households in Zimbabwe through ensuring wider utilisation of dry bean products for food security.

It also seeks to use improved bean-based products for nutrition security and increased trade of bean products in a gender equitable and sustainable way.

Previously, Zimbabwe did not have a released canning bean cultivar.
Farmers had been growing Ex-rico, a cultivar which was introduced, but never commercially released in Zimbabwe.
Mr Mutari said the fact that Ex-rico was never commercially released in Zimbabwe meant there was no formal seed system to support its supply.

Seed was solely retained and exchanged among farmers.
As a result, Mr Mutari says, the cultivar has deteriorated in quality due to susceptibility to diseases, leading to low productivity, although it is still found in some parts of Zimbabwe owing to lack of viable alternative options.

Plant breeders say this lack of official seed quality control had a three-fold effect on Ex-rico; varietal mixtures that reduced canning quality, build-up of seed-borne diseases, general loss of vigour, resulting in low productivity.

These challenges have resulted in significant cut down on area under Ex-rico production, forcing processors to import about 60 percent of the canning grain from countries such as Ethiopia, South Africa, Zambia and Malawi.

On a monthly basis, Mr Mutari says, the canning industry imports more than 100 metric tonnes of navy bean grain worth US$120 000 in order to meet canning volume requirements.

This depletes the scarce foreign currency and increases production costs to processors, thus negatively influencing the final selling price of canned bean products to consumers in the country.

Furthermore, Mr Mutari notes that the canning bean industry in Zimbabwe also experiences challenges with some of the imported consignments of navy bean, which do not meet canning standards due to mixtures of cultivars that have varying cooking profiles, making them difficult to process during canning.

“Faced with these challenges, the canning industry had been considering abandoning navy bean canning line and replace it with other market classes of beans, which, however, do not have good canning attributes,” he says.

The commercial release of the improved navy bean cultivar – Protea – will hopefully improve navy bean production at national level and reduce the navy bean import bill.

Previously, Zimbabwe had only one high iron and zinc bean cultivar – NUA45 – which is red mottled (red primary colour with cream stripes).

However, the bean value chain actors prefer sugar types such as NUA674 (cream primary colour with red stripes) that can be easily marketed.

Mr Mutari and his team of plant breeders firmly believe that the commercial release of NUA674 will go a long way in improving food and nutrition, while at the same time contributing to the national food fortification strategy that was launched in 2015.

This will immensely benefit households with poor access to commercially marketed fortified food products.
We must commend the bean breeding team at DR&SS in collaboration with CIAT-PABRA for working tirelessly to come up with new improved bean varieties that can help not only to improve food and nutrition security, but reduce Zimbabwe’s heavy reliance on imported grains.

Zimbabwe needs to place greater emphasis on such initiatives to help attain its 2030 vision to become a middle-income economy and to create the right space for innovation and development of crop varieties that can spur the economy.