In Uganda, more than one million new refugees from South Sudan have been arriving in recent times, escaping their nation, overrun by war and horrors. With barely enough to feed themselves in poorer parts of the country, farmers have been struggling to feed their own people in impoverished areas, and the country had been working to solve the increased strain given the influx of immigrants.
Up in the north of the country, Richard Opio, at 35 years old, has been working on tending and farming a solution to these problems. Everything comes down to small, pink, red-striped beans that he plants, cares for, and harvests – an effort that began at harvesting two sacks and has now grown to six.
These beans are “super beans” which mature and grow quickly and yield a large amount of crop, with just 50 kg of them creating a crop of 2,000 kg, and are one more step towards researchers’ goals of creating an even higher level of “super bean”. These small, seemingly simple beans are being promoted throughout Uganda by both its government and experts on agriculture as a way to help curb the difficulties in hunger-prone areas of the country.
The beans are not made by high end technology, and are not genetically modified, as one may expect. Instead, they are created and harvested through genetic selection of a traditional and conventional variety, according to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. They are carefully bred in order to be resistant towards droughts and are fighting starvation every day.
There are only two so-called bean “gene banks” in the entire continent of Africa, which the United Nation’s Development Program predicts will face severe difficulties as global climate continues to change – and this is in spite of Africa only producing less than 4% of all the greenhouse gases released on earth. These gene banks are located in separate regions: one is in Malawi, in the south of Africa, and one is just off the city of Kampala, which is where Richard Opio’s beans were from. Over 30 countries in Africa have partners to these banks, and receive beans from them regularly in order to better develop and breed them for their own countries’ personal climates and conditions.
The bean gene bank in Uganda houses approximately 4,000 different kinds of beans, some of which were found and sourced from Rwanda next-door before 1994, when mass genocide hit the unfortunate country, causing the loss of around 800,000 lives and, in the process, killing many bean species in the country.
The National Agricultural Research Organization of Uganda ensures that all beans they receive and handle go through a multitude of rigorous tests so that they are certain to be able to solve the issues that they were designed to help address and fix, even in a wide variety of climates and weathers.
The beans used by Opio are known as NABE15 and have become increasingly popular and successful, to the point where the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has hired a large-scale commercial producer in order to create and supply a whopping 21 tons of the beans for the million or so refugees from South Sudan, in order to give them crops to plant that can keep them from going hungry.
These efforts are supported by numerous aid workers, who hope that this will lead to refugees relying less on handouts, which face shortages of funds daily. With any luck, these beans may encourage refugees to plant their own food and can complement the food handouts given by aid programs.
The beans grow, mature, and cook very quickly, and they have a sweetness that many locals enjoy. They also have a high tolerance against a variety of diseases and pests, according to the Pan-African Bean Research Alliance’s director, Dr. Robin Buruchara.
While the beans certainly aren’t perfect, these beans are a stepping stone to perfecting the crop. Agricultural workers are hoping to create a bean entirely pest and drought tolerant, as well as quick to mature and being high in micronutrients, and are working towards it every single day. Thanks to modern technological advancements, the ability to genetically edit the structure and components of these beans allows for much potential, and it may not be too long before the possibility of a “super, super bean” comes into play and can be produced.
In the meantime, the beans that Opio has been planting have been spreading in popularity throughout the country. A neighbor of Opio’s purchased a sample of the beans when he saw how well Opio’s were doing, and since then, the beans have begun to be traded, bought, and sold everywhere in the country, and even across the South Sudan border, where they work to fight hunger and famine.