Beans are an important staple food in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in rural areas of Eastern Africa. One of the biggest limiting factors to bean consumption is the time required to cook them and, consequently, the amount of fuel or firewood required for cooking. However, an innovative project, with researchers working in collaboration with farmers and the private sector, is developing precooked bean products or beans that will take much shorter time to cook for consumers in Kenya and Uganda.
By engaging farmers and the private sector to introduce a range of precooked bean products to suit different consumers , the East African 'precooked beans' project is set to impact in a number of ways on farmers and consumers across Kenya and Uganda.
Dr. Michael Ugen, from the National Agricultural Research Organisation, explains that as opposed to 2 hours with traditional unprocessed dry beans, the new precooked products will take 10-15 minutes to cook.
The significant reduction in time according to Dr. Ugen will also have beneficial impacts on the environment by reducing on the amount of fuel for cooking. Rural and urban household expenditure on fuel for cooking beans will also be saved.
Generally, the responsibility of collecting firewood and cooking falls on women and children. By reducing the time needed to prepare beans and collect the fuel to do so, says Dr Ugen, valuable time becomes available for women, and as a result the possibilities of using their time for other important activities.
So how does the project intend to develop the market for precooked bean products?
Dr. Ugen says they are are engaging farmers to produce the beans, private sector processors for product development, as well as working with local supermarkets, agricultural extension workers and local government in order to create a successful value chain from seed to supermarket shelf.
To date, 47 bean varieties (15 from Kenya and 32 from Uganda) have been screened and 17 selected for further precooking evaluation and product prototype development. In Uganda, 10 of the 17 initial varieties have been selected for seed production so that farmers can grow these suitable beans on a commercial scale for processing.
In East Africa, bean production is mostly carried out by small-scale farmers with only 0.4 to 0.8 hectares of land per family. 7,000 farming families have already been selected to participate in the project (3,000 from Kenya and 4,000 from Uganda) that will provide training in better agronomic practices to produce bean varieties for processing into precooked bean products; and in how to organise better in formal groups.
The project plans to have groups registered with local government authorities so that they are able to develop stronger business relationships with the private sector than as individuals.
"We are also introducing farmer groups to local government, extension workers and micro-finance institutions. Those who, in the long-run, can help support a sustainable precooked bean market," acknowledges Dr Ugen.
He, however, concedes that the challenge at this stage is making sure farmers have the seeds to cultivate in order to produce enough precooked beans to meet processing demand. "A good position to be in but a challenge none-the-less," he says.
He explains: "We're looking forward to seeing how farmers' groups progress and take advantage of the commercial opportunity presented with bean processing from grains into precooked products."
Joab Ouma, business development director of Lasting Solutions, a Ugandan commercial agro-processing company, explains the private sector's role in the precooked bean value chain:
"It is to develop prototype products and packaging for market testing. Catering to diverse consumers is a new world that marketers are up against, but it is a challenge we are embracing. The beauty of the challenge is that as much as consumers are diverse, they also have a lot in common. For instance, we all eat beans but we often eat beans very differently. Our job is to offer a range of products with a single core ingredient that is available in different pack sizes and sometimes even modify the branding to appeal to our different consumer groups."
Looking forward, enthuses Dr Ugen, we are very excited about 2016.
A precooked bean consumer analysis has been completed and four consumer groups and target markets of focus have so far been identified, which are: top-end consumers, sustainable middle consumers, vulnerable middle consumers and bottom-end consumers.
For instance, sustainable middle' urban consumers are preferring precooked beans mixed with sauces, such as tomato, which are easily cooked and ready-to-eat within minutes.
Vulnerable middle and bottom-end consumer groups, who tend to be in rural areas, prefer plain, 'wet' precooked beans to decide how best to prepare them. Whereas top-end and travelling consumers prefer ready-to-go nutritious snack products, Dr Ugen explains.
Dr Ugen says that following on from successful bean snack tasting trials in supermarkets, the team will be asking shoppers for their feedback on the other precooked products. "These include plain precooked beans ('wet' or 'dry') and precooked beans with tomato sauce and other ingredients which are ready to eat straight after cooking."
The project is being supported by the Cultivate Africa's Future (CultiAF) Fund, a $15 million initiative jointly funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre and the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research.
In Uganda, the partners include, researchers from the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the Pan African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA); and Community Enterprises Development Organisation, a seed company involved in seed and grain production and capacity-building of farmers and Lasting Solutions, a processing company.