By Pius Sawa
KAMPALA, Dec 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At a factory in Uganda's capital, Kampala, workers steam-cook beans in big metal containers, before cooling and packaging them for sale. The beans can be reheated in 15 minutes or less, requiring far less firewood than the two to three hours it would take to cook them from scratch.
This public-private initiative, being tested in Uganda and Kenya with funding from Canada's International Development Research Centre and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, also aims to increase bean consumption, improve diets, and create a more profitable market for bean farmers.
According to Joab Ouma of Lasting Solutions, a Ugandan company that is involved in preparing the beans, rural people usually use firewood for cooking, while charcoal is the main fuel in urban areas.
Those fuels are a direct cause of deforestation, yet until now the poorest consumers "had no choice" but to use them, Ouma said.
Uganda has lost forest rapidly in the past two to three decades, but the government has set a target to increase forest cover to 21 percent of land in 2030, up from 14 percent in 2013.
In its national plan for the Paris climate change agreement, it noted the target was "highly ambitious" as nearly 90 percent of the country's energy needs are met by charcoal and firewood.
Ouma said that, with the pre-cooked beans, the time needed to cook meals is greatly reduced, lowering the use of charcoal and firewood - and potentially easing the pressure on forests.
MORE BEANS, LESS WOOD
In western Kenya, Siprosa Ajwang, 62, from Homa Bay County, said the new beans saved her time she used to spend in the bush gathering firewood.
"I used to stay away three hours looking for enough wood to cook beans, but now it is easy because I need just a small bundle," said the farmer who is taking part in the pilot project to grow and market-test the pre-cooked beans.
If using charcoal to cook, she would previously have used a full 10 kg (22 lb) basin.
"Now I only need one tin of 2 kg to cook the beans for my grandchildren," she said.
George Oketch from Wiga village in Homa Bay County said his family of nine now eats more beans thanks to the shorter cooking time.
"Initially, we cooked beans only twice a month, but now we eat beans three times a week," he said.
The C$2.65 million ($1.99 million) project - whose first phase began in October 2014 and ends next March - is being implemented by Uganda's National Agricultural Research Organisation and Kenya's Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization.
Ouma said a survey in Uganda showed an average family consumed about 12 kg of beans per month, requiring around 288 kg of charcoal per year to cook them.
The project, targeting a sample of 10,000 households in Kenya and 7,000 in Uganda, should prevent some 400,000 kg of charcoal being burned per year, he added. "This is a big impact on deforestation," he said.
"It also saves costs, because the extra money saved on fuel can be used to purchase other household essentials," he said. In addition, it frees up women to spend more time with their children.
At the start of the project, researchers screened 47 bean varieties to determine which would be suitable for pre-cooking. Companies and community seed producers were then engaged to produce an adequate supply of the selected seeds, and promote them to farmers, who were trained in field and post-harvest management.
The project researched varieties popular with farmers and consumers in the region due to their taste and high levels of protein, as well as nutrients including calcium, zinc, iron and selenium.
"These micro-nutrients are key to fighting hidden hunger," Ouma said, referring to the widespread problem of malnutrition caused by mineral deficiencies.
Twelve varieties were chosen for the pre-cooking project, and 10,000 farmers were selected to grow the beans, with a focus on providing benefits to women farmers.
George Otiep, who works on the project for international charity Caritas in Kenya's Homa Bay County, said the high-yielding bean varieties had allowed many farmers to improve their yields from less than one bag per acre to five bags, boosting their incomes.
The aim is to expand the number of farmers growing the beans in the next planting season.
Two private-sector partners - Lasting Solutions in Uganda and Del Monte Kenya - have developed prototype products and packaging for market testing.
So far, two bean products are available: a salted ready-to-eat snack, and the pre-cooked, packaged beans for reheating. They are due to be launched by the end of this month, for sale in supermarkets and grocery stores.
Once consumer demand for the product has been created, equipment to scale up production will be introduced in Uganda and Kenya, Ouma said.
There also plans to expand the initiative across Africa by supporting the development of value chains for pre-cooked beans.
Work will begin in Tanzania and Ethiopia in March 2017, and will then be rolled out in Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana and the Sahel region.
($1 = 1.3331 Canadian dollars) (Reporting by Pius Sawa; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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