Africa is eyeing two tremendous economic opportunities.
Market demand for pulses and edible oilseeds has been steadily growing over recent years. In the case of nutritious and versatile pulses (which include beans, lentils and soy) an additional five million tons have been traded annually since 1980. As consumer preferences shift away from saturated fats to healthier alternatives, the oilseed market is expected to see similar growth.
Eastern and Southern Africa have the ideal agro-climatic conditions to grow pulses and oilseeds. The continent is poised therefore to become a major exporter of these crops, to satisfy growing global demand.
Until now, African farmers have been unable to capitalise on this opportunity. They are facing multiple constraints from low productivity, to inability to access markets.
At the recent African Green Revolution Forum in Kigali, a new Alliance was formed to address these constraints, and ensure African smallholders and entrepreneurs can seize this opportunity. The Pan African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) is eager to take part, and bring the concept of a “corridor approach” to tackling the bottlenecks currently impeding the pulse and oilseed value-chains in Africa.
Trading routes for commodities like pulses and oilseeds already exist in Africa, albeit informally. For example, in Tanzania and Burundi, high demand for the yellow bean drives trade. In Ethiopia, white pea beans are in major demand, driving production there. We need to analyse these trade flows, or “commodity corridors”, to find out where production, distribution and consumption can be supported and intensified.
Tackling production bottlenecks
PABRA has been working in partnership with national breeding organisations to develop better beans seeds for African farmers. In Ethiopia for example, we have worked with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) to breed white beans that are higher yielding and more tolerant to the drought, pests and diseases that plague Ethiopian farmers. As a result, seed access has risen from 20 to 65 percent for farmers in Ethiopia since 2004. During this time, the nation has boosted its exports of white beans from US$8 million to more than US$90 million, and production has more than doubled from 211,347 tons to 455,115 tons.
Aggregating crops for a distribution revolution
Low tradeable volumes and high transaction costs are often a major stumbling block for farmers hoping to trade internationally in Africa. By creating hubs where farmers can aggregate produce, this can be addressed. In Uganda, for example, companies like Equator Seeds are purchasing large volumes of the fast-maturing, drought-tolerant NABE15 bean seed variety from local farmers. The company is able to guarantee the purchase of a certain volume, and take on the costs of trading this seed internationally. NABE15 is currently being sold to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, for distribution to Sudanese refugees.
Staying ahead of consumer demand
Capitalising on evolving consumer demands relies on market research. As diets shift in Africa, PABRA has been conducting research to understand malnutrition levels, where families source food, and how much they pay for it. This generates a deeper understanding of which nutrients are a priority for consumers, and how to price products. Recently, we have worked with Kenyan food company Azuri Health to determine the answers to these questions before the launch of their brand new “nutri-porridge flour”, a nutritious product made from bean and amaranth. A good grasp of what consumers want not only now, but in the future, will help African entrepreneurs sell to them more successfully.
By taking a corridor approach and pinpointing where production, distribution and consumption hubs of pulses and oilseeds in Africa can be strengthened, we can ensure African farmers and entrepreneurs are able to capitalise on the market boom for these products. The potential is vast, and by working together, we can make this vision a reality.
Dr. Robin Buruchara is the Director of the Pan African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA)