Magical Mbereshi beans in Zambia transforming smallholder farming?
Zambian enterprise Afriseed Ltd is partnering with Innovations Against Poverty (IAP) to increase production and access to Mbereshi bean seed for smallholder farmers. The company’s revenue streams related to Mbereshi beans consist of both the sale of improved seed for cultivation and of the actual beans for consumption. The Mbereshi bean seed promoted by Afriseed has been improved to enhance resilience to climate change. Afriseed is scaling up seed multiplication through a smallholder out-grower scheme, as well as expanding its distribution network of Mbereshi seed to rural farming communities. This is aimed at increasing smallholder bean cultivation which will improve household nutrition, as well as food and financial security. The market demand for beans in Zambia, and in the region in general, is very high.
Maize versus beans?
In Zambia, most smallholder farming is focused on one staple crop: maize. Maize cultivation constitutes a major part of the food energy supply in Zambia, while nutrient-rich and high-income generating crops such as legumes are only minor contributors. Increasing the production and consumption of legumes such as Mbereshi beans would not only help improve the nutritional status (the beans are high in zinc and iron) of the population but also increase farmer incomes.
Maize cultivation has very low profit margins compared to legumes. For instance, a smallholder farmer typically uses 20kg of maize seed for one hectare at €41 and harvest on average approximately 56 bags (50kg) which when sold on the market at €9.44 per bag results in a gross income of €528 per hectare. When you consider the cost of eight bags (€420) of fertilizer needed per hectare, maize is clearly not a very profitable crop. However, the market for maize is guaranteed by the government-run Food Reserve Agency, and the price paid out to farmers is slightly above the open market price. On the downside, farmers often have to wait a long time before they receive their payments, which affects their ability to prepare in time for the next cycle.
The picture is very different for legumes such as Mbereshi beans. The cost of seed per hectare is €141.5 resulting in an average harvest of 20 bags (50Kg). With the open market price currently at €60.55 per bag, farmers realize about €1,211 in gross income. Unlike maize, legumes only require four bags (€210) of fertilizer due to their nitrogen fixing capacity. It is therefore not unthinkable that more and more smallholder farmers in Zambia will embrace Mbereshi bean cultivation and break the tradition of maize mono-cropping.
Promoting smallholder farmer uptake of improved seeds
Most farmers are still using farm-saved or recycled seed due to limited access to improved quality seeds. Through the partnership with IAP, Afriseed is rolling out a plan to ensure that rural farmers have access to improved agricultural inputs coupled with extension services. The company is putting in place a ‘last mile’ distribution system that involves the use of refurbished and branded containers as mobile shops located in rural farming areas to reach underserved rural farming communities. In addition to the last-mile distribution system, Afriseed is also working with rural agro-dealers and community-based distributors who aggregate the improved seeds produced under the out-grower scheme on behalf of Afriseed and making them accessible to rural farmers in their communities.
Contributing to climate change adaptation
By promoting Mbereshi bean production and consumption, Afriseed is not only helping to address Zambia’s nutrition challenges as well as household food and income security. It is also making a positive contribution to enhancing the resilience of smallholder farmers to climate change effects. Being a short season crop, Mbereshi bean cultivation allows for late planting and even replanting in case of a drought or delayed onset of the rains. Mbereshi beans’ inherent capacity to fix nitrogen in the soil reduces the need for synthetic nitrogenous fertilizer. This will have a long-lasting beneficial effect on soil fertility and productive land use, reducing the occurrence of barren unproductive land or the need for long fallow periods. Diminished need for expensive chemical fertilizers lowers the production costs, and combined with the higher prices that the beans fetch on the market, smallholder farmers can get higher profit margins. This provides farming households with opportunities to invest in other (off-farm) economic activities, thereby building resilience in case of failed or poor harvests due to prolonged drought and floods.
Towards scaling up!
Given the higher profit margins offered by Mbereshi beans for smallholder farmers compared to other more traditional crops, it seems likely that smallholder farmers will allocate more land and labour to beans cultivation, in addition to maize cultivation. Between August 2021 and December 2022, 28 metric tons of parent seed worth €23,601 was sold to smallholder farmers for multiplication. 170 metric tons of harvested seed worth €163,919 was bought back from the farmers for processing and packaging. During the same period, Afriseed processed 109 metric tons of beans which was sold to consumers with sales value of €174,643.
Afriseed appears to have made a prudent business choice when embarking on the Mbereshi beans business. Based on the production and sales data so far, Afriseed is ready to scale up its seed multiplication, processing, packaging, and marketing efforts in order to meet the growing domestic and regional demand for both seed and beans.