A new connection for dry-bean research: Scottsbluff and 10 African nations

UNL's Carlos Urrea (left) and Teshale A. Mamo, a bean breeder and research coordinator from Tanzania, Africa, tour Urrea's research plots at Scottsbluff.
Monday, January 3, 2022

A new connection for dry-bean research: Scottsbluff and 10 African nations

A dry bean breeder based in western Nebraska and a bean breeder from Tanzania, Africa, met in Scottsbluff this week to get acquainted, discuss their breeding work, and tour laboratories and plots at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Panhandle Research, Extension, and Education Center at Scottsbluff. 

The new connection might open a channel of international collaboration to improve dry edible beans and help improve nutrition and food security in Eastern and Central Africa.

Carlos Urrea is the dry bean breeding specialist at the UNL Panhandle Research, Extension, and Education Center. His program's primary goal is breeding better bean varieties for Nebraska, one of the nation's leading bean-producing states. But he often works with colleagues in other bean-producing states, and in international collaborations aimed at sharing knowledge and promising dry bean cultivars.

Teshale A. Mamo, based in Arusha, Tanzania, is a bean breeder by profession, and also coordinator of the bean research network for East and Central Africa for the Alliance of Biodiversity International and CIAT, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. The international nonprofit organization's missions include reducing hunger, improving nutrition, and improving agricultural eco-efficiency.

Mamo coordinates dry bean research activities in 10 African nations: Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, South Sudan, Uganda, and Sudan.

The two men met for the first time in Urrea's office at the Panhandle Center. Mamo, who is in the United States for a short time, drove to Scottsbluff to see Urrea's bean breeding operation. While in the country he also travelled to North Dakota State University to meet with bean breeder Juan Osorno, a frequent collaborator of Urrea's in joint research projects and regional nurseries where bean cultivars are tested in plots around the nation.

Urrea's program has an extensive reach, with winter bean breeding nurseries in Puerto Rico and New Zealand. In addition, he travels to Colombia annually, his country of origin, to visit CIAT (based in Colombia) and select dry bean lines to bring back and use in his efforts to breed for drought and heat resistance. He also collaborates with researchers in Uganda, Zambia and Mozambique.

Through his connections Mamo learned of Urrea's program, including heat and drought tolerance. "I'm really excited by his work, and I asked to visit his breeding program, and that's why I traveled 10 hours," Mamo said. In addition to touring Urrea's labs and fields, the two men visited Executive Director Lynn Reuter at the Nebraska Dry Bean Commission office.

Urrea showed Mamo some of the results of his program, such as bean lines with resistance to root rot and common bacterial blight, and a pinto bean cultivar that has been released for use in Africa. They also looked at experiments on heat and drought. He showed laboratory equipment used in bean cooking tests and for the development of slow-darkening pinto lines. Finally, he explained the extension component, which involves activities such as field days, multi-state collaboration, and publications and websites that share data and new information with the public.

Mamo said he was interested in talking about breeding tolerance to drought and heat, resistance to diseases, and other traits that farmers prefer and consumers demand. In Africa, the most popular market classes of beans are red mottled, yellow beans, small red, sugar bean, navy beans, and pintos. The breeding program in Pan-Africa Breeding Bean Research Alliance/CIAT has focused on those grain types by looking at consumers' preferred traits, including good flavor, fast cooking time, and low flatulence, Mamo said.

In the countries where Mamo works, beans are a staple food used in various ways. They are often served in soups, snacks, stews and porridge and ground into flour to make doughnuts. He said per-capita consumption in countries such as Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda reaches 50-65 kilograms annually (about 110-143 pounds), compared to about 7.5 pounds in the United States. In Tanzania, consumption is 20 kilograms per person per year (about 45 pounds).

After a tour, Mamo and Urrea said they are working on bringing several young bean-breeding students from Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and other African countries to the Panhandle Center for several months for hands-on experience and learning. Rwanda is a large consumer of dry beans, Mamo said, and Tanzania is the No. 1 bean-producing nation in Africa, and seventh in the world, in terms of acreage and tonnage.

The two men said the breeding plots in Scottsbluff have several promising cultivars for Africa. Mamo said the 10 countries he works with really need a variety of assistance, including technical support and project proposal writing. In addition, Mamo's visit creates the opportunity for official collaboration, such as joint applications for grants.