As large parts of Africa struggle with food insecurity and hunger, the search is on for crops that could provide an answer to these problems.
And with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic worsening the problem, research into legumes, such as the Marama Bean, which contribute to efforts to address hunger, malnutrition, poverty and sustainable agriculture, is particularly relevant.
Researchers at the Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS), in partnership with the Plant Biotechnology Research Group in the Department of Biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), are conducting a major study to understand the potential of marama beans as a viable food crop in South Africa and beyond.
The study, led by UWC’s Professor Ndiko Ludidi, will look at both marama bean species found in Southern Africa, namely Tylosema fassoglense and Tylosema esculentum, the latter sometimes known as ‘gemsbok’ bean, so called because it is a popular forage for livestock and wildlife.
The study will explore not only the nutritional profile of the legume, but also investigate what will happen to soybean production (in relation to insect pests) if marama bean is introduced into the same environments where maize and soybean are being grown; the latter two are the most widely grown summer grain crops in South Africa.
According to Professor Ludidi, the hardy bean, “is highly nutritious and can withstand harsh environments.” The bean is especially known for its ability to tolerate droughts, he says.
While the rest of the country was under hard lockdown, Ludidi and doctoral student Afika-Amazizi Mbuyiswa, whose work is supported by the CoE-FS at UWC, undertook an exhaustive and exhausting trip in Limpopo in July 2020, in search of the marama seeds. Although they can’t specify where they found it, for reasons of intellectual property, the trip did take the researchers from Polokwane to Louis Trichardt, and everywhere in-between.
Despite their nutritional prospects and drought resilient properties, marama beans are among the “orphan legumes” that still largely grow wild and remain undomesticated.
Although researchers agree that there is still some way to go before it could become a viable and widespread food crop. But research like that being done in Prof Ludidi’s group is part of work conducted internationally to pave the way for the bean’s brighter agricultural future.