A University of Namibia project to domesticate a nutritious wild bean to save it from extinction, improve people's nutrition and reduce poverty has received a funding shot in the arm. The marama is a resilient plant that does well in the poor soils of the Kalahari sand region and other dry parts of Southern Africa where most crops fail to thrive.
Marama is a Setswana word for Tylosema esculentum - a wild, pod-bearing perennial plant that has long nourished some people and animals in Sub-Saharan Africa but now faces extinction through over-exploitation and urbanisation.
Research by University of Namibia and other scientists has shown that marama beans have high quality oils, are more protein-rich than most domesticated beans including the common bean, soya beans and cowpeas, while their tubers have a higher starch content than the Irish potato.
Last month the United Nations Development Programme's Country Pilot Partnership Programme provided R250,000 (US$38,000) to the marama domestication project, through the Innovative Grants Scheme for Integrated Sustainable Land Management.
The project was initiated in 2007 with a grant of R500,000 over two years from the UK's Kirkhouse Project, which has pledged support for a further four years - during which two students supported through masters degree studies are expected to obtain PhDs.
South Africa's National Research Foundation has also backed the project, in which the University of Namibia has collaborated with the University of Pretoria, Case Western Research University in the US and Rothamsted Research of the UK.
Dr Percy Chimwamurombe, the principal investigator, told University World News that the project - which is expected to run for 18 years - seeks to maximise production of the marama and utilise land that would not ordinarily be cultivated on account of deficiency in nutrients.
"We have identified three communities in Namibia to be pioneer farmers of marama beans," Chimwamurombe said. The communities will receive funds to fence off pilot plots and will be given selected seeds from the marama research programme. Planting is scheduled for this month and harvesting is expected 24 months later.
"Part of our research is aimed at reducing the time marama plants take to reach physiological maturity. We aim to develop early maturing cultivars," he added. One PhD and two masters students are conducting research on different aspects of the marama plant.
Much has already been achieved. The project has developed a bio-technological tool to help in selecting top quality marama seeds, has studied the genetic diversity of Marama genotypes in Namibia, has collected nearly 90% of all germ plasma in Namibia and has developed a molecular genetics laboratory. The marama team has published three papers in peer-reviewed journals, thereby contributing to the body of knowledge on the wild bean.
While natural distribution of the marama is now confined to parts of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Angola, Chimwamurombe said that if successfully domesticated, the beans could boost food production in all areas where soils are poor.
"Given their nutritional superiority, marama beans could easily be turned into a cash crop."
Agriculture contributes 35% of the Southern Africa Development Community GDP and 70% of people in the region earn livelihoods from agriculture.
A recent US study investigated the sustainability of growing a variety of wild African fruits and their potential to reduce malnutrition.
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