On the trail of DR Congo’s purple “gorillas”

11 July, 2013 by (comments)

We’ve travelled about an hour north of Bukavu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, against the flow of UN trucks, to pull up at a thronging crossroads in Mita village.

On the dusty traffic island are indicators that we’re not far from one of the few refuges of the endangered eastern lowland gorilla: a dilapidated tourist sign for Kahuzi-Biega National Park depicting three hairy hominids, and nearby, a waist-high statue of an ape, caked in dirt and missing an arm.

We’re in the right place, but the gorillas we’re here to see have no limbs at all, or heads. Plus, they’re purple. We’re on the trail of gorilla beans – new, nutrient-rich varieties that are being snapped up by smallholder farmers. Apparently even gorillas themselves – the hairy ones – have expressed an interest. I’m not kidding.

At a roadside field station at Mulungu, a few kilometres further north, we get our first glimpse. Climbing a hill past fields of cassava, potato and maize, we arrive to see a team of harvesters sweeping across a bean field, uprooting weeds and picking the sundried, yellow pods. A worker cracks one open to reveal glossy, purple beans with white mottles.

Gorilla Triptych4-2

“One of the reasons we call them gorilla beans is because they can help to make the children strong,” says Antoine Lubobo, HarvestPlus Country Manager for DRC, who’s showing us around. He explains that the name refers to five different iron and zinc-rich beans released in eastern DRC between 2008-2012.

In a country where around a third of the population is anaemic, with low iron intake linked to high rates of maternal mortality, and low zinc associated with stunting in children, producing beans with higher levels of these nutrients is a novel way to address the problem. The new “biofortified” beans have been bred by researchers in DRC, neighbouring Rwanda, and CIAT in Colombia to contain up to double the iron and 70% more zinc than regular beans, using the same methods of crop selection that farmers have been using for thousands of years. HarvestPlus and its partners test and evaluate the beans before they are released. The beans are then grown in sufficient quantities to supply to farmers – a process known as seed multiplication.

At a gorilla bean multiplication site in Kashusha, around 100 hired hands work in teams, laying big piles of just-picked pods on tarpaulin sheets and bashing them with poles to release the beans. Then the beans are passed to winnowers who sift them on large wicker plates, flipping them up into the breeze, catching the beans while allowing the remaining debris – crumbs of soil and small shards from broken pods – to blow away. Finally, they’re tipped into HarvestPlus-branded sacks and sent to market. There are currently 30-or-so gorilla bean multiplication sites of varying sizes in eastern DRC, to ensure there is enough high quality seed to meet demand when the rains return in September and planting starts anew. This one in Kashusha supplies around 3,000 farmers.

Gorilla beans Kashusha

Turning me away from the threshing and winnowing, Antoine points to the hills in the hazy, middle distance. “If you look over there, where you can see the tall, thick trees,” he says, “that’s where the gorillas are. Sometimes they come down from the forest to eat the beans in farmers’ fields.” I search his face to see if he’s joking. He’s not.

He recounts a story from one of his seed multipliers living closer to the national park, in which gorillas were spotted picking the new beans and eating them. It’s another reason the name gorilla beans stuck.

Meat substitute
At a food market in back in Bukavu we see for ourselves why beans are so important in local diets. We purchase a good cut of beef for around USD$4 per kilo, but Antoine tells us that prices are usually between five and ten dollars. A kilo of fish can be just as pricey. Whether it’s four dollars, ten or so

Beans meanwhile – despite being lower in protein – can cost as little as USD$0.60-USD$0.80 per kilo and if stored carefully, can last for up to a year. When you combine the protein they do have, with higher levels of iron, zinc and other essential nutrients, it’s easy to see why many people regard gorilla beans as being as good as meat.

Growing beans also has advantages over keeping livestock, says Antoine, because when kept in large numbers the animals are susceptible to diseases that can wipe out the entire stock. Animals both large and small are also regularly looted, but people don’t steal beans from the field for food, he says. In order to obtain enough for a decent meal they’d have to uproot them, thresh them, bag them and try and carry them away discreetly – or see how far they can get hugging an armful of un-threshed pods. Only gorillas, it seems, can get away with stealing beans from the field.

Gorilla bean triptych 2

Antoine also believes that in general nutritionally improved food crops are better than relying on handouts of vitamin tablets from relief agencies. “If you are distributing vitamins you are creating dependency – you need to keep on supplying them,” he says. As well as being expensive, it’s easier said than done in places like DRC, where rural infrastructure is poor, and the countryside often lawless. “With gorilla beans, we only have to supply the farmers with seed once, and they can grow their own nutritious food for three or four years before they need to buy more seed.

“That’s why we see this program as helping DR Congo move from reliance on food aid to real development.”

Raising awareness
While it involves years of research, breeding nutritionally improved beans, multiplying them and releasing them isn’t enough to get buy-in from farmers. “They won’t grow them if they’re less productive than their own beans,” says Antoine, during a bone-shaking ride to Kabushwa nutrition centre, in Katana village. So the gorilla beans have been bred to also be high yielding, resistant to diseases of the roots and leaves, and to withstand drought and heavy rains. That makes them more like King Kong beans than simply gorilla beans.

But it’s still not quite enough: how do you distinguish an improved purple, mottled bean from a local purple, mottled bean? “People can easily see the difference with other HarvestPlus crops like vitamin A maize and cassava straight away, because they’re yellow or orange. But with gorilla beans you can’t see that they’re nutritionally different. So we have to gain the trust of farmers to grow them.” To help with this, some HarvestPlus partners have advertised on local radio, explaining the obvious and not-so-obvious benefits of gorilla beans. Antoine himself has taken part in phone-ins on local and national TV and radio, as part of the awareness raising campaign.

At the nutrition centre we join around 100 mothers and toddlers for a meeting under a tin-roofed bivouac. Using a megaphone, HarvestPlus representatives explain the benefits of growing the new varieties, serving up plates of steaming gorilla beans, plantain and potato for all in attendance. HarvestPlus partner Chouchou Fundiko, a nutritionist with the Ministry of Health, told us that while the soils in the area are fertile, malnutrition here is a consequence of high population density: there’s simply not enough space for everyone to grow enough food.

Tryptich 3

As we walk and chat during lunch, the high incidence of malnutrition amongst the children there clearly troubles Antoine, who estimates grimly that around 60 per cent are not getting enough to eat. “This is exactly the kind of place where gorilla beans can make a difference,” he says, as families tuck in.

Both the message and the meal seem to go down well; the song they spontaneously break into as we leave, accompanied by handclaps, calabash shakers and frequent kabulis – yells punctuated by rolling the tongue – is as uplifting as it is deafening.

At the local market, a short ride from the nutrition centre, previous awareness-raising work has clearly had an impact. We witness 400 kilos of gorilla beans selling out within minutes of the sacks being opened, the buyers all farmers, stocking up on beans for planting. Antoine says the beans had sold for 30% more than the price of local beans – a big premium for cash-strapped smallholders to pay. If gorilla beans weren’t living up to expectations even this little rural market would quickly show the signs, but we’d just witnessed demand outstripping supply. Antoine says that work at multiplication sites like Mulungu and Kashusha should boost the supply of gorilla beans, bringing prices into line with local beans. He thinks they could end up even cheaper.

For those smallholders with too little money to buy the seed directly at markets like that at Katana, HarvestPlus provides a kilo of seed in exchange for a “payback” of 1.5 kilos when they harvest four months later. The farmers can choose to eat, plant or sell any surplus, which can be substantial: one told us she produced eight kilos of gorilla beans from one kilo of seed. Eventually Antoine envisages a situation in DRC similar to that in neighbouring Rwanda, where surplus seed returned to HarvestPlus through the payback system is sold to organisations like the World Food Programme for use in emergency relief work.

Gorillas meet guerillas
So far around 18,000 households in South and North Kivu are growing the new gorilla beans, the majority in the south. In North Kivu the work is more complicated due to the volatile security situation: trials have been interrupted several times and some sites are now in areas under the control of M23, the rebel militia that, in November last year, briefly captured and then relinquished the troubled provincial capital of Goma. “Not even I can visit those trials,” says Antoine, sternly. “It’s too dangerous.” It’s a great shame, he says, not least because parts of North Kivu enjoy up to four bean growing seasons per year, compared to two in much of South Kivu. Antoine keeps in regular contact with partners there however, making cash transfers via his mobile phone to keep the trials running.

Despite the challenges, HarvestPlus aims to introduce the gorilla beans into DRC’s Eastern Province in 2013, expanding its ever-growing network of local partners, trial sites and, they hope, interested farmers. This together with work on other HarvestPlus crops like vitamin A maize, cassava and sweet potato, means the small team in Bukavu will have to grow as well, a prospect that brings a big smile to Antoine’s face: “We’re really excited about expanding,” he says. “It means we too will be very strong, like gorillas!”


CIAT will be at the 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week in Accra, Ghana, next week, where you might hear more about gorilla beans, other work from HarvestPlus, and the work of the CIAT-coordinated Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance to boost bean production across the continent. For the latest on the event, follow the AASW Blog  and Twitter feed #AASW6


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