By Nuru Ahmed

Food-based nutrition intervention (as opposed to taking supplements) can improve work efficiency. This is according to a new study recently published in the Journal of Nutrition.

Iron deficiency is the most common type of micronutrient deficiency; it is the leading cause of anemia and is known to cause fatigue and impair physical performance such as a person’s degree of physical endurance and work efficiency. In sub-Saharan Africa, 37% of women are anemic and nearly one in three cases is caused by iron deficiency.

Iron-biofortified beans, currently available in 14 countries, are developed through conventional plant breeding to contain up to twice the amount of iron as other common bean varieties. When eaten twice daily, these beans can provide up to 80 percent of daily iron needs. 

The study which was done in Rwanda, where iron deficiency affects 38% of children under five years and 19% women of child bearing age, comprised of 125 female college students ages 18 to 26 that had depleted iron stores but were otherwise healthy. The subjects were randomly assigned to either a group that received iron-biofortified beans or one that received non-bio fortified beans.  

The women in both groups received two meals a day over the following 18 weeks. Those who ate iron-biofortified beans, and whose hemoglobin (a measure of anemia) or iron status improved, exhibited a significant reduction in the energy needed to perform light physical work.   

“This is the first study to show an effect of a food-based intervention on moderate levels of physical work capacity,” said Jere D. Haas, Emeritus Professor of Nutrition, Cornell University, and Senior Author of the study. He noted that previous studies containing iron supplements had shown that improving iron status in iron-deficient adults can improve their ability to perform heavy work. 

“This [latest] study compliments our previous research in Rwanda that showed that consumption of iron-biofortified beans resulting in improved iron status, also improved cognitive and brain function in the same adult women,” Haas added.  

“Common beans are an important source of multiple nutrients and health-promoting phytochemicals in several low- and middle-income countries where iron deficiency remains a public health problem,” said Erick Boy, Head of Nutrition at HarvestPlus.

 “This study confirms that not only can biofortified beans effectively build up young women’s iron stores to ensure healthy future pregnancies, but also that regular consumption can help women derive greater productivity from paid physical work in agriculture and they will not get physically fatigued as easily.”

HarvestPlus, in collaboration with multiple partners, promotes high-iron beans and several other biofortified staple crops in countries worldwide. By the end of 2018, 1 in 5 bean growers in Rwanda grew these naturally nutritious beans, which are also high yielding, disease resistant, heat and drought tolerant.

Biofortified crops deliver nutrition to smallholder farming families and others who are at high risk of micronutrient deficiencies and are not easily reached by fortification and supplementation initiatives. 

Iron beans can provide up to 80% of daily average iron needs when eaten regularly. They add the amount of energy needed to perform light to moderate physical work such as walking, cleaning and other household chores.  

Augustin Musoni, Researcher Rwanda Agriculture Board says beans were chosen because it is a major food crop almost grown by every farmer and eaten by everybody. Almost everyone in the country consumes beans, the young, old and poor.

“Another critical impact HarvestPlus has done is raising awareness about iron beans in the country among farmers, consumers and is a policy issued by the ministry and Government,” he added.

Iron beans were distributed to farmer’s country wide including agro dealers, farmers, cooperatives, local extension networks and non-Governmental organizations.

Gloriose Musana Bandi, an Agro Dealer in Gasabo District said, “I started selling 200 kilograms of beans. HarvestPlus would deliver them directly to me, every two weeks then I went to selling 400 kilograms and then in the season of cultivation that starts in September, I was able to sell 1.5tons as this is the season with more farmers. Now I am selling 8tons per season. “

At the end of 2018, more than 420,000 farming households were growing iron bio fortified beans in Rwanda.

Jaqueline Mushiyimana, a farmer in Nyanza District who grows beans and maize, said that she got to know about high iron beans at their local administration office where they were learning about these beans; how they were very good and delicious.

 “We dig holes, put in good compost band plant two bean grains per hole. After planting, we do weeding and the plant has so many branches producing a lot of beans. This is different from the indigenous varieties.”

With the support of USA Government Feed the Future Initiative, HarvestPlus worked with other partners to develop business linkages between farmers, aggregators, grain wholesalers and retailers and between grain aggregators and processors.

Thacienne Mukajambo, a bean seller in Kigali said, “I started selling high iron beans in 2014. Ever since we informed and educated the clients that we have these iron beans that is all they come looking to buy.”

At the end of 2018, more than 1.8 million people in Rwanda were estimated to be consuming iron beans while 20% of all beans produced in Rwanda were iron bio fortified.

Providence Uwera, a consumer at Gasabo said, “I started eating these beans when I was expecting. I used to lack blood and was very nauseous then I met Thacienne, a friend who sells them at Kimironko market, she told me she has these beans and that they would increase my blood count. That is how I started consuming iron beans. I also feed my children these beans and I prefer them as they are healthier.”  

According to Marie RoseIryamukur, a Health Worker in Nyanza District, it is very important that the community gets educated on nutrition benefits of iron beans so that they understand its benefit to their bodies.