Enjoy the nutrition and convenience of processed pulse products

Cooking dry grain pulses in about 15 minutes?  I don’t think that is possible, maybe with a pressure cooker? But the pressure cooker easily mashes the beans or is not available in many households! That is a question that most of us may find incredible to be asked, but still interesting. 

Why haven't there been any pulse-based items in the meal? You ask any middle-level hotel in Uganda or other parts of Africa and the response would be: “Preparing the pulses takes a long time, and we cannot offer the readily available canned beans, they are very expensive.” Response from a household will not be too different! “We can cook once a week and have them last for at least two days. We can’t cook every day; it requires a lot of fuel and time.”

While taking lunch, it crossed my mind that we have not had any bean-based meal during any of the four days at the hotel where we were having a workshop on pulse processing, and at that moment, everything started falling into place. A study in Uganda shows that the amount of fuel used to prepare meals can be very high.  On average, it is estimated that a family requires about one kilogram of charcoal per person per day to cook a meal in Uganda. For a family of 5 or more, that is so much charcoal per year. If its firewood, then you need them in large quantities, and this firewood, which is scarce, mostly requires women and children to search for them in the bushes. Many hours lost, and smoky cooking for hours.  For urban areas, this costs them more.

FAO data (2015) estimates that about 220 million people in Africa are calorie deficient. According to a study by Lancet (2013), of the 34 countries that account for 90% of the global burden of malnutrition, 22 (64%) are in Africa.

Beans are major source of protein. Photo: Stephanie Malyon, CIAT

Including pulses in the diet can help eradicating this hidden hunger. Pulses are protein rich - they provide twice as much protein on average (23%) as wheat and three times as much as rice. Besides being protein rich, they also provide other nutrients like multifaceted carbohydrates, elevated proteins, dietary fibre, minerals, and vitamins; they also contain a rich variety of polyphenolic compounds with prospective health benefits. So including pulses, especially in the diets of low and middle-income households of Africa becomes critical.

Pulses are an important staple food in sub-Saharan Africa, both in rural and urban areas of Africa. One of the biggest limiting factors to bean consumption is the time required to cook them and, consequently, the amount of fuel or firewood required for cooking.

As the heat of the day wore during the workshop and gave way to a cool breeze, I got convinced that unless something is done about how we cook pulses, we may not fully take-in the nutritious benefits that pulses offer. Thinking about the low-income households, it can only get relatively more costly fixing a bean meal that can eradicate the ‘hidden’ hunger. To many, there are quite a few alternatives to cooking and consuming dry pulses- beans, cowpea among others. Unless of course one is talking about canned beans and the like, which naturally fall outside the consumption choices of most consumers, save for high-level hotels and richer consumers in urban areas.

But another challenge awaits consumers of pulses in the current raw form: some of them require much energy and time to prepare. It takes as many as three hours to cook dry bean – this goes against the grain, especially for current urbanized populations that prefer convenience in their meals, as they do not have much time to prepare meals after daily work assignments. The cost of energy also discourages many households from regularly preparing their pulse based meals.

Contributing to the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes, a new initiative supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) funded Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAF) project targets the urbanizing middle to low income consumers in both urban and peri-urban areas to quickly cook and include beans as part of their daily diets. The CultiAF project is a collaborative effort implemented by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), National Research Organization (NARO, Uganda), International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and private sector partners, seeks to address the demands for quick to prepare, convenient bean based meals while at the same time ensuring that the value added products remain within the affordability of a majority of consumers.

The project uses fast cooking bean varieties to develop new processed bean products that reduce cooking time even further, to just under 15 minutes. Constant feedback is provided to bean breeders to incorporate the desired fast-cooking traits in their breeding efforts. Partnerships between private sector processors and the pulse researchers are bearing fruits to address the low prevalence of affordable processed bean products in the market. The partnership is keen to ensure that the processed products are not a preserve of the rich only but that they can be affordable to even rural based consumers.

A survey on the potential uptake of processed bean products in south-west Kenya indicates that even rural populations are looking forward to such processed products and that they will be willing to pay for them. 

With this partnership, we can be sure that the benefits of pulses: high in fibre, protein, complex carbohydrates, iron, and zinc that are great for enriching our diets, especially for pregnant women and growing children, are available to consumers in a convenient and affordable manner.

Interestingly, the partnership extends to the farmers who will also benefit from a secure market for the beans delivered for processing. Developing precooked bean products will support farmers to plug into new markets that have a strong potential to deliver higher returns for the farmers. It is estimated that about 7500 farmers in Kenya and Uganda will benefit directly by supplying grains suitable for processing. Many farmer groups and processing farms will provide expertise in processing and support in the pre-cooked bean products value chain.

So next time you visit a supermarket or regular shopping mall in Kampala or Nairobi (and other many places) visit the pulses section and enjoy the nutrition and convenience of processed pulse products. These products will save you money, time, long teary cooking sessions. 

About the author:
Dr. Eliud Birachi is Market Economist at CIAT in Kenya. As a research scientist, he supports value chain development and market-linkages of CIAT and the Pan-African Bean Alliance program in sub-Saharan Africa. Before joining CIAT, Dr. Birachi was Lecturer in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Business Management, Egerton University, Kenya. He holds a D.Sc. in Agribusiness from the University of Kiel, Germany, and an M.Sc. in Economics and Management (Management Studies) from Wageningen University, Netherlands. He has co-supervised the thesis work of   Masters and Ph.D. students and has published several scientific papers on market value chain development and agribusiness. Current research also include gender and value chains.