By Moses Magadza
The University of Namibia has initiated a groundbreaking European Union-funded project to domesticate a highly nutritious wild bean plant – the Marama – to save it from extinction, improve the nutrition of people and reduce poverty.
This is the first time that plant biologists will try to domesticate the Marama.
The initiative has generated international interest among top plant scientists and donors that include the United Kingdom-based Kirkhouse Trust and the MacGregor Foundation of the United States of America. A Namibian-based mobile telecommunications company has also expressed interest in the project.
The project is particularly important for Namibia, a semi-arid country with limited commercial crop production options.
Experts say domestication refers to the process of making a population of plants or animals used to human provision and control. Human beings have since time out of mind domesticated plants and animals for a variety of reasons, which include producing food and providing companionship, as in the case of wheat, maize and cassava, and dogs and cattle.
Now a plant biologist, Dr Percy Chimwamurombe of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Namibia, is leading a team of scientists that include Professor Karl Kunert of the University of Pretoria, Professor Christopher Cullis of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, USA, Dr David Lawlor of the Rothamsted Research, United Kingdom, and Dr Martha Kandawa-Schulz from Unam to implement the domestication project which is expected to run for 18 years.
The project has also recruited two Masters students: Mutsa Takundwa and Emmanuel Nepolo and a PhD student employed by Namibia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry.
Kandawa-Schulz said she was “very excited” about the project, which is now in its second phase.
“This is a big project. We are also working with researchers from Botswana’s College of Agriculture, the University of Namibia and the University of Pretoria. The first phase of the project looked at the genetic diversity and nutrient composition of the plant,” she told The Southern Times.
Marama is a Setswana word for Tylosema esculentum, a wild, pod-bearing perennial plant that for many centuries has been eaten by some people and animals in sub-Saharan Africa but is now threatened by over-exploitation and urbanisation.
The Marama can still be seen in some parts of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. In Namibia it is distributed in Omaheke, Otjizondjupa (Otjiwarogo and surrounding areas), Groofontein and Khomas Region. In South Africa it occurs in northern Gauteng but is in grave danger of extinction because of massive construction of roads, shopping malls, houses and other buildings (anthropogenic practices). The OvaHerero of Namibia call Marama beans Ombanui and call the plant that bears the beans Otjipia.
Previous works have shown that the Marama beans, which people collect when they are dry and eat them after roasting them, are more protein-rich than most domesticated beans that include the common bean, Soya bean and cowpeas. The Marama plant also produces tubers, which people dig up and eat after boiling them. Chimwamurombe said studies have confirmed that the tubers have higher starch content than the Irish potato.
An intriguing characteristic of the Marama bean is that, unlike all other known legumes that fix and take up nitrogen in the soil, it does not fix nitrogen even though it is supremely nutritious.
“This is very unusual. We still do not know how this is so,” Chimwamurombe said.
He said while goats and other browsers eat the plant, which thrives in the deep, red soils of the Kalahari, its greatest threat is people, who dig up its tubers and thus limit its lifespan and interfere with its reproduction capacity.
“A conservation and domestication programme was therefore necessary to protect the plant,” he said, adding that a study on genetic diversity and gathering of the plant’s breeding information for the development of the plant from a wild to a cultivated and domesticated one had begun in earnest.
Chimwamurombe said communities would be identified to participate in a pilot project to cultivate selected Marama types as part of the community-based natural resources management programme. Marama plants differ in inter-nodal length from short, medium to long, and in the number of seeds per pod, which varies from one to 10.
“The average number of seeds per pod is two so there is need to identify superior individuals in terms of production efficiency and nutrient quality,” he said.
Scientists acknowledge the role of wild fruits in boosting nutrition and fighting poverty.
A recent study by the National Research Council of America looked at the sustainability of growing a variety of wild African fruits and their impact in reducing malnutrition, which is a serious problem in most developing countries.
Observers say the Namibian Marama domestication project can create employment and improve livelihoods. As more and more people are trained to cultivate the Marana beans, they employ others to work on their plots, thereby reducing the rate of unemployment, which now stands at 37 percent in a population of about two million.
The plant can be turned into a cash crop and because the beans are more nutritious than most known domesticated legumes, they can do well on the international market and contribute to the producing countries’ gross domestic product (GDP). GDP refers to the money value of all goods and services produced in an economy in one year. Namibia’s GDP is between eight and nine billion US Dollars per year.
Agriculture contributes 35 percent of the regional (Southern Africa Development Community) GDP and 70 percent of the people in this region earn livelihoods from agriculture.
Said Chimwamurombe: “Any opportunity to maximise and extend agricultural production should not be lost especially under the current changing climates riddled by droughts and floods, a usual feature in the regional agriculture landscape.”
Dr Ezekiel Kwembeya, a botanist, concurred.
He said: “This is one of the projects that will ensure sustainable utilisation of our floral heritage as it intends to involve communities who are in contact with this resource. The concept of conservation by cultivation is most welcome in this current age where most indigenous plants are being threatened with extinction due to overstocking, overpopulation and ignorance.”
Money earned from producing the plants can be used to buy other foods; further reducing malnutrition at the household level. The project has far-reaching conservation benefits. Domestication and commercialisation of the plant will add to its value and motivate people to conserve it. Cultivating Marama beans will increase vegetative cover and protect the soil from wind and water erosion.
The Marama already has an economic value. Its seeds are used to produce hair treatment chemicals, and some companies in the United Kingdom have patented it. It is unclear if the San, the first known people to use its seeds to treat their hair, are benefiting from the patents. – www.southerntimesafrica.com