Jim Kelly has been breeding new varieties of beans for more than 30 years. During a trip to Rwanda 10 years ago with Michigan State University graduate student and Rwandan native Gerardine Mukeshimana, he saw a way he could help farmers there.  “I felt that the research that I conduct both in Michigan and elsewhere would be applicable to Rwanda’s farmers,” Kelly said. “I knew that if a funding opportunity arose, I would seek support to conduct research to improve beans in Rwanda and train future plant breeders.”

Kelly is back in Rwanda with Mukeshimana — now a doctoral student — working with local farmers to improve their bean crops. Rwanda has the highest per capita bean consumption in the world, but the country’s bean varieties aren’t drought tolerant or disease resistant. The region needed new varieties with these attributes to help keep production and yield high enough to meet demand and provide economic stability to bean farmers, many of whom are widows from the genocide in Rwanda who are supporting their families.

“Beans are an important part of the agriculture of the country, particularly for women and their families,” Kelly said. “Productivity and quality need to be improved in the changing environment. This project addresses these needs by developing and testing new bean varieties that farmers want to grow and consume.”

Kelly bred and introduced climbing beans to Rwanda, which have improved yields from a quarter ton per acre to four tons per acre in this country of steep, hilly terrain. In 2012, Kelly released new climbing bean varieties — white, red, and red mottled — suited to high-altitude zones in Rwanda. He also helped produce educational materials to inform farmers about the new varieties and methods for growing the climbing beans.

The bean variety program is funded by the United States Agency for International Development and involves collaboration with colleagues from the Rwanda Agriculture Board. Kelly also has a strong bean breeding program in Ecuador. Because Ecuador’s terrain and environment are similar to Rwanda, he is able to adapt much of that knowledge.

“The ultimate goal of this project is to be able to leave a trained cadre of scientists who will have the ability and interest to continue research to sustain agricultural productivity in Rwanda under changing climatic conditions,” Kelly said. “For me, I want to be able to extend the land-grant mission beyond the borders of Michigan and MSU.”Kelly’s work has been supported for more than 10 years by the Legume Innovation Lab (formerly the Dry Grain Pulses Collaborative Research Support Program, or Pulse CRSP), which received a $24.5 million, four-and-a-half-year extension in February 2013.

The Legume Innovation Lab will focus on increasing the quantity and quality of beans and other grain legumes produced by smallholder farmers while strengthening grain legume value chains and enhancing the nutritional quality of diets among the poor. The lab will work in Feed the Future focus countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and the United States, where grain legumes are important, staple crops for household nutritional security. The Legume Innovation Lab is extending seven projects from its period as the Pulse CRSP, including Kelly’s, and will be announcing a Request for Proposal (RFP) in 2013 for three new projects.

For more information on the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab, please contact the director, Irv Widders, at 517-355-4693.   The lab’s website can be found here.