Ntirenganya Jean d’amour farms 10 hectares in Burera district. But the crop dotting his land is not maize or any edible plants.
The locals call the strange crop “Ibishyimbo bya Mucuna” in the Kinyarwanda language by locals – or “Mucuna beans”. It is a kind of animal fodder – an alternative to growing large areas of grass to feed cows.
Growing this fodder is good business for Ntirenganya. As food crops get low prices in the market, more farmers are replacing food crops with the fodder – now totalling more than 230 farmers in the rural district.
Farmer Ntirenganya tells The Chronicles that he harvests one ton every six months, some of which he immediately sells off at Rwf 3,000 per kilogram – meaning he smiles all the way to the bank during this period.
The normal edible beans cost between Rwf 400 and Rwf700 depending on the region where you are located in Rwanda. In addition, as a food crop, they are not as profitable.
Ntirenganya and another farmer Nyirahabimana Zerida are known for growing the fodder in large quantities, which they also feed their cows. Most of the farmers sell in markets around Burera district for household incomes.
So what is the science behind these so called “velvet beans”?
Its scientific name is “Mucuna pruriens” and it is a climbing legume like the normal beans, a common delicacy in Rwanda.
After flower pollination, the stems develop small branches that produces clusters of 10 to 14 pods. The pods are stout, curved, 10-12.5 cm long, with between two and six seeds, covered with greyish-white or orange hairs that may cause irritation to the skin.
The Seeds are 1.2 to 1.5 cm long, 1 cm broad and 0.5 cm thick. Theses beans grow to appear in various colours such brown and black in other regions of the world, but those in Rwanda develop with a dark white colour.
It is those seeds and the pods that are eaten by cows.
Mucuna gives farmers a double advantage, according to the Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB) which says it knows the crop.
The genetic makeup of Mucuna is unique in such a way that it easily accommodates other food crops. It is this that makes it a huge success because farmers do not need separate land.
“It helps improve soil fertility and protects against soil erosion,” explained Nyiransengimana Eugenie, a research in the RAB’s Ruminant Program, based in Musanze district.
Despite being such big cash cow in Burera district, Mucuna has not spread to other areas of Rwanda.
It was introduced in that region by a non-governmental organisation as a way to enable families raise their incomes, which would in turn contribute to reducing gender-based violence.
Macuna is also not commonly cultivated globally, but originated from southern China and eastern India, where it was at one time widely grown.
The beans thrive only in wet temperate climate, which is found in northern Rwanda.
Perhaps it is the reason it has not thrived in other regions.
There has not been conclusive research determining whether the Mucuna beans can be consumed by humans. Some communities in China and India do have them as part of their diet, but it has not picked up elsewhere as a meal on the plate.