Improving the iron content of Tanzanian beans


In 2017, Mashamba Philipo attended the AfriPlantSci Summer School in Arusha, where he heard Dr Janneke Balk lecture on iron in crops.

Two years on, Mashamba is working on improving the iron content in Tanzanian beans, hoping to improve the health of his community back home. Here is his story.

“I am a PhD student in sustainable agriculture at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, in Arusha, Tanzania and employee of the same institute as an Assistant Lecturer in plant genetics.

In 2017 I attended the AfriPlantSci Summer School which was organised by the John Innes Centre in Arusha. I met Dr Tilly Eldridge, the John Innes Centre’s International Development Coordinator and Dr Janneke Balk, who came to give lectures on iron in plants.

Because the subject of my PhD is to improve the iron content of Tanzanian bean varieties, Dr Balk became an advisor to my project. Funding from the ACACIA programme (supported by UKRI-BBSRC’s Excellence with Impact award) gave me the opportunity to spend 3 months in Dr Balk’s lab so I could massively expand both my knowledge and skills set.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, and in particular my country, Tanzania, we have this problem of iron deficiency. You find that people have to take supplements, particularly pregnant women and young children, or people in hospital, in order to get enough iron in their diets. Supplements alone cannot solve the problem of iron deficiency, so I have always been interested in playing a part in a solution, such as increasing the iron content of widely consumed food stuffs, such as beans. The most popular bean variety is low in iron, but this can be increased by breeding with high-iron varieties. This will improve the health of my community and help my people.

My aim is to both improve our scientific knowledge of iron distribution within plants that we eat, but primarily my hope is to be able to help develop a variety of bean that contains enough nutritional iron to be of a benefit to the people who need it.

As well as the specific scientific knowledge I have picked up from my time here, is how hard everybody works. In science there is very little time to just sit down and relax, you are constantly on your feet and thinking about what you can do next.

The other key thing that will stay with me is the depth at which every aspect is investigated. It is not enough to look at just the surface of something and think; “that will do”. Here at the John Innes Centre, every avenue is explored and looked into in great detail, I want to copy that approach in my own studies on my return to Arusha.

When I leave the John Innes Centre, I will return to the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, to continue my research on the different varieties of iron-rich crops we are developing.

One of the benefits of working with Janneke is that I am able to improve my own understanding of how crops accumulate iron, knowledge which I can take back to Tanzania and share with my fellow Tanzanians from my new position as a lecturer. Knowledge needs to be shared, in the way Janneke has with me and I am looking forward to continuing this process when I return.

Ultimately, I want to continue working as a plant breeder on this until we have a variety that we can share with the community.”

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