Namibia is one of the driest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It contains two deserts -- the Namib and the Kalahari -- and the combination of dry, sandy soils and a shortage of water make it difficult to grow crops everywhere else.

The marama bean thrives in these conditions. Percy Chimwamurombe, a senior lecturer in molecular biology at the University of Namibia, is working to help farmers cultivate and harvest the wild-growing marama, converting it into a cash crop that can generate household income and help support communities. In the process, he draws upon the skills he learned while pursuing studies in biochemistry, agricultural biotechnology, and genetics.

"Poverty, unemployment, and protein deficiency are major challenges in our region," he says. Teaching people how to cultivate unexploited agricultural products can improve the livelihoods of people in the country and boost nutrition for infants and young children, he says.

The effort is part of the Zero Emissions Research Initiative (ZERI), a program designed to train community members to use natural resources for economic development. As manager of Namibia's ZERI program, Chimwamurombe works with other scientists, as well as farmers, to find ways to breed and cultivate the plants.

The marama bean is not Chimwamurombe's only focus. He also serves as the executive secretary for the African Society for Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms and is working to find ways to domesticate wild varieties and teach people how to farm them. Currently, about 70% of the mushrooms consumed in Namibia are imported from South Africa, he says.

Chimwamurombe grew up in Zimbabwe and received his B.S. from the University of Zimbabwe in 1994, graduating with honors. In 1996, he received a master's degree in biotechnology from the University of Zimbabwe; then he moved to South Africa to pursue a doctorate in genetics at the University of Pretoria.

He received his Ph.D. in 2002, the same year the University of Namibia advertised for a molecular biologist. Chimwamurombe was offered the post. He accepted and moved to Namibia.

Over the past 5 years, he has studied the growth and development of indigenous plants, such as the marama bean, in experimental plots in order to select for and breed the most suitable qualities for sustained cultivation. The pod-bearing marama is a wild-growing perennial that contains oil-rich seeds high in protein content. The seeds are "delicious when roasted," Chimwamurombe says, and may also be ground into a powder and mixed with maize meal to make a highly nutritious porridge for young children.

Though the plants have long been used as a food source in his country, Chimwamurombe says, they are seldom cultivated as crops. Instead, people often harvest the plants wild, uprooting the tuber in the process. The tubers contain a high-quality starch and can be cooked like a potato. "The problem is, when you dig out the tuber, the plant is gone," he says.

In his current research, he is working to shorten the reproductive cycle of the plant, which requires 2 to 3 years to mature and start producing the seeds needed for food and future plantings. "We also need to find ways to boost the yield," he says. "We're trying to understand what can be done to achieve this, either through selection or by changing some agronomic practices such as providing water or fertilizer." He is also seeking industrial uses for the marama's high-quality starch.

Susan Gaidos writes from near Portland, Maine.
10.1126/science.caredit.a1100073