Cougar, Shisha and Gikungu quinoa thrive in harsh African climates
Scientists at Brigham Young University and Washington State University have developed a version of the protein-rich quinoa plant that can survive and thrive in the often-harsh growing conditions of Rwanda and other African countries.
Named "Cougar Quinoa" (Go Cougs!), the new variety is one of three tall, colorful and high-yielding varieties newly released by the team, all of which offer a bounty of seeds and edible leaves rich in B vitamins and fiber. Cougar Quinoa (named for both universities’ mascots) stands out for its bold purple and green leaf color, while the other two newly released varieties carry names in the Kinyarwanda language: Shisha, which means “to flourish,” and Gikungu, which means “economy.”
"Quinoa, with its exceptional nutritional value and ability to thrive in poor soil conditions, holds tremendous potential," said BYU professor Jeff Maughan. "However, this potential can only be realized if we develop quinoa varieties that are adapted to different environments.”
The entire quinoa plant is useful to small farmers such as those in Rwanda; it can be eaten on its own, mixed with rice, ground into flour for baked products and made into beverages. Quinoa leaves can be picked and eaten between harvests, leftover stalks serve as food for livestock, and the seeds can be stored for years without chemical treatments.
For two decades now, Maughan and fellow BYU plant and wildlife sciences professor Rick Jellen have been actively seeking ways to introduce quinoa and other new plants into the world’s food supply. They first bred the trio of quinoa varieties announced today back in 2004. The three varieties were among a bank of roughly 1,000 breeding lines provided to WSU by the BYU researchers in 2012.
"These three are the best of the thousand lines shared with us by our colleagues at BYU,” said Kevin Murphy, director of WSU's Sustainable Seed Systems Lab. “Rick and Jeff’s generosity kickstarted our quinoa breeding program and greatly expanded the number of quinoa lines we selected from.”
In 2014, Murphy and WSU graduate student Hannah Walters began testing the Utah hybrids for yield, disease resistance, sensitivity to day length, maturation time and other valuable traits at WSU's Tukey Organic Farm. Two years later, selected strains were brought to Rwanda for testing by Cedric Habiyaremye, a WSU doctoral graduate and current research associate in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. The three new varieties performed well in Rwanda’s highlands and lowlands and are ideally suited for equatorial growing regions.
"When WSU started developing quinoa specifically for Africa, it was an obvious decision to support their program," Maughan said. "We share the common goal of improving food security globally, and the release of these varieties for Rwanda marks the fulfillment of a long-held aspiration for all of us."
Crops for a better future: Habiyaremye’s personal journey
As an 11-year-old boy, Cedric Habiyaremye lived through a famine that struck Rwanda in 1997.
"I vowed that if I survived, I would go to school and find a way for people to never go hungry again," he said.
As a WSU student, Habiyaremye discovered quinoa, theorizing the crop could do well in Rwanda, where most of the populace are smallholding farmers, as many as one in three people face hunger, and children experience a high rate of stunting and malnutrition. He introduced quinoa to Rwanda in 2015 and later cofounded QuinoaHub to promote its acceptance.
While testing quinoa in Rwanda, Habiyaremye gave some leftover seeds to his mother, Agnes, who planted them on her small farm. Curious neighbors saw what was growing and wanted to try it for themselves.
“My mom started her own micro-extension program,” Habiyaremye said. “She started with 11 farmers, who trained others to share the knowledge. She is now known as the ‘Queen of Quinoa.’”
From the original dozen, today, more than 700 Rwandan farmers are growing these and other new quinoa varieties.
"Next is making sure quinoa can reach everyone," said Habiyaremye, who is working with Rwanda's Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources as well as farmers and research institutions in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Gambia, Malawi, Lesotho and South Africa to extend acceptance.
"I want to use quinoa to combat hunger and malnutrition," he said. "I don't want children to go through what I did. When kids have access to nutritious foods at an early age, there is hope for a bright future."
Maughan, Jellen and a new BYU colleague, David Jarvis, continue to partner with quinoa breeders in other parts of Sub-Saharan and northern Africa, Latin America and Asia.
“This has been a great project, including extensive international collaboration and decades of work,” Maughan said. “It directly fulfills the mission of the university in terms of outreach and solving real-world problems like food insecurity in developing nations.”