Blog What’s in a (bean’s) name?

Have you ever heard of Kablanketi, Nyota, Angaza, Onyora, KATB1, Small Red, Saitoti, Nyayo and Mbunduguru?  What’s the story behind these names?

William Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” For the colossal African continent, the answer would be “everything.” Naming in African culture is a way to convey certain messages to an individual, family members, or a community. Names give a sense of identity: the tribe, geographic location, and nature of the environment. Naming conspicuously distinguishes one from another.

Naming is as unique to crops as it is to people. For beans, over decades, they have been named because of their color, taste, and resemblance to or association with someone. However, some beans don’t always follow the African naming trend; they have only scientific names.

The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT is home to more than 37,000 accessions of beans in the Future Seeds genebank in Colombia. These materials are useful in supporting research for bean improvement globally. In Africa, bean research is advanced through the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) and this has resulted in the release of more than 550 new bean varieties across 31 countries in the past 25 years.

There is pride in naming beans as this gives a sense of acceptance to a community. When a bean is named in the local dialect, it is readily adopted by the community.

A bean variety has a name that is scientific and universally recognized, whereas the local name differs by countries and communities.

Some names are obvious, such as Small Red, referring to appearance (size and color). Others have a deeper story behind them, such as Angaza, a high-iron bean named after its whiteness. Angaza is a Swahili word that loosely translates to being bright in appearance. Kablanketi’s name in Tanzania comes from its similarity to the Maasai blanket’s purplish color. The bean Mwende in eastern Kenya is named after a girl in the Kamba dialect meaning loved. This is a fast-cooking bean that does not require too much fuel to prepare. The name Mwende also signifies beauty.

A good example of a bean with different local names in different tribes is Kakamega15 (KK15), a black bean in Kenya fondly named Raila in the eastern part of the country, named after a political figure because of its dark appearance. This same bean variety is called Ndombolo in western Kenya. The reason for the name is associated with how the tendrils of the bean “dance” when blown by the wind! Ndombolo is a popular musical genre and dance style, highly embraced in most African countries, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Harvested Gorilla beans in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Other beans such as Nyayo and Saitoti in Kenya obtained their names after popular political leaders who actively promoted bean adoption among farmers through various government food security programs in the early 1980s.

Katumani Bean 1 (KATB I) is a yellow-green bean commonly grown in Kenya and it was released in Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda under PABRA regional breeding initiatives. In these countries, the variety has taken on different local names for the local markets. In Kenya, the yellow bean is known as Kathika, while in Burundi it is called Mbunduguru and in Tanzania it is known as Goroli Njano - Yellow pebble.

Farmers, during the participatory variety selection (PVS) and release process, have given the beans local names to fast-track their adoption, thus making them acceptable to their communities and markets, and making the adoption of these beans easier.

One major setback is that having different names for a particular variety complicates universal identification, especially when it comes to cross-regional trade. Interested parties looking for a particular bean variety with a different name from how the local market identifies it might not recognize the local bean name. Thus, they end up looking for a near similar variety in terms of appearance to what they initially wanted. To avoid this, PABRA is working on a catalogue that has the synonyms of local varieties versus the scientific or trade names or classes. With this catalogue, identifying the local name of a variety in a specific market will be made easier. This will enhance regional identification and trade advanced under the Bean Corridor Approach.

PABRA is using advanced breeding technology to carry out genetic mapping of the diverse bean varieties named differently in different communities to match them with the universally accepted trade or scientific names. This is an exciting exercise in which local knowledge is aligned with scientific knowledge. To do this, we need to grow our partnerships with various bean value chain actors.

Together, we can celebrate the meaning of names for beans as we benefit from this all-around nutritious grain legume that benefits more than 400 million people in the tropics.


The long-term support for bean work through PABRA has been made possible through the support of the Global Affairs Canada, SDC, BMGF, USAID, Kirkhouse, ACIAR, AfDB-TAAT, AGRA, and country bean programs.