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September 30, 2010

The potential of cowpea for Africa's food security

by George Fominyen

With concern growing that climate change will lead to shortages in classic food staples such as maize and rice, could the black-eyed pea be the crop of the future?

Researchers have identified the pea, grown in semi-arid areas, as one of the so-called "climate ready crops" which could tackle Africa's malnutrition and food security problems. The crop produces its own nitrogen so farmers do not need to apply fertilizers, seen as an expensive luxury by most farmers in Africa who tend to be poor smallholders. The nitrogen remains in the soil even after the crop is harvested, making it valuable to places with nutrient-poor soils such as West Africa's semi-arid Sahel region that runs south of the Sahara where over 10 million people have been facing food shortages for nearly a year now.

"Cowpea (black-eyed pea) is drought-tolerant, can survive shifting weather patterns, especially as there are varieties that can produce yields within 60 days and without requiring abundant rainfall," said Christian Fatokun, a black-eyed pea breeder at the Nigeria-based International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

However, the black-eyed pea is usually attacked by pests and weeds during every stage of its life cycle and the dried crop is often attacked by weevils which generally means farmers in sub-Saharan Africa obtain low yields and incur grain losses, Fatokun added.

Scientists meeting in Dakar this week for the fifth world cowpea research conference have been discussing new and innovative approaches of dealing with these pests in order to cut losses and ensure improved production.

"Black-eyed peas have been largely neglected despite their multiple benefits and the fact that developing new, high-yield varieties could boost farm incomes by as much as 50 percent while improving household nutrition," said Peter Hartmann, the director general of IITA which is one of the organisers of the conference. "Today we see scientists racing against time to rescue and conserve cowpea varieties that can help farmers deal with pests and diseases and adapt to changing environments," he added in a statement.

Although Africa produces 5.2 million of the more than 5.4 million tonnes of dried black-eyed peas produced worldwide, experts say the continent is not producing enough to cover its food security needs. "We (Africans) mainly grow food like cowpeas for subsistence and you cannot speak of food security if we don't produce excesses which can be sold or converted to flour and other forms for consumption by more people," Fatokun said.

The protein-rich crop (grains contain 25 percent protein) consumed traditionally by millions of West Africans has recently witnessed a boom as entrepreneurs realise it is a cheaper raw material for cereal-based meals amid the rising cost of favoured grains -- wheat, maize and rice.

"Niebe (black-eyed pea) is the cereal of the future," said Aissatou Diagne Deme, a local entrepreneur, whose company employs 52 workers to supply supermarkets and households with black-eyed pea flour in Dakar. "It is not only nutritive, its transformation allows us to make a living and to provide employment," she added as dust rose from grains of black-eyed peas being sieved at her production site.

Senegal's institute of food technology (ITA) which has been developing bread mixtures using black-eyed peas will launch a pilot school feeding project to supply bread made of black-eyed peas, wheat flour and peanut butter to schools in October.

"The main advantage is its high content in protein but it is also cheaper for the government-run programme ... the bread we make only costs 50 CFA (10 U.S. cents)whereas that produced in bakeries using only wheat cost about 70 CFA (15 U.S. cents)," Ababacar Ndoye, ITA's director-general, said.

Experts say most of these initiatives only exist on a small scale or in pilot form because not enough of the crop is produced. They say it is up to African governments to modernise the agricultural sector to boost local food production which would make food affordable and prevent regular food shortages.

Reuters
   

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