Cowpea, A Bean With High Potential For African Farmers Still Underexploited
In his field in the Sikasso region, in the south of Mali, Alimata Traoré harvested his production of cowpeas planted on 2 hectares in May before resowing. The bean will enable him to obtain two harvests in quick succession in one year, a considerable asset. “Its culture is very profitable, you can get half a kilo per foot and sell its tops for fodder”, underlines the farmer, president of the Convergence of rural women for food sovereignty in Mali (Cofesa). The legume, whose pods can also be cooked, has been consumed for millennia in Africa but, despite its exceptional nutritional and adaptive qualities, cowpea cultivation does not exceed 3% of the continent’s overall agricultural production. An under-exploited potential that interests more and more farmers and agronomists.
In a context of shortage of inputs, due to the war in Ukraine, and rising cereal prices, the earliest varieties of cowpea can play a crucial role between harvests of millet, corn or wheat. “They are used to feed farmers in the middle of the lean season when all the stocks are empty”, says N’tyo Traoré, food sovereignty program manager for the Association of Professional Farmers’ Organizations in Mali (AOPP). The plant also has an excellent ability to fix the nitrogen captured in the air which it transfers to the soil, which makes it the ally of semi-arid regions.
A source of protein and micronutrients (iron, magnesium, vitamins), cowpea is more accessible than meat and is gradually conquering West African plates. Reduced to flour or semolina, the magic bean can do everything: bread, donut, stew, sweet porridge. It is also very popular for festive meals. Its seed, which comes in ivory to black eye through red tones, is presented at weddings, funeral rites or voodoo ceremonies. But why isn’t it more exploited?
In West Africa, which remains the main producer with 7.6 million tonnes per year, its cultivation has long been a food crop in small-scale farms, in addition to millet, maize or wheat. Its yield does not generally exceed 600 kg per hectare, whereas it could reach double. A low productivity which is explained by the lack of structuring of the sector, from the seed to its transformation.
To develop its potential in Mali, AOPP encourages Malian farmers to produce it on a larger scale while training women’s groups to process it and develop the recipes. The association also relies on the help of national research which improves seeds. In Senegal, the Agricultural Research Institute (ISRA) has also started distributing around ten varieties of approved seeds, whose agronomic qualities and resistance have been optimized. Its price exceeding that of other crops, the country plans to make it a leading crop.
“It’s becoming a cash crop because of climate change”, summarizes Mustafa Gueye, agronomist at ISRA. In the north of the country, affected by low rainfall, people are abandoning millet and groundnuts in favor of it. “Some varieties that complete their cycles in two months make it possible to limit the impact of droughts, while others, with a longer cycle, are adapted to areas that receive more rain”underlines Antoine Le Quéré, researcher in microbial ecology at the Research Institute for Development (IRD), in full experimentation to improve its culture in Senegal.
In rotation or monoculture, cowpea production therefore tends to develop in Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana, but also in the east of the continent and in South Africa or the Democratic Republic of Congo. (DRC). Some countries, which are looking even bigger, have decided to opt for its genetically modified (GMO) version: BT cowpea. Nigeria has authorized its cultivation since 2019, approval for its marketing was recently requested by Ghana, while Burkina Faso is conducting “confined” field trials.
The GMO is praised for its resistance to “pod borer”, an insect responsible for very large crop losses. “However, it requires insecticides against all other pests,” warns Shiv Kumar Agrawal, director of food pulse programs at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Arid Zones (Icarda), located in Beirut, Lebanon. BT cowpea also promises a yield of 2 tonnes per hectare. “It’s unrealistic, because only achievable in ideal climatic conditions and in the absence of threats”further qualifies this specialist.
In addition to reinforcing the economic dependence of farmers, these GMOs and the associated chemical inputs raise fears of health and environmental risks. A coalition of NGOs, farmers and researchers is demanding their ban in West Africa.
“GMO production in the real world at our borders threatens to defile our peasant varieties”, is alarmed Omer Agoligan, of the Organization of rural people for sustainable agriculture (ORAD), in Benin. The latter participates in scientific research to improve the harvests of around twenty local varieties of cowpea brought up to date. Farmer organizations also promote agroecological methods to protect crops and stocks from pests.
But access to quality seeds remains a crucial issue in markets where informal seed exchanges are prevalent. Buying certified seeds, which are rarely reproducible, remains out of reach for many farmers. Farmer groups are therefore trying to supervise the selection of traditional seeds. ” We can also distribute more seeds selected by national research and train farmers to reproduce them as purely as possible and to distribute them, slice Shiv Kumar Agrawal. Under these conditions, producing one ton of cowpea per hectare with optimized agroecological methods is possible. »