Farmers Share Experiences Growing Maruca-Resistant Cowpea

In 2019, the Nigerian government approved commercialisation of a transgenic cowpea variety.

The early maturing variety is named SAMPEA 20-T. It resists Maruca vitrata, a notorious pod borer – a destructive insect pest limiting productivity of cowpea (beans) farmers in Nigeria. Crop loss can be 80 per cent in severe infestation, and farmers spread chemicals up to 6-10 times before a reasonable harvest.

SAMPEA 20-T was developed by Professor Mohammad Faguji Ishiyaku, a plant breeder and his team at Nigeria’s Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in partnership with the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN); Australia’s national science agency, and the Danforth Plant Science Centre under the coordination of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and funded by the United State Agency for International Development (USAID).

The gene, Cry1Ab (Bt), was provided by the Bayer Crop Science on royalty-free humanitarian basis to guarantee seed affordability by smallholder farmers in Nigeria.

But COVID-19 affected the plan to upscale the production of the beans (cowpea) in 2019.

However, through the ‘seeing is believing’ approach, the IAR Zaria gave the seeds to farmers to compare the conventional cowpea with the transgenic SAMPEA 20-T for preference ranking.

The outcome produced massive interest among farmers across the states that planted the variety because of the yield (which on average, is 40% more than the conventional variety’s harvest), resistant to not only pod borer (Maruca) pest but even to striga – another lethal  weed that destroys crops like maize, cowpeas and other legumes.

In Mokwa, a major cowpea growing area of Niger State, two farmers are making huge progress with the legume. Mr Shittu Yellow and Yusuf Ahmed in their 30s, started production in 2020 and since then, they have found the variety to be  an effective solution to the problems of pod borer (Maruca vitrata) infestation, striga and late maturing.

Mr Shittu is doing better as he has grown the variety twice in a year and he is trying to do so three times a year in his two acres field. In the first planting, which starts in April (the onset of rainfall) the harvest was about 1.6 metric tons in June, and the second cycle was in September while harvest begins in November, depending on the planting date. His second harvest was about 2 metric tons.

Shittu said the “variety is very good, and before you even know what is going on, it is already producing flowers.”

The major problem for him is that the first generation seed is not available for them to buy, something the IAR Zaria and AATF are trying to address with a spin-off company, which will handle seed production.

The AATF, in collaboration with the Seed Entrepreneurs Association of Nigeria (SEEDAN) and the National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC), launched ECOBasic Seed Company in November 2021 in Abuja to provide foundation seed for the companies in Nigeria, which will in turn produce the certified seed.

But what Mr Shittu planted last season was the third generation of the seed he saved from “seeing is believing demonstration,” which he said still did well. According to him, the efficacy of the replanted seed and the first generation seed is the same, at least for now.

Another farmer, Mr Yusuf Ahmed, popularly known as “Alhaji Abuja,” is also one of the farmers that got the seed under the “Seeing is Believing” cowpea programmme.

Last year, he harvested 1.4 metric tons about (14 bags) weighing 100kg and his plans for this 2021/2022 planting season is to expand the cultivation.

Mr Yusuf, however, said he had to spray pesticides up to five times with the replanted seed, suggesting that the efficacy of the seed to resist pod borer (maruca pest) in subsequent generation reduces, but noted that the harvest was still superb compared to the convention seeds.

“When I first planted the seed in the 2019/2020 season, I sprayed just twice, but in my last production, I sprayed up to five times and the harvest was still very good,” he stated.

Shittu and Yusuf said fertiliser application was minimal with the SAMPEA 20-T, but nonetheless added that their soil was naturally good for cowpea production compared to other agro-ecological zones of Nigeria.

Alhaji Usman Abubakar is the extension officer from the Niger State Agricultural Development Authority based in Mokwa. He said the agronomy skills of the farmers he trained had improved and they are doing well in handling the production.

However, one thing remained an enormous challenge – the request for the seed from other farmers is unprecedented, yet even getting the certified seed for is still a challenge. Even those farmers who are growing it from the seed they saved during the demonstration programme are not willing to release it for other farmers either.

Alhaji Abubakar said farmers could plant the variety three times a year – from the beginning of the rainfall, in the middle of the season and at the end of the season to harvest November/December.

“Most farmers here have accepted this variety; that is why they want to change from their traditional variety to this one because it matures early and resists striga. 

“Some farmlands are weak now. The moment the farmers plant, what they see next is striga. At the end of the day they harvest nearly nothing. That is why many of them welcome this new innovation,” Abubakar said, hoping that the authority concerned would address the issue of affordability before the 2022 planting season begins.

Elsewhere in Pankshin, Plateau State, Mrs Rahila Swakchat, an extension officer with Plateau State Agricultural Development Project started with two farmers in 2019, but last season, the number of farmers and area of supervision increased.

She trained many farmers, but at the end of the day, not all of them got the SAMPEA 20-T seed, and the pressure on her to get the seeds is much.

Mrs Rahila said some of the farmers recorded theft in their fields because of the demand for the seed, adding that farmers in her domain are so eager to get the seed wherever they can find it and at any price.

Malam Abdulkareem Musa Dauda in Gyambar village, a farmer she trained has expanded his farm since the first year he started cultivating the Bt cowpea variety.

Last season, he did it twice at the beginning and end of the season. According to him, the variety can scale up the income of a farmer within a very short period of time.

“I grew the variety twice last year. Once you plant, within 50 to 60 days you start harvesting. The first harvest was 300kg and the second was more than that. I sold each 100kg bag at N50,000 (about USD120) from the first harvest to solve some of my immediate needs. But the second harvest is still with me,” Malam Abdulkareem said.

Like his counterparts from Mokwa, Abdulkareem is using the seed he saved from the farm trials, which he benefited in the 2019/2020 season.

Victor Gonap could not get the seed to plant last season because he did not save any seed, but waited to get certified from the open market or even the research institute – IAR Zaria.

He told our reporter that the entire village was looking up to him for the seed, but unfortunately, he could not help.

“I couldn’t save from the demonstration plots during the last season. I was hoping to get the certified seed from Zaria in vain and I had to plant a different variety, which performance is poor, in comparison to SAMPEA 20-T,” Gonap lamented.

He hopes the developer addresses the issue of the seed scarcity urgently to allow farmers access it before the coming planting season.

The huge demand for the variety was created by the result from the farmers’ field demonstrations. Sources at IAR Zaria said Nigeria needed at least 10,000 metric tons of certified PBR cowpea in order to meet farmers’ requests.

Last season, IAR Zaria planned to give seed to 2,000 farmers across the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory to up-scale but could not realise the volume of the seed required for all the farmers it trained.

But with the launch of a spin-off company for the production of foundation seed, farmers hope to have more access to seeds this coming season.

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