The Savanna Agricultural Research Institute of Ghana (SARI) has earned a spot among our 20 finalist grant applications for an interesting proposal on developing a neglected and underutilized crop. As we’ve covered before in this newsletter, innovation in such crops can be a great way to improve nutrition, farm income, and climate resiliency. Their crop of choice: the Bambara groundnut.
What is the Bambara groundnut, and why do they see so much potential for it to improve food security?
As research scientist Alhassan Nuhu Jinbaani explained in an interview with Grow Further, Bambara groundnuts aren’t exactly groundnuts per se. “Although called groundnut, it is more related to cowpea than groundnut,” he clarified.
A crop native to Africa, Bambara groundnuts are similar in appearance to cowpeas, despite the confusing name. “Just like cowpea, Bambara groundnut has a defined eye on the seed while the popular groundnut does not have a well-defined hilum or eye pattern,” Jinbaani explained.
But they aren’t grown at the same volume as cowpeas, considered a staple in many parts of the continent, and Bambara groundnuts are less commonly found in markets compared to regular groundnuts (better known as peanuts in the West). He said that’s beginning to change due to the high cost of fertilizers, but this change isn’t happening fast enough.
Innovation through neglected and underutilized crops
As Jinbaani explained, the Bambara groundnut easily fits the definition of a neglected and underutilized crop. “Bambara groundnut is underutilized because, despite the potential of the crop as a food and nutritional security crop, its usage is normally limited to the traditional food forms that are peculiar to the community or group of people,” he explained.
Its unpopularity is a shame, he said, since the Bambara groundnut is nearly as versatile as the soybean. “The crop has the potential to be processed into other food forms, like milk, flour, and oils,” Jinbaani added. “It is, however, worth noting that not all Bambara genotypes are suitable for these products. For instance, cream or white-colored groundnuts are more suitable for milk production than the colored varieties. To make Bambara more popular, traits such as seed coat color, cooking time, days to maturity, and ultimately grain yield need to be improved upon.”
“The current challenge in research is disseminating research findings to end users.”
SARI proposes research and development aimed at building a better Bambara groundnut and then popularizing this potential game-changing food to farmers in Ghana’s drier agricultural districts. Jinbaani tells us that Ghana’s male farmers tend to avoid this crop because it is tedious to harvest and process. Yet, Bambara groundnut plants are drought-resistant and don’t require a lot of fertilizers to cultivate, which is why Ghana’s female farmers are increasingly turning to them.
However, the current varieties grown in the country are unlikely to attract broader appeal, Jinbaani cautioned. “Bambara farmers grow landrace varieties kept as a family or community variety for a long time,” he explained. “They save seeds from each planting season which they either share or sell to their fellow farmers for cultivation. The cultivation of these landraces over the years has led to declines in yield due to the building of pests and diseases over the years and depletion of the soil resources.”
The need for “Innovation Platforms”
Farmers rearing Bambara groundnuts also tend to choose varieties suited for cultural reasons that are often particular to just one area. SARI believes that to make this crop successful, Bambara groundnuts must have broader commercial appeal to encourage a scaling up of their cultivation.
“As the demand for Bambara groundnut increases due to diversified utilization, there is the need to develop improved varieties that are demand-driven and for specific industrial uses,” Jinbaani said. “For example, the preferred Bambara nut for milk production is the cream-colored seed coat with a white eye. However, the present cream-colored seed coat landraces are small in size. One of the objectives of the breeding program will be to develop new varieties and improve existing landraces for large seed size and higher yields.”
Beyond developing improved varieties of Bambara groundnut to draw interest from industrial end-users, Jinbaani and the other three members of his team say they plan to broaden Bambara groundnut’s appeal through the use of “innovation platforms”, an organizational model that’s common in Ghana. IPs, as they’re referred to, are “comprised of different stakeholders, often with different backgrounds, who come together to address challenges and opportunities on a particular issue in a particular commodity value chain, such as Bambara groundnut,” he said.
IP members can be farmers, food traders, managers of food processing companies, government officials, bankers, and more, but they are all united in one common goal: ensuring the market success of a crop deemed important for Ghana’s food security future. “The current challenge in research is disseminating research findings to end users,” Jinbaani said. “This is a result of historical underfunding to agricultural extension, widening the agricultural extension agent-farmer ratio. IPs will serve as a strategy to overcome this challenge.”
— Grow Further
Photo credit: A Bambara groundnut trial plot under test cultivation at the Crops Research Institute in Kumasi, Ghana. Global Crop Diversity Trust.