Developing Better Cowpeas, with Gender and Youth Concerns at the Forefront

By Michael M. Chipeta (Ph.D.)

Cowpea, a leguminous crop, is grown in most parts of the world but a substantial volume of production and consumption occurs in sub-Saharan Africa.  Most sub-Saharan African cowpea cultivation is done by smallholder farmers, especially women living in marginal conditions who often grow cowpeas via intercropping. Cowpeas are a primary source of inexpensive, high-quality protein and micronutrients like iron, calcium, and zinc, and are thus important for the health of men, women, and children alike. This crop is essential to both the nutrition and income of smallholder farmers, especially women and youth. But that’s not all. Intercropping with cowpeas facilitates the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen into soils while helping to prevent erosion, thus contributing to agricultural sustainability.

man picking crops in agricultural field

“We are seeking to change the fundamental dynamics constraining smallholder cowpea farming improvements, mainly by working to connect and collaborate with local stakeholders at a deeper level.”

It’s clear that cowpeas play a critical role in both food security and smallholder farmer welfare, but cowpea farmers are facing emerging challenges. Despite the crop’s enormous contribution to nutrition and health, numerous socio-economic benefits, and benefits to soil health, cowpea productivity in sub-Saharan Africa is hampered by abiotic threats, including droughts, and biotic threats, such as pests and diseases.  

Part of the problem is low adoption of improved varieties. Breeding programs have failed to include farmers in the process of designing and developing improved cowpea varieties to meet their specific needs,

priorities, and preferences. In other words, efforts to enhance cowpea farming in Africa too often fail to place cowpea farmers front and center in the decision-making. To respond to these multifaceted challenges, the Center of Innovation for Crop Improvement for East and Southern Africa (CICI-ESA) was launched in 2020 at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) in Malawi, with funding assistance from the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement at Cornell University and in partnership with agricultural research centers in Mozambique and Tanzania (https://ilci.cornell.edu/crop-improvement-east-southern-africa/).

At CICI-ESA we are seeking to change the fundamental dynamics constraining smallholder cowpea farming improvements, mainly by working to connect and collaborate with local stakeholders at a deeper level. Ours is the first breeding program in Malawi of its kind to focus on cowpeas, with the aim of developing new varieties that both farmers and consumers prefer and are more likely to accept.

Our approach is market-driven, gender and youth-oriented. CICI-ESA is studying cowpea varieties that are both resilient and inclusive of traits to enhance food and nutrition security for smallholder farmers in Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania through the integration of phenotypic-based selection procedures using genomic tools. Our center wants to be known not only for our efforts to improve cowpea varieties but also for our efforts at building capacity of young breeders in these three countries. We believe that this approach will prove beneficial to the sustainability and growth of breeding programs on a national scale.

Our research focuses on four key issues:

First, we are aiming to develop a comprehensive and gender-sensitive value chain analysis to better understand specific gender dynamics in the cowpea value chain.

Second, we’re working to characterize the phenotypic and genomic diversity of cowpea germplasm to identify traits that are preferred by both farmers and consumers. We emphasize market-based and demand-driven, gender and youth-sensitive traits such as resiliency and responsiveness.

Third, we hope to develop and select more productive and nutritious lines of cowpea varieties to build resilient cropping systems for smallholder farmers.

Finally, we’re working to build and strengthen the capacity of breeding programs in Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania through targeted training and infrastructure development.

We feel confident that the CICI-ESA initiative can improve food and nutrition security while contributing to poverty alleviation in the three countries mentioned above. We also expect our work will help farmers adapt to climate change while further contributing to overall environmental sustainability.

Photo credit: The author observing a cowpea trial in the field. Michael Chipeta.

Michael M. Chipeta, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer & Plant Breeder at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi. He works at the university’s Center of Innovation for Crop Improvement for East and Southern Africa

– Grow Further

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