Has the Bambara Groundnut’s Moment Finally Arrived?

In 2000, the UK Department of International Development commissioned a study on the market for Bambara groundnut, a hearty and nutritious legume grown almost exclusively in Africa at the time. “Something of an enigma,” wrote University of Greenwich professor Peter Greenhalgh on the gap between the crop’s potential and its current status in a report entitled “The Market Potential for Bambara Groundnut”.

The future wasn’t bright for the Bambara groundnut back then, as Greenhalgh explained:

It is grown widely throughout Africa but is largely unknown outside the continent. It is produced on smallholdings, predominantly by women as a subsistence food crop, and over recent years production appears to have been in decline.

Greenhalgh expressed confusion as to why this nutrient-rich, easy-to-grow, drought-resistant bean wasn’t more popular. Even the African farmers growing it at that time didn’t seem all that enamored with it. Ultimately, he attributed this neglect to the fact that Bambara groundnuts were notoriously difficult to cook. 24 years later, Greenhalgh’s description of the Bambara groundnut market still mostly holds true today, except for that last bit—production isn’t declining but rather it’s on the uptick. In fact, many observers think things are finally moving in this crop’s favor.

Is the Bambara groundnut about to have its moment in the sun? If recent market research is to be believed, then the answer could be “yes.” The enigma may be coming to an end.

Out of Africa

As this newsletter’s readers are aware, Grow Further recently issued its first two grants in support of agricultural research designed to improve the lives of smallholder farmers. One of our grants was awarded to a team in Ghana. The CSIR-Savanna Agricultural Research Institute is exploring ways to develop and then popularize a variety of Bambara groundnuts that can win over a much broader swath of smallholder farmers. That team is now moving forward with socioeconomic research to determine which traits they should be aiming for in their breeding. We chose CSIR-SARI’s Bambara groundnut initiative over hundreds of other worthy projects, and recent research suggests our timing is good—the “Bambara bean” as some analysts refer to it is starting to get noticed. Our Bambara groundnut grant recently earned us a designation from the US State Department as one of just nine “Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils Champions”.

Transparency Market Research, a consultancy, produced a 2020-2030 market outlook for the Bambara groundnut. That report argues that greater cultivation of the plant makes sense in light of climate change. “[A] significant rise in the number of droughts and high uncertainty related to the weather have negatively affected the overall productivity of the agricultural sector,” the outlook report notes. Thus, the rising interest from development agencies and nonprofits like Grow Further in forgotten foods like the Bambara groundnut.

Transparency Market Research is predicting that the market for Bambara beans will expand at a compound annual growth rate of 5.8 percent to 2030. The resurgence is being “driven by increasing awareness pertaining to the benefits of Bambara beans, high demand for plant-based food products worldwide, rise in the number of health-conscious consumers worldwide, and consistent efforts being made to improve the value chain of Bambara beans in several parts of Africa,” analysts said.

Even more compelling, the cultivation of this crop is no longer confined to sub-Saharan Africa alone. It’s still virtually impossible to find anyone growing Bambara groundnuts in North America, but cultivation is starting to spread to the Asia-Pacific region, the report says.

Another market research outfit, Reports and Data, has reached similar conclusions. Demand for Bambara groundnuts is steadily rising, its analysts wrote. Though the overall market size is still puny compared to better-known crops like chickpeas, a 2023 outlook report by this company predicts a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the market of 4 percent. The future for this food appears promising, the analysts wrote.

“There is an increasing need for wholesome food products in developing nations such as India and China, where the middle class is becoming increasingly wealthy,” the report states. “They are an excellent source of protein and other nutrients.”

A global health food craze

What’s moving the Bambara groundnut market today? Analysts at three ag market research companies all agree that a desire for plant-based meat alternatives, rising rates of veganism, and the “food as medicine” movement are all helping this once invisible legume gain more notoriety.

As the team at MarketResearch.com argues in their Bambara beans market research report “rising consumer concerns about cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity is driving the global Bambara beans market.” They note the plant is packed with “digestive fiber, protein, and minerals” and that studies suggest consumption of Bambara groundnuts encourages blood production while preventing bone disease. The leaves of Bambara groundnut plants are also highly nutritious and loaded with potassium, making them an ideal fodder crop for livestock. And then there’s the plant’s versatility—the beans can be transformed into milk similar to soy milk as well as flour. MarketResearch.com is forecasting a Bambara groundnut market CAGR of 6.5 percent to 2030.

There are still challenges. The market reports cited above and other studies find that Bambara groundnuts generally have a shorter shelf life compared to other legumes. They are also a bit harder to cook, as well. However, many consumers seem to be willing to look past these issues, and Bambara groundnuts fetch a premium price in African markets.

In Ghana, CSIR-SARI is working to breed the country’s first commercial variety of Bambara groundnut and expand cultivation of the crop in a project funded by Grow Further. The project starts with asking farmers what they want in new varieties. Our founder talked to some women who grow the crop, and they told him early maturity was as important as yields or cooking time; a detailed survey of several hundred farmers is currently underway.

We’re optimistic. Niche crops like Bambara groundnuts generally fetch higher prices for farmers, improving the bottom line for farmers as well as nutrition for consumers. Bambara groundnuts appear ready for drought and changing climate. And if Bambara groundnut milk or other health foods made from the beans catch on in major export markets, the potential is even larger.

 — Grow Further

Photo credit: Bambara groundnuts are difficult to cook but analysts see demand for this crop growing. Kwekwe Photography.

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