Fresh long beans in a vegetable farm ready to harvest

Want to improve southern Africa cowpea farming? You need farmers’ help

By Gabriel V. Nkomo

Africans have been growing cowpeas in their fields for thousands of years. A 2007 study describes evidence of cowpea cultivation in central Ghana dating back to 2300 BCE. Modern global warming is proving a serious challenge to this millennia-old tradition, but it’s hardly the only one—poor soils, pests, diseases, drought, and weeds consistently bedevil this staple crop, causing stubbornly low yields and low returns for sub-Saharan Africa’s cowpea farmers.

In southern Africa we’re busy seeking out answers to improving cowpea production. One obvious top priority is developing drought-tolerant varieties. But we’re finding that a critical component, one often missing from this discussion, is gaining the direct buy-in of the farmers themselves before any innovations can really take hold.

But what makes a cowpea plant climate-resilient? We screened sixty cowpea genotypes for seedling drought tolerance in our screen houses. A principal component analysis revealed some common characteristics linked to drought tolerance: the number of pods, the number of seeds per pod, survival count, pod weight, and the degree to which stem wilting occurs within one week.

Collectively, these traits proved the most significant contributors to genetic variability in drought-tolerant cowpea accessions as well as yield after stress imposition. But there were significant differences among drought-related traits at the seedling stage. For instance, a total of 37 cowpea accessions from both screen houses were more tolerant to droughts, while 23 of them were rendered more susceptible.

By discovering the traits common to cowpea drought resilience we’re closing in on developing the perfect variety to grow in increasingly challenging climatic conditions. But that’s just the beginning.

To aid our efforts, we carried out a survey among smallholder cowpea farmers in Zimbabwe and found farmers pointing to those same problems preventing higher cowpea yields that have existed for thousands of years: the farmers listed pests, diseases, drought, weeds, and general harvesting difficulties as top concerns of theirs. Inadequate farmer input is also a major hindrance. A lack of formal education for many of these farmers is an obstacle, but so is a lack of agriculture extension advice and support. The farmers know what they are missing out on—99 percent of farmers polled agree that they need help growing higher-yielding varieties per unit area of land. But they want in on the ground floor; otherwise expert advice may fall on deaf ears.

Results from both our selective breeding experiments and field surveys tell us that in order to improve cowpea varieties we need information on the production constraints and, perhaps more importantly, on the farmers’ views and perceptions of cowpea variety preferences. Our research shows farmer participation in the early stages of any breeding program leads to faster acceptance and adoption of new and improved cultivars, since farmers become more willing to take risks and experiment with newer seed varieties if they feel their concerns are adequately addressed and that their input is taken seriously.

In other words, farmers want to be involved in these discussions and experiments as they are the ones who will actually grow these new varieties. We’re not the only ones reaching these conclusions. Elsewhere, other participatory studies on cowpea yield enhancement reveals farmers’ participation in varietal selection improves both the effectiveness and efficiency of the selection process, since the farmers’ selection intensity is similar to that of breeders (as Kitch et al. discovered in their 1998 study).

The broader lesson here is that for a truly effective cowpea breeding and enhancement program research scientists should determine early on famers’ perceptions about the major constraints affecting their crops and their preferences for crop traits and cultivars. This can only be accomplished through greater farmer-researcher interaction and collaboration. Such interactions yield useful information on farmers’ preferred crop traits and how these traits could help solve problems they face. These are useful details for developing suitable cultivars for their needs and conditions, hopefully yielding far more food during harvest.

Climate change isn’t going away anytime soon. Models predict it will deliver higher temperatures and harsher droughts. Thus, it is imperative that we improve the drought tolerance of crops under these changing circumstances. Breeding more drought-tolerant plants is an obvious and promising approach, one that we believe will help meet rising food demand. But we must build those necessary bridges between researchers and farmers to have any chance of success.

Gabriel V. Nkomo is a researcher and PhD candidate at the Department of Agriculture, Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

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