Researchers at a university in Ghana say that they can transform the lives of 50,000 households or more by reviving a crop that has fallen out of favor.
“Pigeon pea cultivation in Northern Ghana was very common some years back,” recalls Dr. Abudu Ballu Duwiejuah, a biotechnology scientist with the University for Development Studies in the city of Tamale.
But that was a long time ago, Duwiejuah explained to Grow Further in a recent interview. Today, “pigeon pea is not widely grown in Ghana, so there is limited supply, lack of access to markets, and limited knowledge about its nutritional value, cooking methods, and other uses.” He and his partners are setting out to change this.
A solid plan under review
Dr. Duwiejuah and his colleagues applied for a Grow Further grant to support their vision of transforming the lives of smallholder farmers. Of the hundreds of grant requests we’ve received, Duwiejuah and his team’s application passed our initial screening and is now among the final 20 undergoing our peer review process.
Duwiejuah says there is enormous potential for improving smallholder farmers’ livelihoods while boosting food security and better nutrition throughout the region. They say they’ll achieve this by re-popularizing and commercializing pigeon peas. But that’s easier said than done, Duwiejuah cautioned. The first step is to build a better pigeon pea, one ideally suited for northern Ghana’s drier climate and more inclement weather.
Ghana’s government employs skilled agricultural outreach teams and runs a competent agricultural extension service, but Duwiejuah says the government has long neglected or outright ignored pigeon peas. “Despite the importance of pigeon pea in terms of nutrition and soil fertility improvement, the crop has not been promoted to any appreciable extent by the national agricultural research and extension system in Ghana,” he said. “Furthermore, the overemphasis on maize in the current production systems as the major food security and cash crop in northern Ghana has relegated pigeon pea in particular and legumes in general as minor crops.” Also, he admits it’s fairly difficult to cultivate pigeon peas in northern Ghana.
Pigeon pea is a perennial crop, while Duwiejuah says farming in the region surrounding his university is largely seasonal and dependent on seasonal rainfall patterns. The region also poses other ecological challenges for pigeon pea establishment. “During the dry season, before the maturity of pigeon pea, there are rampant bushfires and destruction of the crops by stray and grazing animals, who normally don’t have food at that time,” he said.
“An improved variety of pigeon pea that can mature within the growing season can be very popular through extension efforts.”
Experiments and field trials
To make this crop work for the region and its farmers, Duwiejuah and his colleagues say they are planning an intense research and development effort to discover the best variety of pigeon pea plants and seeds to work with. This will involve experiments in the lab, at outdoor test plots, and through on-farm trials. The scientists say they know precisely which traits they’ll be looking for.
“To make pigeon pea more commercially appealing in northern Ghana, it should have traits such as an early maturity, high yielding, good storage potential, pests and diseases resistance, and be tolerant to drought and other environmental stresses,” Duwiejuah said. A new and improved pigeon pea variety also has to grow relatively quickly so that harvesting can occur before bushfire season, he explained. They’re also aiming for a more nutritious pigeon pea, and plan to measure trial varieties for “carbohydrates, fiber, antioxidants, protein, and high vitamins,” he added.
Once they identify a promising variety of pigeon pea ideal for growing in challenging local conditions, they next plan to lure Ghana’s agriculture extension workers to their creation. They then hope to recruit more farmers for further field trials, gradually expanding the reach of this new pigeon pea while spreading the word throughout the region.
Duwiejuah says they’ll have to overcome not only climatic and ecological challenges, but also bias—pigeon pea is looked down upon by some in the community as a “woman’s crop” he explained, so they’re planning messaging campaigns that will hopefully dispel this myth and convince all farmers, male and female, that cultivating a regionally adapted pigeon pea variety will put more money in their pockets.
It’s critical that they get this right, Duwiejuah said, because the current farming practices popular with farmers in northern Ghana are eroding and damaging soils, threatening the nation’s future. “Grain legumes such as pigeon pea can play a complementary or alternative role as a source of organic fertilizer due to their ability to enhance soil fertility,” he explained. “The potential of pigeon pea as a soil fertility improvement crop has not been exploited to any appreciable extent and the amount of land cultivated for pigeon pea in Ghana is very negligible.”
Commercializing a largely ignored crop in an area where it’s known to not grow very well is a tall order, but Duwiejuah told us that he and his team are feeling confident of their chances for success. “An improved variety of pigeon pea that can mature within the growing season can be very popular through extension efforts,” he said. “An improved pigeon pea variety will also avoid the problems of bushfires and stray animals which are critical issues within the dry season.”
At Grow Further, we’re also excited about their chances for success, and are busy evaluating their proposal against other inspiring ideas for smallholder farm innovation.
— Grow Further
Photo credit: Pigeon pea test plot at a technology training center in Ghana. Jonathan Odhong/International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.