A whopping 49% increase in cropping area, 153 % increase in production and 68 % increase in productivity since 2000 – these numbers show the phenomenal expansion of pigeonpea in Malawi sparked by wilt-resistant medium-duration varieties developed by ICRISAT scientists. The new varieties provided a sustainable solution to farmers affected by the dwindling ‘Chiperoni’ rains in Southern Malawi, a traditional pigeonpea growing area.

A decade ago, the women of the region (women own land in Southern Malawi where matriarchy is predominant) celebrated the new variety that thrived despite a shorter rainy season and brought in a quicker harvest, however, few fathomed the ripple effect of this climate-smart innovation. The new varieties led to a phenomenal expansion of the crop across the country to areas where the crop was not traditionally grown.

The expansion: From the South, the crop moved to the central region. The medium-duration variety proved to be the right fit for the agro-livestock system of farming common Central Malawi. Intercropping of maize and medium duration pigeonpea ensured that the livestock farmers adopted this climate-resilient crop that also improved soil health by fixing Nitrogen in the soil. The medium duration variety found favor with the livestock farmers as early harvests facilitated longer free grazing for cattle. Northern Malawi experiences low rainfall during the short-growing season and the medium-duration variety fit the agro-ecological needs of the region. The phenomenal expansion of the crop in Malawi was observed and documented using geo-spatial tools.

In Central Malawi, medium-duration pigeonpea fit well into the existing agro-livestock system. Photo: NVPR Ganga Rao, ICRISAT

In Central Malawi, medium-duration pigeonpea fit well into the existing agro-livestock system. Photo: NVPR Ganga Rao, ICRISAT

The impact of climate-resilient pigeonpea on farmers lives

 “Our good choices have saved us from disaster. Farming is so risky, especially here in Malawi. We have to diversify in the right ways so we survive whatever the weather is.” Farmer John Msuku from Northern Malawi

Drivers of the expansion: Medium duration of 16-180 days compared to the previous 220-240 days was a key trait that breeders incorporated into pigeonpea cultivars. Other traits that led to the expansion of the crop include resistance to Fusarium Wilt (endemic to the Southern regions), lesser photo-period sensitivity that led to the crops adaptability in agro-ecologies with variable day lengths, disease resistance  and market-preferred traits such as bold cream seeds. Capacity building by ICRISAT on best agricultural practices led to increased yields and better incomes. Introducing ratooning let to double harvest for half the effort. ICRISAT’s genomic scientists are using advanced tools to come up with superior varieties to address problems in pigeonpea production at a much quicker pace.

File photo of ICRISAT scientists at work in a genomics lab.

File photo of ICRISAT scientists at work in a genomics lab.

Double the gains from ratooning

Ratooning involves taking advantage of pigeonpea’s perennial life cycle, whereby a farmer harvests from the same pigeonpea plants for two successive years. Peter Mwangofi a pigeonpea farmer from Karonga district in Malawi harvested about two times what he harvested during the previous season.

Other drivers that contributed to the expansion include policy support such as subsidized seed and inputs provided by the government and the seed revolving fund model fostered by ICRISAT. Having a strong seed system in place played an important role as farmers gained access to quality breeder and foundation seed. Malawi became synonymous with quality pigeonpea production and the Malawi ‘brand’ unfailingly fetched a premium price in neighboring Kenya and other East African countries. About 13 dal (split gram) mills have been set up to meet the Asian diaspora needs and also to cater to the local populace.

Seed revolving fund model wins accolades

“ICRISAT is a role model for other agricultural institutions in the country. Through ICRISAT’s initiatives, legume seed of improved varieties particularly groundnut and pigeonpea have been made available in the market and are easily accessible to farmers.” Mr Nesimu Nyama, Secretary General, Seed Trade Association of Malawi.

Focus on nutrition: Two-thirds of Malawi’s pigeonpea production is consumed locally and the nutrition aspects of the crop are well recognized. ICRISAT scientists are working on products capitalizing on the nutrition aspect and creating a market demand for ready-to-eat products that in turn create a market pull for the crop.

Ready-to-eat products in the making. Photo: G Wanjiku, ICRISAT

Ready-to-eat products in the making. Photo: G Wanjiku, ICRISAT

The success of pigeonpea in Malawi has spread to similar agro-ecologies in Zambia and Mozambique. Requests for germplasm adaptability testing and suitability to local agro-ecologies have been coming in from West and Central Africa. An expansion beyond Malawi is waiting to happen.

Varieties released since 2009 that contributed to the phenomenal expansion in Malawi

Variety Release year Maturity Key traits
Mwaiwathu Alimi (ICEAP 00557) 2010 Medium duration Wilt resistant
Chitedze pigeonpea 1 (ICEAP 01514/15) 2011 Medium duration High pod load
Chitedze pigeonpea 2 (ICEAP 01485/3) 2014 Medium duration Wilt resistant


Read more about pigeonpea in Eastern and Southern Africa on EXPLOREit

Contributing scientist: NVPR Ganga Rao, Product Placement Lead Eastern & Southern Africa Program, written by Jemima Mandapati

Projects that contributed to the growth:

  1. Tropical Legumes- II
  2. Malawi Seed Industry Development Project (MSIDP)
  3. Irish Aid Malawi
  4. CGIAR Research Program onGrain Legumes and Dryland Cereals

This work contributes to UN Sustainable Development Goal.
1-no-poverty 2-zero-hunger good-health 4-gender-equality 7-decent-work 13-climate-action 17-partnerships-goals

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