Cowpea and groundnut are considered ‘golden grains’ for many women farmers in West Africa, as they make decent money processing these pulse grains into oil or popular snacks, while the leaves are good fodder for their animals. Yet legume cultivation has been limited because of farmers’ poor access to good seeds and market opportunities. Small seed packs and farmer-centered seed innovation platforms have sparked a sustainable agricultural transformation in Africa and India.

‘’It all started with a small seed pack of a new improved cowpea variety the extension agent gave me for testing,’’ explains Ms Hadja Salame, a smallholder farmer from Dawakin Tofa, in Kano State, Nigeria.

Cowpea is a popular legume crop cultivated by smallholder farmers across West Africa. However, local varieties are often hit by insect attacks and diseases, and yields are pretty low. ‘’I used to get a maximum of two bags (200 kg) of cowpea each year, which is barely
enough to feed my family. With the new variety, I get five bags (500 kg), I produce more flour and the grain taste is superior too. It is good for my business,’’ adds Salame.

In the last few years, Salame has been processing cowpea in many local dishes like accra, moi-moi (steamed pudding) and danwake (dumpling) to support her family. Her signature dish, a mix of pasta and cowpea is a success for her street food clients.  Discovering a new high-yielding cowpea variety has clearly transformed Salame’s life.

Local, participatory seed systems transform legume farming

Over the last twelve years, a pioneering legume research-for-development initiative called Tropical Legumes (TL) has produced more than 300 improved varieties of important legume crops (chickpea, groundnut, beans, cowpea, pigeonpea and soybean) across Africa and South Asia. These climate-resilient, disease- and pest-proof improved legumes (such as rosette disease resistant groundnut varieties Naliendele and Nachi recently released in Tanzania) outperform the local varieties farmers are used to growing, some as old as 40 years.

However, the impact of legume research has often been limited because most farmers could not access these improved seeds as legumes have been overlooked for years by the private seed sector. To reach out to farmers like Salame, the TL program’s work on building local sustainable seed systems with farmer groups has been a gamechanger.

TL uses farmer participatory breeding and varietal selection to design and test new legume varieties. This has enabled the research to integrate important farmer and market needs, like the importance of oil content of groundnut varieties for women’s groups in Nigeria or fast-cooking common bean for women in Eastern Africa.

The most dynamic farmer groups were trained in quality legume seed production and connected to market opportunities. Women seed farmer groups like Asawaba Farms in Ghana are empowered as they produce and sell quality declared seeds (QDS) of high-yielding groundnut varieties which are disease-tolerant, rich in oil and producing good fodder as well.

These seed scaling strategies worked because the right variety was brought to the right place and farmer groups. But for large-scale adoption of improved legume seeds, getting more private seed players on board is key.

Catalyzing legume seed investment for greater impact

The private seed sector has been less involved in legumes compared to maize or horticulture seeds because of assumed lower profitability. Legume seeds are bulkier and prone to pest attacks, making its seed production more expensive. Legume hybrid seed technology is also still rare, and farmers could replant their own seeds from previous harvests without losing too much genetic potential.

It is important to find ways to make legume seed production profitable and scalable. Affordable and scalable certification systems like the quality declared seeds (QDS) ensure local seed organizations like farmer seed cooperatives are not excluded from this new seed market by costly regulations.

Bundling seed with other services that lower risks of crop losses would incentivize private investments in the legume seed sector. Coating seeds with fungicide and growth inducer protect legume seedlings during the critical first few weeks and significantly increase bean yields up to 50%, for a minimal additional cost. It makes such seeds even more special compared to farmers’ own seed stock.

The TL research impact has been impressive since its inception in 2007, leading to millions of smallholder farmers like Hadja Salame planting TL-certified seeds over 4.4 million hectares.

With her additional cowpea incomes, Salame bought two bulls to plough more cropland. Her success has inspired other peer farmers, boosting the demand for improved cowpea seeds in Dawakin Tofa.

With the rise of pulse champions like Hadja Salame and new profitable legume seed businesses, the whole farming sector is rethinking the value of legumes. We are at the cusp of a sustainable farming and food revolution.

About the author:

Alina Paul
Consultant
ICRISAT

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