James M. Lowenberg-Deboer: Ensuring Africa’s future through agriculture

James Lowenberg-DeBoer, Purdue University. Photo from J. Lowenberg-DeBoer.
James Lowenberg-DeBoer, Purdue University. Photo from J. Lowenberg-DeBoer.

James M. Lowenberg-DeBoer, or Jess, has 24 years of worldwide experience in agricultural research, teaching, outreach, and administration. He currently serves as Associate Dean and Director of International Programs in Agriculture (IPIA) at Purdue University, coordinating all international programs for the Purdue College of Agriculture.

His research focuses on the economics of agricultural technology. He brings to his research, teaching, outreach, and administration a perspective gained through private sector experience as a farmer and journalist.

Please describe your work.
I have participated in every step of the cowpea value chain in Africa from production to consumption. I have helped cowpea breeders define their genetic strategy, collaborated with entomologists on pest management in cowpea fields, partnered with extension specialists to transfer improved cowpea storage technologies, and worked with food scientists to reduce the labor required to make cowpea-based street foods. I have even initiated some exploratory research on the economics of cowpea leaves as a green vegetable. Most recently, I focused on the Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS) project, teaching farmers and cowpea traders how to use hermetic storage methods to reduce damage without insecticides and developing the supply chain for the heavy duty plastic bags that are, in most cases, the most cost-effective hermetic storage container.

How important is cowpea in the American diet and economy?
Cowpea is a specialty item in the American diet and economy. It is commonly known as “black-eyed peas” in the US because the varieties found in supermarkets are usually white with black eyes.
Many Americans eat cowpea in traditional dishes associated with holidays. For instance some Americans eat “hopping john”, a dish made of cowpea and rice on New Year’s Day. “Southern peas,” cowpea that is picked before maturity and eaten as a vegetable, are widely consumed in the Southeastern US. Some families have heirloom cowpea seed varieties that are passed down from parents to children, and grown each year in the household garden.

On US farms cowpea is a specialty crop grown on roughly 92,000 ha annually. Dry cowpea grain is produced on only about 12,000 ha annually, mostly in California and Texas. Southern peas are produced mostly in the southeastern US, mainly in home and market gardens. Because they are not a large-scale commercial crop, the government does not collect statistics on production, but informal estimates indicate that up to 80,000 ha of cowpea in the US is used annually as southern peas.

How did you get started in cowpea research?
I started working on cowpeas when I was a researcher at the National Institute of Agricultural Research of Niger (INRAN) from 1988 to 1992. Niger exports more cowpea than any other country in the world. The crop is very important for the Nigerien economy and for Nigerien farmers.
In West and Central Africa, the demand for cowpea is very strong, particularly in Nigeria. Farmers could increase cowpea production with the assurance that there would be a market for their product. Urban people, particularly the urban poor, benefit from cowpea because it is a relatively low-cost, high-protein food that does not require refrigeration. Improvement in cowpea production, storage, and marketing would benefit millions of people. In short, cowpea research allowed me to maximize my impact as a scientist.

Please describe your collaborative work with IITA.
I have worked with almost every IITA cowpea researcher. For example, B.B. Singh and Ousmane Boukar used the consumer preference research done by my students and I do to help determine the goals of their breeding efforts. I collaborated with Ousmane Coulibaly to assess the reactions of potential producers and consumers to genetically modified cowpea. Over many years, I have worked closely with Tahirou Abdoulaye, most recently in assessing the impact of the PICS project.

What are the major constraints in cowpea research and development?
Twenty years ago when I started working on cowpea issues, farmers usually said that their most pressing problem was storage. They said that they would produce more cowpea if only they could store it safely until they needed it for household consumption or until prices made marketing profitable.

Today, farmers in the current PICS countries usually say that management of field insects is their major problem. They say that PICS has provided a cost-effective solution to the storage problem. It is hard to predict which cowpea constraint will be the most serious in the future, but I think we should pay attention to two issues: soil fertility and consumers’ demand.

In general, African soils are becoming degraded. Like most legumes, cowpea is very sensitive to soil phosphate levels. World phosphate stocks are decreasing and the price of phosphate fertilizer is trending upward. We should think about breeding cowpea varieties that make better use of the phosphates in the soil and we need to consider how to recycle urban wastes and livestock manure to return the phosphates from cowpea grain and forage to the soil.

Any other concerns?
My concern about cowpea demand is related to economic growth. In many countries in the world, when incomes rise, people want more animal-based protein and more convenient foods. For instance, in some Latin American countries, consumption of beans per capita is declining as people switch to meat, milk, and eggs.

For economic, nutritional, and environmental reasons, it is important that people everywhere continue to consume grain legumes, especially cowpea. In West and Central Africa, that means we need to educate consumers on the benefits of eating cowpea and we need to work with food scientists to develop labor-saving forms of traditional cowpea-based foods. For example, we hope that our work on coarse cowpea flour can be used to make cowpea fritters (i.e., akara or kossai) or cowpea dumplings (i.e., dan waké) without the laborious traditional wet milling process. This will help to keep cowpea foods in family meals and on street vendors’ stalls.

James Lowenberg-DeBoer interviewing a vendor in Accra, Ghana. Photo from J. Lowenberg-DeBoer.
James Lowenberg-DeBoer interviewing a vendor in Accra, Ghana. Photo from J. Lowenberg-DeBoer.

What do you think is the future of cowpea in Africa?
Cowpea is a great grain legume crop for the low-altitude tropics. Because it is very heat and drought tolerant, cowpea is ideal for semi-arid areas.

The single greatest threat to the future of cowpea in Africa is that it will be displaced by other crops that have greater research backing. For example, soybean benefits from the extensive research done in the US, China, Japan, and other temperate zone countries. To a lesser extent, the same is true for the common bean. In spite of cowpea’s natural advantages, African farmers may be obliged by economic forces to switch to producing other crops for which research develops greater heat, drought, resistance to pests and diseases; and crops for which food science and marketing develop alternative high-value uses. The future of cowpea in Africa depends on maintaining and developing a research community that will allow this species to fulfill its potential.

How could farmers and producers cash in on cowpea?
African farmers are already cashing in on cowpea. In the Sahelian countries, cowpea is often the only viable cash crop. If science finds a solution to the field pest management problems, we can expect a much greater production in the humid zones of West and Central Africa. To realize profits on cowpea with current technology, farmers have improved varieties, soil fertility management methods, pest management techniques, and storage technologies. They need to determine which combination works for them. Like farmers in industrialized countries, African producers of cowpea need to be attentive to new technology. Economics dictate that the biggest benefits from new technology go to the early adopters.

How would you describe your experiences in working in Africa?
I have worked on every continent which has agriculture. My work in Africa has been the most professionally and personally satisfying. I think this is because in Africa the need is great and the potential is even greater. Per capita food production in Africa has been declining for decades, but Africa is also the area with the greatest potential for increased food production. In the rest of the world, most of the land that can be farmed is already farmed intensively. In Africa, land that is farmed is mostly cultivated with the most extensive methods and there is still land to be developed for agriculture.

Africa is the future of agriculture and agribusiness. I am pleased to have played a small role in the research that is building African agriculture and a slightly larger role in training the African scientists who will help Africa to realize its agricultural potential.

2 thoughts on “James M. Lowenberg-Deboer: Ensuring Africa’s future through agriculture

  1. Your impact as a scientist is truly visible in particular through your investment in the PICS supply chain across West and Central Africa

  2. I am a cowpea farmer in katsina state Nigeria, I produce not less than three hundred bags each of 100kg during the dry and rainy season annually I was having problems with storage, but thanks to PICS storage Technology. The areas that needed much attention is field pests especially sucking bugs.

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