The time to act is now

Cowpea seedling. Photo by IITA.
Cowpea seedling. Photo by IITA.

For too long, a versatile crop, capable of providing huge benefits for health and wealth stayed on the sidelines, largely below its economic potential and comparatively neglected by research. More recently, however, interest in this grain legume has greatly increased and its benefits have been more widely appreciated and publicized.

Cowpea, or black-eyed pea, is one of the few crops that could positively influence the nutritional status in sub-Saharan Africa. Grown by farmers mostly in West Africa, it is increasingly gaining prominence in the fight against hunger and poverty.

This is reflected in its dual roles as a source of protein for humans that is cheaper than animal products and a way to raise the quality of livestock through improving their feed. Cowpea also provides higher returns on investment than other crops grown in the region where it thrives best.

Harvesting cowpea. Photo by IITA
Harvesting cowpea. Photo by IITA

Unfortunately, support for cowpea research has been relatively low, unlike that for other crops such as wheat and potatoes. Consequently, this has limited the improvement of cowpea.

The situation is not being helped by the negative impact of climate change and unfavorable abiotic factors in the regions where the crop is mostly grown.

Over the years, IITA and its international and local partners have developed solutions to tackle the constraints faced by this “wonder” crop.

These include the development and deployment of improved, Striga-resistant, drought-tolerant, and early maturing varieties. More recently, work is ongoing to produce varieties resistant to the damaging legume pod-borer (Maruca).

Close-up of a cowpea flower. Photo by Christine Peacock
Close-up of a cowpea flower. Photo by Christine Peacock

The impact of these varieties on rural livelihoods and poverty is slowly but surely being felt.

Advances in science could help to further raise cowpea yield. With more resources now going into cowpea research and farmers’ participation in variety selection, even better performing varieties should be available soon.

These efforts have already produced positive results in the target regions but only on a relatively small scale when set in the context of all sub-Saharan Africa.

The task before stakeholders is to join hands with IITA now to advance this crop and to save Africa. The time to act is now.

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