Ousmane Boukar: Cowpea improvement for food security and poverty alleviation

Ousmane Boukar, IITA cowpea breeder, Kano, Nigeria. Photo by IITA.
Ousmane Boukar, IITA cowpea breeder, Kano, Nigeria. Photo by IITA.

Ousmane Boukar is IITA’s cowpea breeder and the Station Representative in Kano, Nigeria. He has been with IITA since 2007. As a breeder, his aim is to mine IITA’s germplasm collection of cowpea to identify important additional sources of gene(s) of interest for resistance to both biotic and abiotic stresses, sources of consumers and producers’ preferred traits, etc. This will broaden cowpea’s genetic diversity to contribute efficiently and significantly to cowpea genetic improvement.

Please describe your work.
My work in IITA is exciting and very challenging. IITA offers a lot of opportunities to contribute to the livelihood of millions of people mainly in sub-Saharan Africa through the improvement of the agriculture sector. I believe that playing a role in cowpea improvement means participating in enhancing food security and poverty alleviation of millions of people in Africa.

What are the current thrusts and initiatives on cowpea breeding?
The cowpea breeding program is focused on identifying additional sources of resistance to pests and diseases, combating parasitic weeds, improving drought tolerance and adaptation to low soil fertility. Our strategy is to consolidate the progress so far achieved and to establish a very strong foundation for further genetic improvement. The aim is to increase production in terms of both fodder and grain yields, and those plant and grain characteristics preferred by consumers and producers. Efforts would also be made to enhance the level of micronutrients and protein in cowpea grains. African rural and sub-urban communities will be able to produce more high quality products for human and animal consumption, to improve their health by providing a balanced diet, and their income by providing enough for home consumption and supply to markets.

Major projects associated with cowpea improvement include Tropical Legumes I and II, Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage, Development and promotion of Alectra-resistant cowpea cultivars, the Application of marker-assisted selection for Striga resistance in cowpea, Improving drought tolerance phenotyping in cowpea, Appropriate Variety of Early maturing Cowpea for Burkina Faso (AVEC-BF), and Development of parasitic weed control methods for world food security.

Cowpea field experiments, IITA. Photo by C. Ono-Raphael, IITA.
Cowpea field experiments, IITA. Photo by C. Ono-Raphael, IITA.

What are the major challenges in cowpea improvement?
Cowpea production is limited by numerous factors both biotic and abiotic which could be addressed using the tools from genetic improvement. Several diseases, insect pests, nematodes, and parasitic weeds cause significant cowpea yield loss. Abiotic constraints include drought and heat which also cause significant yield reduction during the seedling and/or reproductive stages of the crop. Another major production constraint is low soil fertility from organic matter and low phosphorus availability, particularly in the soils of the savannas.

The range of production environments and cropping systems and the diverse preferences among consumers and producers for grain, leaves, pods, and fodder, make cowpea breeding very challenging. There is a clear need to develop a range of varieties that meet the diverse requirements combining high yield potential and resistance to the major production constraints.

How do you decide which challenges to address?
Identification of areas of research involves all stakeholders along the cowpea value chain. We consider both the current and long-term needs of our stakeholders. The current needs are determined from observations in our research fields, farmers’ fields, the attitudes of consumers, and in our interactions with farmers, NARS colleagues, NGOs, traditional and political leaders through farmers’ field days, farmers’ participatory varietal selection, and participation in meetings. The long-term needs are based on our own experiences and those of colleagues. This approach guarantees the continued relevance of our research activities. The various projects enable me to have a good interaction with all the stakeholders.

Who are IITA’s partners in cowpea improvement research?
NARES, advanced research institutions (ARI), NGOs, farmers, traditional and political leaders. Our activities on drought tolerance, for example, involve national and international partners (Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Mozambique, Tanzania, Burkina, and Senegal; and University of California, Riverside). Our Striga and Alectra research activities involve both NARS (Burkina, Senegal, Niger, Mali, and Cameroon for Striga and Malawi and Tanzania for Alectra) and ARIs (University of Virginia for Striga and Natural Resources Institute for Alectra). Our partners are involved right from the initial stages of the projects.

Why is cowpea underexploited and underutilized?
The main reason is that cowpea is a crop grown by poor people for consumption and commercial value in the local regions. This makes the crop unattractive to commercial breeding and seed companies and ensures a lower priority for developed countries.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 70% of the world cowpea production. What could be done to ensure that cowpea receives research attention?
Almost all African governments consider agriculture as the main basis of their economic development. Very good strategies are being developed but unfortunately these strategies are not followed through always! Funding for cowpea research will enable the research institutes and universities to compete for external funding. Very few governments are supporting their research institutions by facilitating contacts or lobbying through major donors.

What new tools are being used to hasten cowpea improvement work?
With the rapid advances in plant genomics and molecular biology, new tools are being developed. Also, the use of molecular breeding combined with conventional breeding is becoming possible in cowpea improvement. A few steps are already being applied in cowpea improvement through marker-assisted selection and genetic modification. With the development of the recent well-saturated consensus genetic map, cowpea improvement is ready to benefit from an increased efficiency of selection resulting from the application of molecular breeding. Tropical Legume I phase II will soon give us an opportunity to test the efficiency and effectiveness of molecular breeding in cowpea.

What are the recent developments and breakthroughs in cowpea breeding that farmers and producers, including processors, could look forward to?
Our intensive activities through the Tropical Legumes II project have led to the identification and release of some drought-tolerant breeding lines. For example, in 2008, IT97K-499-35 was released in Nigeria. The performance of this variety has impressed farmers in Mali who named it jiffigui which means “hope”. Additional adaptation trials are being conducted in Mali and Niger for the release of this line.

Another example is IT00K-1263. This has shown good performance in Mozambique and Tanzania and is being considered for release soon in these countries. Additional sources of improved P-use and resistance to aphids, bacterial blight, multiple virus, Striga, and drought have been identified and segregating populations have been developed. New breeding lines with drought tolerance and multiple disease, and insect and Striga resistance will be available in the near future.

Farmers' participatory varietal selection, northern Nigeria. Photo by IITA.
Farmers' participatory varietal selection, northern Nigeria. Photo by IITA.

How do you involve farmers and producers in your work?
Through farmers’ participatory variety selection (FPVS). This consists of bringing groups of farmers to the field where they can select 2 to 3 varieties that they prefer out of about 20−30 lines. Varieties developed through this approach have showed a higher rate of adoption by the farmers. In addition, farmers’ field days and baseline studies enable us to learn from farmers about their main production constraints and their preferences in terms of plant type, maturity type, and grain and fodder quality. All the information collected is being incorporated in our breeding objectives.

How could IITA make stakeholders pay more attention to cowpea?
For more than four decades, IITA scientists had been working on different aspects of cowpea improvement. By documenting the role of cowpea in the livelihood of people in sub-Saharan Africa, the importance of major cowpea production constraints, the progress so far achieved, and strategies for the future, and by maintaining the world’s collection of germplasm for this crop IITA will continue to make donors and other stakeholders more interested on cowpea.