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Cowpea: Driving a silent revolution in Nigeria

By Godwin Atser - IITA
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Cowpea production and processing is propelling a silent revolution in Nigeria, as incomes from the crop are improving rural livelihoods in the country.

Farmers and processors in Osu, a community in southwestern Nigeria, say processing the protein-rich crop into cakes popularly known as akara is akin to hitting a goldmine.

“The benefits are many,” says Mrs. Olaiya Oluwakemi—an akara vendor.

“From frying of akara alone, I have been able to afford sending my son to the university. I built a house and now own a car,” Oluwakemi adds.

Oluwakemi says she had tried other businesses in the past but the processing of cowpea grains to akara remained the most viable option. The business has grown in the last seven years and she currently employs more than 20 people. On average, she gets profits of between N1500 (US$10) and N2000 (US$13) daily. In a country where about 50% of the population thrives on less than US$2 per day, this is a lot of cash.

“I have tried other businesses but this is just the best,” she reiterates.

Another cowpea processor, Chief Mrs. Olorunisola, says she inherited the business from her mother.

After managing the business in the last 30 years, Olorunisola now owns the famous Iyadunni Akara processing enterprise. The business uses about 100 kg of cowpea grains as raw material daily for making akara; it has five branches spread across Nigeria.

Incomes from the firm have helped Olorunisola to build two houses. The third, a 3-storey building, is still under construction.

Three of her children have graduated from the university, thanks to income from akara.

Like Oluwakemi and Olorunisola, several other processors have benefited from the processing of cowpea in the community. Most of the houses built in Osu have at least the foundation laid with income from akara.

Thousands of travelers passing through Osu town, located between Ile-Ife and Ilesha, stop daily to buy the popular 'akara Osu' from the vendors and eat.

Consumers interviewed say the protein-rich crop replenishes lost energy arising from fatigue experienced during long journeys.

“I look forward to eating akara osu whenever I am traveling on this route,” says passenger Friday Adeshina.

Elsewhere in the northern part of Nigeria—home to cowpea production, this leguminous crop has proven to be a veritable source of income for farmers and processors.

In Borno, Katsina, Kaduna, Kano states and as far as Niger Republic, cowpea farmers who adopted improved cowpea varieties and management practices reported an average of 55% rise in their incomes, according to data from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

Farmers who use traditional varieties earn about US$ 25/ha, while those who are growing the improved cowpea are getting US$390/ha, and additional US$139, with proper crop management practices.

Besides incomes, interventions by IITA and partners supported by the Tropical Legumes ΙΙ project, Canadian International Development Agency, United States Agency for International Development, and the Sudan Savanna Task Force of the Kano-Katsina-Maradi (SS TF KKM) Pilot Learning Site (PLS) of the sub-Saharan Challenge Program, are helping farmers with improved technologies to meet the increasing demand for the crop.

Farmer Mohammed Mustapha says he has been able to double cowpea yields using the same plot of land with improved varieties and agronomic practices, thanks to IITA interventions.

“Before, I used to get two bags of cowpea from this field but in 2009, I harvested five bags which were more than double the initial amount,” says Mustapha, a farmer in Kunamawa village in Safana Local Government Area of Katsina State.

Cowpea's appeal to farmers has spiraled in recent times, making the crop a prominent tool in fighting hunger and poverty in Africa.

Dr Christian Fatokun, IITA Cowpea Breeder and Tropical Legumes II Project Coordinator, says the appeal of the crop is growing not just because of incomes associated with it but also due to the fact that it is drought tolerant and suitable for cultivation in the arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa.

But the strides made by the crop are not without challenges. For instance, the plant still faces pests attacks during every stage of its life cycle. Aphids extract juice from cowpea leaves and stems while the crop is still a seedling and also spread the cowpea mosaic virus. Flower thrips feast on it during flowering, pod borers attack its pods during pod growth, and bruchid weevils attack the postharvested seeds. The plants are also attacked by diseases caused by fungi, bacteria, and viruses. Parasitic weeds—Striga and Alectra—choke the plant's growth at all stages and nematodes prevent the roots from absorbing nutrients and water from the soil. Yield gap remains a huge challenge.

Unleashing the full potential of cowpea will require greater attention to the crop both in new scientific discoveries and investments.

Dr Boukar Ousmane, IITA Cowpea Breeder, notes that unfortunately, support for cowpea research has been rather relatively low compared with other crops such as wheat and rice. Consequently, this situation has constrained the cowpea crop attaining its full potential and is gradually putting the lives of millions of people in developing countries at risk.

He says that funding research activities aimed at tackling the challenges facing the crop is key to realizing the full potential of the crop.