By Abdallah el-Kurebe
“I cultivate and eat cowpea because it serves as food for my family; I make money from it as well as feed our animals with the fodder,” says Musa Achida, a farmer in Wurno local government of Sokoto state.
“I make a lot of money from the sale of cowpea. Petty business women who make bean-cake troop here to buy cowpea on daily basis. The turnover is high,” says Lawali Danmalam, cowpea seller at Sokoto market.
“I make moi-moi (bean paste) and akara (bean cake) (both produced from cowpea). All day through, people across all social strata come here to buy these common foods. I make N5,000 daily,” says Mama Ibeji, a food seller.
The United Nations Development Goal (SDG) 2 seeks to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.”
African farmers discovered the wild cowpea known as vigna unguiculata and developed it as a crop 5,000 years ago. It was adopted by farmers across the world with different names assigned to it.
Africa leads the world in cowpea production with Nigeria accounting for 58 percent of global production. For the African families, cowpea is both used as food and income.
In Africa, while the cowpea seed is high in proteins rich in the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, the green leaves are also important food source and are prepared as a pot herb like spinach.
While the tender leaves contain 25 percent of their dry weight, which are protein high, the well mature dry leaves serve as animal feeds.
To attain the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2 – that of ending hunger, achieving food security and improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture, nutrition especially among the poor, must be a priority for governments across Africa and led by Nigeria.
Cowpea is a rescue crop that serves as food as well as fight malnutrition among the poor people of the continent. This is because it is accessible, affordable and nutritious. It comes handy as an alternative to meat, which is relatively expensive.
It is a low-fat and low calorie food which, according to food scientists, helps you stay in good weight as well as prevent many health conditions.
Dr. Moses Adeolu Adebayo, a maize breeder who works with SeedCo Nigeria in Research and Development as Agronomy and Seed Production Specialist said that cowpea ranks amongst the top plant sources of protein with about 15 percent.
He posits that “in developing countries like Nigeria where the prices of meat are prohibitive for the masses, cowpea comes handy as an alternative to meat or as a supplement for the protein requirement for the consumer, bearing in mind that it is cheaper than meat.”
He added that “government must support cowpea farmers through incentives so that they can step up production for consumption and exports.”
Sussanna Ngodoo Jacob, a trained dietician who works with Hallelujah Access International, a USA based Nutrition Company and a trained nutrition coach with the Cancer Project International and Food for Life Africa said that there are various species of cowpea.
“However, the black-eyed cowpeas are among the most nourishing in the legume family. They are loaded with nutrients similar to those in meat. Their health benefits outweigh that of meat for many reasons,” she said.
Jacob notes that while the nutrients in cowpea are plant-based and have no saturated fat which is a chief attribute of animal food and the leading factor of heart related conditions, the concern with meat consumption is that animals are now fed with synthetic feeds and antibiotics and all of these are said to have negative effects on the human body.
“Beans is also affordable and can be consumed more frequently therefore provides the body with the much needed nutrients to support growth, repair, maintenance and even protection against health conditions, including heart disease,” she further explained.
Professor Muhammadu Ishiyaku Faguji, a geneticist with the Institute of Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria and Principal Investigator of the Pod-borer Resistant Cowpea (PBR) project in Nigeria said that cowpea is inexpensive and has the same proteinuous value as meat, which is expensive.
“Cowpea is called “poor man’s meat” because it is protein-rich grain that is inexpensive and widely accessible to even the low income earners. With very little amount one can have access to protein as opposed to meat, which is very expensive. Many cannot afford meat but cowpea can provide the same value of protein requirement, mostly for even consumption. It is called “poor man’s meat” because it provides a cheap source of protein accessible to everybody in the society,” Faguji said.
It is imperative for Africans not only to maintain its position of being number one producer of cowpea but also to ensure that it enhances the production of more nutritious cowpea, which is cheaper than meat.
Faguji observes that while governments could enhance the production of cowpea by funding research, farmers on their part could do same by adhering to improved farming practices of the enhanced varieties of cowpea.
“To enhance the production of cowpea, government’s responsibility lies in funding research for scientists to understand the production and the utilisation problems of the crop in order to develop the varieties that are suitably adapted to different utilisation requirements by consumers and farmers alike.
“For example, the control of diseases, development of early maturing varieties for use in areas that have very short rainfall or, for some that have very narrow niche for growing in-between two raining season,” the geneticist explained.
Faguji added that government could help in enhancing the production of cowpea through the provision of an environment where free market would be allowed for farmers to have value for their products as well as free enterprise for the utilisation of the grain and fodder.
“On the other hand, farmers can enhance the production of cowpea by strictly adhering to both standard, improved practices and varieties that will fetch them good income from the crop,” he further said.
Faguji also said that cowpea has value chains that farmers could benefit from.
“Overall cowpea value chain stretch from the production and sales of feeds; the planting of the crop in the field with all the attendant management practices, including the utilisation of labour and harvesting, threshing, storage and then marketing of the grain.
“The utilisation of cowpea grain and fodder – fodder for feeding of livestock and the grain for making of different food products by the small and big enterprise such as bean-cake and other related foods like cowpea powder. There is also the industrial utilisation of cowpea for possible use in the development of baby foods and other fast foods,” he stressed.
According to him, farmers could maximise the benefits of the value chain depending on how they target their production in order to catch each of the niches.
“The production of specific varieties of cowpea for baby foods, which is relatively high in protein-rich grain to those for the making of local food products and also the sales of the grain itself and fodder, is realisable. Farmers have a lot to gain in the sales of cowpea, especially those who are patient enough to store their grain until May, June and July when the cowpea fetches maximum value in terms of money for grain,” Faguji said.
According to statistics by the Pod Borer Resistant Cowpea Project, which is coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and funded by the USAID, about eight million Sub Saharan African farmers would have access to improved cowpea varieties that would lead to increased yield with the development of MarucaResistant Cowpeas.
This simply means that the Project would help in enhancing the production of cowpea production that are resistant to pod borer. These are known to inflict damage to the cowpea and has resulted in between 70-80 percent yield losses.
AATF says that “the varieties are expected to reduce grain yield losses caused by the Pod borer as well as reduce the need for insecticidal sprays. More so, the expected yield improvement would impact household, national and global food security and economic status.”
It is reported that cowpea is the most important food grain legume in the dry Savannah of tropical Africa where it is grown on more than 12.5 million hectares.