Recently, I visited one of the genetically modified cowpea on-farm trials sites in Zaria, Kaduna state. My encounter with the farmers, scientists spurred me to write this article, which focuses on the challenges of cowpea farming in Nigeria.
Cowpea, commonly known as beans, is grown in all parts of Nigeria. But the crop seems to do better in the drier climates of the northern regions. Nigeria is the largest cowpea/pulses producer in Africa and the fourth largest producer in the world after India, Canada and Burma.
Despite the fact that it is grown all over the country, only six states—Borno, Zamfara, Sokoto, Kano, Gombe and Yobe—grow the crop at commercial levels.
In the 1990s, Nigeria was acknowledged as the highest exporter as well as consumer of cowpea. But today the tides have turned. With a continually growing population the country has become the highest consumer and importer of cowpea from our neighbouring countries.
Currently, Nigeria consumes cowpea imported from countries like Cameroon, Niger and Benin Republic. The country lost its comparative advantages over the crop; hence today, farmers are discouraged from farming this all important crop which is eaten at least once daily by over 140 million Nigerians.
During the visit, I interacted with scientists from the Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University to deduce reasons for the poor performance of the crop and why farmers are developing apathy towards cultivating it. Mohammed Sabbo, a cowpea breeder at the Institute, explained that Maruca, a pod sucking insect, damages the pod of the cowpea plant, sucking the seeds dry and causing farmers to toil in vain.
“This accounts for why farmers are giving up cowpea farming” Sabbo said. According to him, no solutions have been found using conventional breeding methods to address these occurrences.
“We have crossed and analyzed over 15,000 cowpea varieties and found none that was resistant to this Maruca damage," said Prof. M. Ishiyaku, the principal investigator for Bt. cowpea at the Institute. “Biotechnology, or genetic modification, has been found as the means through which the devastating effects of Maruca can be addressed."
Prof. Ishiyaku said that scientists at the Institute are working to introgress the Bt gene developed in Australia into the local Nigerian cowpea varieties to address this challenge.
Already, it is a story of celebration as successes have been recorded based on the on-farm trials under way at four locations in northern Nigeria. At the trial farm, farmers only need to spray three times or less, compared to the usual eight sprayings. This development has economic, health and environmental benefits.
It also shows that the GM cowpea research, which has been ongoing since 2009 and is currently at the multi-locational trial stage, is not a waste. The principal investigator and other scientists working on the project cannot wait to get these seeds out to the farmers.
Alhaji Aliyu Tsalha, a cowpea farmer for over 30 years and one of the farmers participating in the trials, noted: “This is a source of hope for us! We are not only excited about the Maruca resistance but also the early maturing variety that is been developed for us."
A combination of early maturing and Maruca-resistant cowpea is not only a good solution to the current challenges faced by the farmers, but has the potential of making them smile again and making the nama talaka (meat of the poor) regain its important place as the country’s food staple.