Thursday, September 30, 2010

From poor man's meat to rich man's health supplement?

Research on the antioxidant and health properties of cowpea by scientists are beginning to show promise.

Cowpea and other legumes are a major source of protein, particularly for the poor, hence they are often called the poor man's meat. However, new research indicates that cowpea has the potential to combat diet-related health risks more commonly associated with wealthy populations such as heart disease, diabetes and other “lifestyle” health risks.

A new project led by Texas A&M University and funded by USAID-CRISP with research partners in Zambia, Kenya and South Africa is looking into the potential for cowpea to help prevent cancers and other cardiovascular diseases not only in Africa, but globally. This is the first project of its kind involving cowpeas of which Africa is a key producer.

"The problem is that we do not consume and promote foods that are rich in antioxidants, especially in Africa where diets are typically basic and monotonous, particularly among the poor," said Dr. Joseph Awika, the lead investigator of the project. "Additionally rich people once they get a bit of money graduate to the foods that are typically high in sugars and fat and very low in health-promoting components like antioxidants".

Antioxidants are substances that protect body cells against the effects of free radicals which are molecules produced when the body breaks down food or by environmental exposure to tobacco smoke and radiation. Free radicals can damage cells and contribute to heart disease and cancer.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 16.7 million total global deaths - result from the various forms of cardiovascular disease (CVD), many of which are preventable by acting on unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and smoking. WHO says more than 50% of the deaths and disability from heart disease and strokes kill more than 12 million people each year with 80 percent of them in developing countries.

Dr. Awika said the next step for the project would be to use human cell models in a laboratory to get quick, reliable data on biochemical properties of cowpea components. Then the next step would involve animal models fed cowpea-based products to measure specific outcomes which would lead to larger human intervention studies.

"Based on the limited evidence we have cowpea can be an important health food in the future," said Dr. Awika. "We are at the screening phase where we have used simple rapid tests to screen over 70 samples to select specific lines to focus on for a more detailed study."

- Busani Bafana

Purdue Scientists Use Viral Cell Phone Videos to Share Cowpea Storage Techniques With Farmers

Researchers have turned to mobile phone videos to help farmers share information on how to use improved cowpea storage technology to protect their cowpeas in the field.

The Purdue University in collaboration with researchers in Cameroon developed the Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS) to help farmers in West Africa protect their cowpea in storage.

With farmers in Niger faced by challenges of effectively sealing the PICS bags, Purdue and its partners in World Vision and INRAN developed a small 3-7 minute video that showed the sealing of the bag which was difficult to explain effectively via other formats. With many West African farmers having cell phones, the videos have been a hit. Farmers can share the videos using Bluetooth. Click here to view the video.

"This a low cost technology and we find that it spreads very fast and so in one test in Niger, we gave the cell phone video to several extension workers that we were working with as well as a couple of radio station and few pilot farmers and in a month's time it spread to hundreds of people who saw the cell phone video and were able to benefit from the information," said Prof. Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, Associate Dean and Director of International Programs in Agriculture at Purdue University. "Farmers have liked the videos because they help them understand better how to use the bags instead of only the oral messages on the radio."

Animation has opened new opportunities for helping farmers share information on controlling cowpea insects. Cell phone videos have also been developed in Fufuldé, French, Wolof and English. One of the big advantages of cell phone videos, says Lowenberg-DeBoer, is that they are inexpensive to produce and can be made for specific locations. The videos are made in low resolution so they can be easily viewed on small cell phone screens.

Farmers love to see familiar surroundings and hear their native language. This lets them know that the message is made specifically for them," Lowenberg-DeBoer said.

- Busani Bafana

Got a bug problem with your beans? Just bag it.

More than 25 percent of unprotected cowpea is lost as a result of pest attacks during postharvest. However, these losses are being substantially stemmed, thanks to the Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS).

PICS aims to put half of all farm stored cowpea harvest in West and Central Africa in non-chemical, hermetic storage. Here's how: PICS works by sealing cowpeas in an airtight container. The airtight container within a couple of days kills all the adult insects and most of the larvae. The technology also keeps the remaining larvae dormant and unable to cause further damage. PICS was developed through collaboration between Purdue University's Faculty, students and researchers in North Cameroon in response to farmers, who had problems storing cowpeas and needed an effective storage method.

A PICS bag is composed of three layers: two inner layers of high density polyethylene and an outer layer of ordinary woven polypropylene. The inner bags protect the grain from insects. The bag was tested in the laboratory and in over 20 000 village tests in West and Central Africa. It has drawings illustrating sealing procedures to help illiterate farmers.

Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, a Professor of Agricultural Economics and Director of the International Programs in Agriculture at Purdue University, said hermetic storage works effectively only when containers are completely filled. PICS bags have a 100kg capacity but if a farmer has 50 kg of cowpea to store, the bag can be tied lower down and this works just as well. Can it be reopened continuously?
"Yes it can, but the problem is that it introduces oxygen again," Lowen-DeBoer said. "We have found that once farmers re-open the bags, particularly if they are using cowpea for household use, it means the insects that are not killed will wake up and start trying to eat the cowpea. So it is better once sealed, to leave it sealed until the cowpea is taken out for sale."

Smaller containers, like plastic bags can be used to store cowpea for household use.

The PICS bags are available in 10 countries in West and Central Africa and are currently being manufactured in Senegal, Mali, Ghana and Nigeria. On average, the bags cost between $1.70 and $3 depending on local manufacturing costs.

"The bag makes a difference. For example, if a bag of cowpea is worth the equivalent of $50 at harvest and $150 six months later and you spend $3 on the bag, there is still a tremendous possibility for gaining."

Purdue University is working with IITA in Nigeria to promote the adoption of the cowpea storage technology.

- Busani Bafana

Media focuses on cowpea as a contribution to food security

Black-eyed peas are a 'crop of the future' that 'has the potential to feed millions' according to the Associated Press in a report earlier this week. News of the World Cowpea Conference has reached far and wide.

In particular, stories by Associated Press and Agence France Press were picked up widely by media outlets around the world. The AP story alone was featured on over 150 news web sites and publications this week, most notably by Business Week, CBS News, Forbes, Los Angeles Times, and The Independent (UK). The conference was also covered quite extensively by the local press in Senegal.

Overall, the media coverage has been very positive in highlighting the important contribution cowpea can make in improving Africa’s food security.

Click the links below to view media coverage.


Sud Quotidien

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Photos from Saly

Cowpea biodiversity – 15,000 samples and counting…

Dominique Dumet, Head of IITA's Genetic Resources Center, gives journalist Busani Bafana the low down on the world's largest collection of cowpea.

What's the status of the world cowpea collection?

IITA has a mandate to preserve the germplasm under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization. for the good of humanity. We maintain over 15 000 samples of cowpea collected since the early 70s from all over Africa, India, Asia and Americas. We maintain the collection at low temperatures to expand their lifespan and we distribute worldwide to whoever wants to use them for research in agriculture and food security.

Where are the hot spots for biodiversity losses?

It is difficult to say because there are few reports on genetic erosion on the African continent. We do not know everything about the diversity of cowpea in Africa.

Where are the gaps in the collection?

There are eco-geographical gaps in our collections. In Namibia, for example, we do not have anything. In Angola, we have very little. We would like to acquire a wild relative to cowpea which to our knowledge is not maintained in any genebank. We do not have samples from Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Equatorial-Guinea and Rwanda. We do have samples from Botswana, Congo, DR Congo, Gambia, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Swaziland and Uganda but these are small samples.

Does Africa hold the largest diversity of cowpea?

IITA maintains the largest collection of cowpea and its wild relatives worldwide but all national collections, even if smaller, are important as they are likely to maintain unique germplasm.

Which cowpea lines are at risk?

There has not been a study of cowpea’s genetic erosion study, so we actually do not know where the biggest risks are. We need to integrate various erosion risk such as adoption of a new varieties or climate change into our ecogeographical gap analysis. We need to do collection missions to save samples. We will be doing a collection mission starting in October 2010 in Nigeria and we are going to cover 15 000 km. Remy Pasquet, a well known Vigna taxonomist, will lead the collecting mission.

Are there any new tools available for understanding and providing access to the world cowpea collection?

We recently developed an online inventory system and a user-friendly, Google-type search engine that allows breeders and researchers to search through the samples for characteristics and passport data.

How does the passport data work?

When you collect a sample from the field, you give it specific particulars just like a passport. For example, the passport must include the exact location where the sample was collected, the name of the collector, the year of the collection and the local name. This information is useful to breeders but also to genebank curators. The benefit is that it helps breeders and curators know about the environment where the sample 'was born'. Unfortunately, in the past, collections were not given such information which was not good. Now everyone is aware of the importance of passport data.

Participants of 5th World Cowpea Research Conference

Monday, September 27, 2010

Away with Akara?

Akara, the crispy, deep fried fritters made from black-eyed peas, are loved by many. But eating the protein-rich bean in other forms, particularly boiled, could increase the nutrient intake for millions of urban consumers buying street foods, least according to one scientist.

Busie Maziya-Dixon, a crop utilisation specialist at IITA:

"People should eat more boiled cowpea advantage of micronutrients especially iron and zinc that are lost when you remove the mineral-packed skin from the bean.”

Research by Maziya-Dixon has shown that boiled cowpea retains 80 percent of its iron and zinc. When its processed it into akara and moin moin most of these minerals are lost, she says.

'You can't eat potential'

Senegal, which recently unveiled an ambitious programme to boost agricultural production, has challenged the research community to harness resources to expand the potential of nutritious crops like cowpea in feeding Africa.

During the opening the 5th World Cowpea Research Conference in Saly, Hon. Khadim Gueye, Minister of Agriculture, Senegal said that researchers should harness physical and human resources to solve production and marketing constraints facing Africa’s farmers. Senegal has rolled out an ambitious programme known as GOANA to increase food production and access to farm research outputs through limited seed and fertilizer subsidies to targeted farmers.

Minister Guyed said the GOANA initiative would put Senegal on track for exporting agricultural produce, noting that this would only be realised with condusive environment including the provision of improved inputs. He expressed hope that the gathering of the cowpea experts in Senegal would result in solutions to fighting pests and diseases affecting cowpea.

ISRA director general, Dr. Macoumba Diof called for increased collaboration between research institutions and universities to enhance the development of cowpea in line with government priorities on crop diversification and competitiveness.

In remarks to the conference, Deputy Director-General IITA, Dr. Lakshmi Menon, said growing global population meant a steep growth in food demands, increasing the potential the role of cowpea to meeting food, nutritional, monetary and food needs.

"Sadly, you can’t eat potential. Potential doesn't feed people. It is up to us all here to do our part to help Africa realize its potential,” said Dr. Menon.

Calling for the use of technological tools to improve agriculture, Dr. Menon said strategic research partnerships were essential to take advantage of the improving regional trade conditions in Africa.

End/Busani Bafana/

Improving cowpea storage

"As much as it is important to produce cowpea we must be able to store them and we have developed a simple and cheap way, anyone can be trained to do it in 10 minutes." - Larry Murdock, Purdue University

Is there an association between cowpea color and taste?

"No", says BB Singh, a world renowned cowpea scientist. "The color has nothing to do with taste, but color is highly associated with the presence of antioxidants. We’re doing more research on this connection."

The total package for beating hunger and poverty

"Cowpea is the wonder crop," Professor Irv Widders, Director of Pulses-CRSP at the Michigan State University, told participants to the 5th World Cowpea Research Conference in Saly, Senegal. "Many people associate pulses with poor people. The message they should be pushin that cowpeas and other pulses are the food of an educated person as one understands the nutritional value of cowpea they will make a conscious effort to consume them."

Cowpeas are treasured for their high protein content (grains contain about 25 percent protein), leaves and stalks that serve as especially nutritious fodder for cows (hence the name cowpea) and other farm animals, and the fact that their roots provide nitrogen to depleted soils. For many in Africa, the crop is a critical source of food during the “lean period”–-the end of the wet season when food can become extremely scarce in semi-arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa.

The many qualities of the cowpea are being discovered anew for a number of reasons. One is the potential of the cowpea’s high protein content to help satisfy dietary requirements in food-challenged developing countries, particularly in Africa, where over 200 million people remain undernourished.

Prof. Widders warned that the global food crisis was still on and the world remained vulnerable to price fluctuations citing the food riots in Mozambique. Therefore it was important that policy makers should be convinced of the nutritional, health and sustainability value of cowpea to trigger investment in research and improvement in production and market value chains.

"We are dealing with a quality food product and a solution to nutritional needs as well as global health. We would be misguided just to look at one aspect," Prof Widders said lamenting the immense challenges in the way of cowpea helping achieve food security.

Key challenges included dealing with pests and disease, poor storage and high post harvest losses, bad agriculture practises, poor supply and poor farmer-access market linkages. In addition, a decline in the consumption of pulses was also cited as a key challenge confronting scientists as projections suggest that 50 percent more food will be needed by 2050 to feed a world population of 9 billion.

End/Busani Bafana/

A Cowpea Story - Children's Book

In recognition of Senegal’s effort to improve childhood nutrition through the promotion of niébé, IITA’s Deputy Director General Lakshmi Menon presented the first edition of A Cowpea Story to Hon Mr Khadim Guèye, Minister of Agriculture, Senegal.

A Cowpea Story, an illustrative children’s book by Vicky Inniss-Palmer, tells the hopeful story of a cowpea named Catalina and her struggle to overcome illness and disease with the help of scientists. The book was officially launched at the opening of the 5th World Cowpea Conference. IITA hopes to distribute the book to schoolchildren across Africa as part of an effort to raise awareness and educate children on the importance of cowpea.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Niebe flour, a self raising business

Rokhaya LÓ is a mother and a family breadwinner in, thanks to a job milling niebe, the common name for cowpea in Senegal.

"I clean, dehusk, sort out, and weigh the niebe before it is milled into flour," LÓ explains during a visit to Kumba Enterprises, a small milliing business founded by Mme Aissatou Diagne Deme in Dakar.

The cowpea flour sold Kumba Enterprises has made it household name around Dakar. It’s an important ingredient for traditional meals and a rich source of protein for children, the elderly and expecting mothers.

LÓ has been working at Kumba Enterprises since 2003 and has supported her child and family members with her earnings.

"I enjoy the job. The money is good," she says. LÓ is not just an employee but a neighbour. She is one of 52 women from the neighbourhood from where Kumba Enterprises has grown as a family business since 1994.

Niebe flour is rich in protein, a trait which has kept Kumba Enterprises' tills ringing. The company mills about 800 kilogrammes of niebe flour a month, most of it sold locally to consumers and markets.

"The flour is affordable and sought after locally. I am investing sampling the export market in Europe where I have an agent for millet flour that I also produce and export," says Mme Deme who supplies cowpea flour to local bakers.

Mme Deme has plans to mechanizeg her entire business, but admits that some manual processes deliver better efficiency. The flour business has risen in value since she started the business at her home with an initial investment of $12 000 [6 million CFA]. Today, she values her business at $100,000 [50 million CFA].

Cowpea is increasingly a source of income for many women like Mme Deme in West and Central Africa, thanks to new food technologies being developed by reseaerchers. An association of women in Dakar is running a home-based take-out food business, serving entrees and desserts made from cowpea.

During the four day World Cowpea Conference in Saly, researchers will discuss a new study analysing the economic fortunes of hundreds of street vendors in Ghana and Niger who sell a popular, deep-fried fritter made from cowpea known as akara. Research has found that most of the women earned four to 16 times more from value added cow pea products than the prevailing minimum wage in their countries underlining that cowpea can be a cash cow for the enterprising.

By Busani Bafana

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Building brains with better bread

Bread made with flour from the nutritious cowpea (black-Eyed Peas), is coming to the rescue of school children, increasingly at risk of protein deficiency, under a feeding project being piloted in Dakar, Senegal.

Cowpea, commonly known as niebe in Senegal, is one of the ingredients in the fortified bread being produced by Senegal’s Institute of Food Technology (ITA) to help improve nutrition in school children. The programme will be piloted in three schools in Senegal’s Guela Tapec District during the upcoming school term.

The fortified bread is made with 85 percent wheat, 15 percent cowpea flour and peanut butter. ITA is one of the research organisations around the world promoting the much neglected cow pea in the fight against malnutrition. Cowpea is packed with protein, vitamins and minerals ideal for childhood development.

"We realised that many school children leave homes without eating and cannot have milk because it is expensive so we have fortified the bread to deal with the lack of protein," ITA Director General, Dr. Ababacar Ndoye.

Introducing fortified bread is helping provide nutrition at an affordable cost not just for school children alone as the price of wheat flour is one the rise. The ITA pilot bakery is producing 160 loaves for promotion ahead of piloting the programmes in schools.

"We will expand the feeding programme to all the schools in Dakar," Dr. Ndoye said.

Fortified bread is one of the innovations of value-addition of the nutritious cow pea which after many years of neglect is enjoying new interest from scientists. Research on enhancing the profile of cowpea as a viable income generating and food security crop is the focus of a four day meeting, 5th World Cowpea Research Conference in Saly, Senegal from 27 September to 1 October 2010.