Two years ago, Nigeria commercialized SAMPEA 20-T, a breakthrough new variety of insect-resistant cowpea – a critical crop for nutrition and livelihoods throughout sub-Saharan Africa. This breakthrough not only illustrated how advances in crop innovation are reaching smallholder farmers – but also the significant work that remains in scaling uptake to reach more communities, more effectively.

Eaten by roughly 200 million Africans, predominantly in West Africa, cowpea is commonly referred to as “poor man’s meat” because of the high levels of protein that are found in cowpea’s seeds and leaves. 

Despite these benefits, farmers in the region face major obstacles.  A pest called Maruca pod borer can destroy up to 80 percent of farmers’ yields.  As the name suggests, the pod borer caterpillars bore into the pods and eat the seeds, and can also damage the buds, flowers, and leaves. This pest not only reduces a farmer’s immediate income, but also her potential for a long-term, viable livelihood in agriculture that provides sustenance and nutrition for the household and community. 

Historically, the tools mostly used to fight this pest have included a range of insecticides, which have demonstrated major drawbacks.  Not only could these kill off beneficial insects, but they are often not effective as the caterpillars are hidden for most of the time inside the pods, plus insecticides are often costly and carry several health risks for farmers.

With the commercial launch of pod borer resistant (PBR) cowpea in Nigeria two years ago, however, the fight against these pests changed significantly. Almost immediately, the potential of PBR cowpea to transform livelihoods and nutrition for the better was clear, with suppliers selling out of the seeds rapidly to meet local demand. 

Since then, farmers have enjoyed a range of benefits. PBR cowpea has reduced pesticide use from eight sprays per season to just two, while some farmers who previously stopped cultivating crops due to the high cost of insecticides have returned to planting cowpea – thanks to this breakthrough innovation. 

Now, two years since PBR cowpea’s commercial release, the world has only begun to scratch the surface of the potential benefits offered by this, and other, innovations in crop science. In Nigeria, PBR cowpea has already supported several thousand farmers to boost production – yet there remains significant untapped potential for improved yields and livelihoods for the vast majority of the country’s farmers.

While the launch of PBR cowpea has proven a scientific and technical success for smallholders, countries, regulators, and research institutes, we must now look to achieving impact at a greater scale, and removing those barriers that prevent this.  

To begin with, this means strengthening national seed systems, which are vital for providing farmers access to cutting-edge crop innovations.

In Nigeria, for instance, the informal seed system likely counts for the majority of the cowpea seed farmers are planting today, with farmers either saving their seed or trading amongst themselves. This means that most farmers are not benefiting from the latest advances in crop science, even as the impact of pests and diseases, climate change, and hunger challenges continues to rise.

To remedy this, countries, donors, and researchers must take an active role in building up and strengthening existing formal seed systems, to ensure that they are working for all farmers.  

Crucially, a cowpea value chain that equitably distributes benefits among various stakeholders – farmers, seed companies, traders, processors, and consumers – must be developed. In particular, private enterprises need to be incentivized to invest in producing certified seed, and likewise, farmers need incentives to continue buying certified seed beyond their first purchase alone. 

PBR cowpea was developed by a non-profit consortium with funding from USAID, ultimately “de-risking” the research and development process for private seed companies allowing them to more effectively sell-on to farmers. 

Due to its significant potential to boost yields for farmers, transforming livelihoods and nutrition for millions in the process, PBR cowpea can also be the catalyst for bringing on board private sector companies for the future, ensuring that they are investing in food security crops achieving positive impact on the ground. 

Finally, more work is needed to strengthen the support structures in seed systems that ensure the quality and impact of agricultural innovations like PBR cowpea. 

Seed certification agencies need to be adequately resourced with trained personnel to reassure farmers of the high standards of quality for PBR cowpea seeds, building trust in the role that this – and other similar agricultural innovations – can play towards transforming agricultural production for the better.

The Institute for International Crop Improvement (IICI), for instance, is playing a key role in providing financial support and training technical staff and licensed seed inspectors for Nigeria’s National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC). 

In particular, this support allows NASC to implement cutting-edge molecular diagnostics for quality testing and deliver field inspection services for those public and private organizations involved in producing foundation and certified classes of PBR cowpea seed. Effective and efficient delivery of these services allows seed producers to deliver a product that meets farmer expectations and helps to minimize spurious seed production, which would degrade not only the reputation but the longevity of PBR cowpea as a sustainable technology. 

PBR cowpea’s impact has clearly been notable in Nigeria, where it has begun to support farmers in reducing production costs while growing their yields. Two years on since its commercial launch, its future, and the future of agricultural innovation more broadly, is bright.

At the same time, however, we must continually work to ensure that we are achieving impact at scale and removing obstacles to a hunger-free future for all. 

Donald MacKenzie, Executive Director, Institute for International Crop Improvement (IICI)