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WEST AFRICA: Black-Eyed Peas Key to Economic Development

DAKAR, Oct 1 2010 (IPS) - The black-eyed pea, commonly known as the cowpea, is the new kid on the block when it comes to improving the welfare of women and their families in West Africa, researchers say.

Entrepreneur, Aissatou Diagne Deme's milling business produces 800 kilograms of cowpea flour a month. Credit: Jeff Haskins/IPS

Entrepreneur, Aissatou Diagne Deme's milling business produces 800 kilograms of cowpea flour a month. Credit: Jeff Haskins/IPS

Scientists meeting in Dakar, Senegal for the Fifth World Cowpea Conference believe that the black-eyed pea has the potential for economic development and poverty alleviation in the region.

The conference, which ends on Oct. 1, also heard that adding value to cowpeas has the potential to improve the welfare of farmers, processors and marketers in the cowpea value chain.

Research conducted by Miriam Otoo, a PhD student at the Agricultural Economics Department at Purdue University in the United States presented a study on cowpea-based street food enterprises in Niger and Ghana.

Otoo’s study focused on the sales of akara (a deep fried cake sold on the street markets) or kossaï as it is also known. This fried cake is produced almost entirely by women and sold as a street food. Data was collected in Ghana and Niger in 2009 through personal interviews with 336 women entrepreneurs.

Some of the Research Findings

The average earnings of a vendor in Niamey, Niger was four times more than the wage of skilled labourers in the formal sector. While in Ghana the differences between vendor earnings and formal sector living standards are even more significant, with average vendor earnings almost 16 times higher than the official minimum wage.

A significant percentage of the entrepreneurs paid for their children’s education from their earnings. Research data revealed that the majority of the vendors had very limited education, and had stated that sending their children to school and ensuring that they received an education was a high priority.

In Kumasi, Ghana, about 28 percent of cowpea-based street food enterprises hire on average three workers in addition to the cheap or free labour provided by family members.

Research found that 26 percent of entrepreneurs in Kumasi, Ghana re-invested their earnings in their businesses, whilst five percent did so in Niamey, Niger.

Lack of financial resources was identified as a major constraint to business performance by 63 percent and 76 percent of the entrepreneurs in Kumasi, Ghana and Niamey, Niger respectively.

Results from the study indicated that akara or kossaï production is very important for economic development for several reasons.

For example, the study found that kossaï vendors earn four to 16 times more income than they would from a minimum-wage job in Niger and Ghana, respectively.

The women entrepreneurs, the majority of whom had no formal education, also used the income from their businesses to contribute directly to the health, education and other basic needs of their families, the research found.

In addition, over 1.2 million kgs of cowpeas are demanded by kossaï vendors each year in Niamey, Niger alone, thus creating an increased market for local cowpea producers.

“Considering all the different components of the cowpea value chain, cowpea-based street vendors use significant quantities of cowpeas yet it is a sector that has being largely neglected by researchers,” Otoo told IPS.

She emphasised the need for increased access to credit, market space and better processing technologies by cowpea entrepreneurs so as to increase the production of cowpea-based products and meet the growing consumer demand.

“Where credit has been accessible to street food entrepreneurs, there has been an “enviable record of success” in their enterprises,” the report noted.

It also stated that presently there are very few African countries where NGOs have made efforts to give working capital loans to street vendors. The report hence recommended that there is a need for a government intervention.

The study also identified that while industrial processing of cowpeas is virtually nonexistent in West Africa, processing exists in the informal sector – particularly the street food sector. And this has created a significant demand for cowpeas.

Entrepreneur, Aissatou Diagne Deme’s milling business produces 800 kilograms (kgs) of cowpea flour a month capitalising on the legume’s growing importance as a source of nutrition and income.

“I supply flour to bakers and to people who are using it for preparing meals for children,” Deme told IPS during a tour of her business nestled in the heart of Dakar. “I have good orders and I would like to grow the market because there is growing interest for cowpea flour.”

Deme’s company, Kumba Enterprises, is a success story in adding value to the cowpea or the black-eyed pea, commonly called Niebe, in most of Francophone West Africa.

Deme employs 52 women and she started the business in her home in 1994 with an investment of 12,000 dollars. She is eyeing the export market for Niebe flour but what she produces presently does not satisfy local demand. Already, Deme produces millet flour which she exports to Europe and is in discussions with her agent to push cowpea flour too.

According to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), more than four million tonnes of cowpea are consumed worldwide each year. In Africa alone, 70 percent of this amount is eaten The cowpea, ignored for many years owing to low production and poor marketing, is back as a ‘wonder crop’ because of its high protein content, its adaptability in the face of climate change and importance as fodder for livestock in Africa

The Institute of Food Technology in Dakar, working in collaboration with the government of Senegal is developing fortified bread to reduce protein deficiency among school children. The fortified bread is made with wheat, cowpea and peanuts.

But despite the new opportunities offered by a fresh interest in cowpea, supplies of the cowpea are low for commercial use. One reason being the cost of production and cowpea’s susceptibility to insects and diseases. According to the September 2010 IITA R4D Review, pests, such as aphids and bruchid weevils attack the cowpea plant during its life cycle; it is also damaged by bacteria, fungi, and viruses that cause diseases.

“The quantity of cowpea produced presently is inadequate for consumption,” Christian Fatokun, a cowpea breeder at IITA, told IPS.

Bussie Maziya-Dixon, a crop utilisation specialist with IITA concurs. “In terms of using the flour from cowpea, we have done very little, simply because we do not have enough cowpea produced to provide a surplus for diversifying its uses. When it is available, it is not enough to make traditional products which people are used to.”

Currently, Maziya-Dixon said, cowpea flour is used in complimentary foods where it is mixed with cereals such as millet, sorghum or maize to improve their nutritional quality for children. Research is helping to strengthen the role of black-eyed peas by solving production and storage constraints.

Plant physiologist at Purdue University, Dr. Larry Murdock told IPS that there was a possibility of growing improved cowpea varieties that could offer better milling qualities given that cowpeas would have different nutritional and physical characteristics. “Perhaps some varieties would be better for milling than others and this could be an opportunity for cowpea breeders,” Murdock said.

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