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Network for the Genetic Improvement
of Cowpea for Africa – NGICA

Cowpea and Its Needs

Cowpea, an indigenous crop of Africa – called “black-eyed pea” in the USA – is a high-value food that is consumed by millions of low-resource Africans. The crop is sometimes called “poor man’s meat” because the seeds and the leaves of the cowpea plant are so rich in good quality protein (some 25 percent of the plant’s dry weight). Not only does cowpea provide food, it also generates income for producers. A surprisingly large volume of the grain is traded regionally. Untapped potential exists for value-added, cowpea-based street foods, convenience foods, and high nutrition products. Cowpea plants make excellent fodder. Importantly, the crop thrives in areas of low rainfall and fixes nitrogen, thereby enriching the soil. Thus, cowpea has the potential to be the ideal crop for the drier regions of Africa south of the Sahara.

Regrettably, there is a big gap between potential cowpea productivity (measured under ideal conditions) and that which actually occurs on African farms. Many reasons exist for the gap, including insects, diseases, lack of fertilizer, scarcity of seeds of good cultivars for planting, and inadequate market information. Despite some real but limited achievements by national and international plant breeders in improving cowpea germplasm and developing cultivars, cowpea has many unsolved problems. Insect pests diminish production of cowpea grain in the field, often severely so. Granary insects devastate cowpea grain stores after harvest. Numerous bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases attack the plants in the field. Witchweed – Striga – is a scourge to cowpea growers in some areas, and seems to be spreading to new areas. Seeds of good-performing cowpea cultivars are available to relatively few farmers because seed-producing businesses are rare, rudimentary or non-existent, and other schemes for producing and distributing cowpea seed have had little broad or lasting impact.

In January, 2001, at a meeting in Dakar, Senegal, an international community of cowpea scientists and stakeholders recognized that a special effort was needed to bring the latest tools of science and technology to bear upon the shortcomings of cowpea. That group took the name “NGICA” – the Network for the Genetic Improvement of Cowpea for Africa.

While the word “genetics” forms part of the name of NGICA, we realize that genetics alone is not enough. To get the maximum benefit from genetic improvements, we have to work on a lot of problems in addition to genetics. We need to have: (i) a comprehensive strategy and tactics for developing the new genetics; (ii) a driving force to find needed resources and to implement the strategy and tactics; (iii) an effective initiative to inform policy makers, stakeholders and the consuming public about the new cowpeas; (iv) a vastly improved system of cowpea seed production and distribution; (v) a much better cowpea market information system; and (vi) private-sector (or in some cases public sector) involvement that would sustain the benefits of the new genetics over the long haul.

What is NGICA?

NGICA is an informal organization made up of volunteers dedicated to the genetic improvement of cowpea worldwide. Our main geographic focus is sub-Saharan Africa but cowpea is an international crop. Our central goal is to benefit the millions of cowpea producers and tens of millions of cowpea consumers in Africa, but if the benefits can be extended further, so much the better.

Because the NGICA community is international, it involves participants from North America, South America, Europe and Australia in addition to Africa. We represent disciplines ranging from plant breeding to molecular biology, from agricultural economics to public policy. We believe that traditional institutions and approaches have often become less and less relevant, and that bold, unconventional institutions and approaches are needed – particularly to take advantage of the information and biotechnology revolutions of the past decade.

What NGICA does:

1. Calls attention to cowpea and its needs;
2. Organizes stakeholder meetings and workshops to promote cowpea improvement;
3. Strategizes and identifies research and extension needs and the means to achieve them
4. Helps mobilize funding to support research and development;
5. Links researchers through personal contacts, NGICA News, and the NGICA website;
6. Recruits and mobilize new members;
7. Facilitates the sharing of materials and information among participants;
8. Assists in acquiring intellectual property.

What we have done so far:

1. Since January 2001, organized and/or co-sponsored six cowpea-related meetings.
2. Helped mobilize financial support for research to genetically transform cowpea.
3. Formed a partnership with the African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF) to increase cowpea productivity and utilization in Africa.
4. Created a framework for addressing the complex of issues slowing development and dissemination of the genetic improvements of cowpea.
5. Fostered linkages between the private-sector biotechnology and the cowpea community.
6. Helped AATF obtain access to the cry1Ab gene for use in cowpea genetic transformation.
7. Foster the application of marker-assisted selection to the genetic improvement of cowpea in collaboration with the Kirkhouse Trust and AATF.
8. Published 5 issues of NGICA News.
9. Created the NGICA Website with funds from the Rockefeller Foundation.
10. Laid the basis for a systematic approach to biosafety, biodiversity and integrated resistance management for Bt cowpea.
11. Encouraged efforts by economists to estimate the impacts of increased cowpea production in sub-Saharan Africa that may result from genetic improvements.
12. Recruited several world-class scientists to help the cause of cowpea.
13. Assisted with the French translation of Maarten Chrispeels’ article on GM Foods

Membership in NGICA is voluntary and free. The only requirement is that you must care about cowpea and want to help Africans.

The NGICA dream is that one day increased cowpea production and utilization in sub-Saharan Africa can: (i) generate increased incomes for farm families; (ii) help feed the rapidly growing populations of African cities; (iii) be the basis for widely-produced value-added products; (iv) strengthen existing cowpea-related businesses and foster new ones, including seed-producing companies as well as manufacturers and distributors of value-added products.

Many of the ideas that guide NGICA are laid out in the report of the 2001 Dakar meeting report and other publications (see the NGICA website).

Currently, NGICA is exploring ways and means to become a formal, legal entity. This step was recommended by a working group of stakeholders at the February, 2004 Cowpea Stakeholders Meeting in Accra, Ghana. There are numerous reasons for formalizing NGICA. They are all related to the weaknesses inherent in a voluntary organization with no dedicated resources. The limitations of a voluntary/informal association like NGICA are that it: (1) must rely on the donation of time and effort of individual stakeholders; (2) depends entirely upon resources that must be obtained ad hoc; and (3) has no official status so that it cannot receive or disburse funds as an organization, nor can it enter into legal agreements. These limitations constrain efforts to effectively compete for the technical, intellectual and economic resources necessary to produce and make available to Africans the very technologies that could rapidly improve their livelihoods. An informal organization, no matter how effective it may be, has diminished credibility. The justification, core ideas and outline plan for formalizing NGICA are available at the NGICA website in the August 18 (2004) issue of NGICA News.

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