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Gates Foundation funds Purdue effort to protect food, enhance African economy

Ag Communications
By Beth Forbes
June 6, 2007

Purdue entomologist Larry Murdock discovered that cowpea weevils can be controlled if the crop is properly stored. A Purdue team will help Africans increase their supply of this food staple and improve their region's economic standing thanks to an $11.4 million Gates Foundation grant. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Some of the world's poorest people could increase their supply of a food staple and improve their region's economic standing thanks to a Purdue University research and extension education effort funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

With a one-time cost estimated at a little more than $3 per household, farmers in West and Central Africa will learn how to better protect cowpeas, an important food and cash crop, and increase their household income on average about $150 per year. The foundation awarded $11.4 million to Purdue Agriculture to help people in 10 African nations safely store the crop.

Cowpeas, better known in America as black-eyed peas, are marketed by an estimated 3.4 million households in those countries. Even though cowpea yields are low, the legume is one of the few grain crops that can be profitably exported by farmers in this dry, resource-poor part of Africa. Unfortunately, a pest called the cowpea weevil can consume nearly all the cowpeas stored on farms.

The World Bank indicates that the majority of people in this region live in poverty on less than $2 per person per day. Conservative estimates are that by adopting improved storage methods, these African nations could see hundreds of millions of dollars in additional household income.

"Because of the storage problems, farmers are often forced to sell their cowpeas at harvest, when prices are at their lowest levels," said Joan Fulton, agricultural economist and project director. "If we teach them how to store the cowpeas properly, they can take advantage of higher prices later in the year."

Proven effective in pilot projects, the Purdue-developed hermetic storage method involves triple bagging the cowpeas in plastic and sealing them tight. It's simple and not a new idea, but most producers in the region do not know about it or have not used the method properly. Not only is the process low-cost - basically the cost of the plastic bags - it's also safer than current practices of either no protection or treating cowpeas with insecticides.

"The chemicals add to the expense of storage and create health and environmental hazards," Fulton said.

Purdue will work with partners in Africa to recruit and train technicians who will travel from village to village to educate the mostly illiterate population by demonstrating the proper method for cowpea storage. In addition, the Purdue team will work with manufacturers and suppliers in the region to ensure that appropriate plastic bags are available.

"Through a simple, low-cost and environmentally-friendly technology, Purdue will work with African organizations and program managers to reach more than 3 million households with information and tools to prevent postharvest losses, a key lever for small farmers to gain access to agricultural markets," said Dr. Rajiv Shah, director of Agricultural Development for the Gates Foundation. "This in turn increases their incomes, allowing them to build a better life for themselves and their families."

Purdue President Martin C. Jischke said, "This is an example of how important outreach is in conjunction with research. The method is simple, safe, inexpensive and very effective, which means that getting the right information to these people will reap tremendous benefits."

Purdue entomologist and team member Larry Murdock began this work with cowpeas more than 20 years ago when, by chance, he figured out why the storage method works. A colleague experimenting with storing cowpeas in two plastic bags used a chemical in one to kill the weevils and left the other untreated as a control.

"He thought that his experiment failed because there was no weevil damage in either bag," Murdock said. "I thought that interesting and started to investigate why that was so."

It turns out that the pests become inactive in airtight plastic bags because they deplete the oxygen. As a result, they don't feed and can't reproduce, meaning the population doesn't grow and little or no damage occurs.

"While stored cowpeas may only contain a few insects to begin with, each female can produce 40 or more offspring about every month," Murdock said. "If they have air and are able to reproduce, within a few months you have thousands of weevils and nothing left of your crop."

Plastic bags currently used for storage in the region are often vented or thin and prone to puncture, making them ineffective. Households that produce cowpeas only for personal use also will benefit from improved storage that allows them to safely consume more of the crop they produce.

Jess Lowenberg-Deboer, director of International Programs in Agriculture, said the project goal is that within five years 50 percent of the cowpeas stored on farms in the region will be kept in triple-layer plastic bags.

"Conservatively that would be worth $255 million annually to some of the poorest people in the world," he said.

The project will combine some of the oldest teaching methods with the latest communication technology. In addition to village demonstrations, the team may try text messages and videos sent to cell phones. Purdue entomologist Barry Pittendrigh, also part of the team, said cell phones are common, even in areas where residents don't have television.

"Cell phone use in Africa is rapidly expanding and may be a good way to reach remote areas," he said. "It's free to receive a cell phone message in most West African countries, so using cell phones will not impose an additional cost on the farmers."

The five-year project will cover the countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo.

Also working on the project are Natalie Carroll, youth development and agricultural education; Lisa Mauer, food science; Katy Ibrahim, international programs; Bokar Moussa, doctoral student in agricultural economics; and Lynn Grimes, business office.

The cowpea is a key crop prioritized in the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa's (AGRA) Program for Africa's Seed Systems (PASS), an effort to improve the availability and variety of seeds that can produce higher yields in the often harsh conditions of sub-Saharan Africa. AGRA is an African-led response to broad calls in Africa for a partnership working across the continent to help millions of small-scale farmers and their families lift themselves out of poverty and hunger. Alliance partnerships focus on key aspects of African agriculture: from seeds, soil health and water to markets, agricultural education and policy. AGRA is based in Nairobi and supported by the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Gates Foundation:

Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people's health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people - especially those with the fewest resources - have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Based in Seattle, the foundation is led by CEO Patty Stonesifer and co-chair William H. Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. For more information please visit http://www.gatesfoundation.org.

Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-2722, forbes@purdue.edu

Sources: Joan Fulton, (765) 494-0594, fultonj@purdue.edu

Jess Lowenberg-Deboer, (765) 494-8461, lowenbej@purdue.edu

Larry Murdock, (765) 494-4592, murdockl@purdue.edu

Barry Pittendrigh, (765) 494-7730, pittendr@purdue.edu

Martin C. Jischke, (765) 494-9708

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722;
Beth Forbes, forbes@purdue.edu
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