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Legumes: a unified solution for food, fodder, and soil fertility in Africa

Sacks of pulses in a market in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo courtesy of Didi via Flikr

Sacks of pulses in a market in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo courtesy of Didi via Flikr

Humans love them, herbivorous animals thrive on them, the earth benefits from their presence, but not enough are being grown.

From the vegetarian platters of Ethiopia, to Githeri in Kenya, Saka Madesu in the DR Congo and neighbouring countries, and the ubiquitous groundnut, legumes continue to sustain people across the African continent.

The paradox, however, is the extremely low coverage of legumes in African farming systems, where they could play a pivotal role in the lives and livelihoods of farmers, their families, and the continent at large.This is precisely what LegumeChoice, a participatory research framework, aims to understand.

Led by the IITA, and supported by World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and ILRI, the BMZ -and Humidtropics funded research initiative targets the underexploited potential of multi-purpose legumes towards improved livelihoods and better environments in crop-livestock systems in East and Central Africa.

The partnership incorporates national researchers from the humid and sub-humid areas of Ethiopia, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo; international counterparts from the CGIAR  especially as a part of the larger Humidtropics (http://humidtropics.cgiar.org/) as well as the Forests, Trees, Agroforestry Research Programmes (http://foreststreesagroforestry.org/);  and universities.

What LegumeChoice researchers will seek to establish are the niches and ‘entry points’ that could be covered with the vast array of legumes—ranging from trees through to perennial, annual herbaceous and grain legumes—and the constraints to their expansion.

They will look at intensification and diversification, management option failures, socio-economic factors, and cultural issues, the latter of which are far more complex within the African smallholder mixed-farming systems than, for example, in temperate commercial farming systems.

Through on-farm participatory action research in Diga and Jeldu districts (Ethiopia); Kisii and Migori (Kenya); and Bushumba and Mushinga (DRC), the initiative will support the farmers themselves to design tests on opportunities for legumes they identify.

Ingrid Oborn of ICRAF and Generose Nziguheba of IITA ran the first ‘Facilitators training on farming systems characterization and entry point identification’ at ICRAF in Nairobi, from 7–9 July 2014, ran by. This training will be followed by the first baseline survey on the farm/household typologies, legume options and yields, as well as their management and use (including within livestock systems and their cash-income contributions).

Improving maize-legume mixed systems in Tanzania under the SIMLESA project. Photo: ICRISAT via Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/icrisat/7189100691/in/photostream/

Improving maize-legume mixed systems in Tanzania under the SIMLESA project. Photo: ICRISAT via Flikr.

In addition to high levels of protein in their herbage and seeds (which makes them highly nutritious as food and fodder), a primary role of legumes in the environment is to capture atmospheric nitrogen and ‘fix’ nitrogenous compounds into the soil, thereby increasing soil fertility as green fertilizers. This function, especially in low-fertility areas and severely depleted soils, reduces the need for mineral nitrogenous fertilizers, allowing even the poorest of farmers access to soil fertility that improves their yields and food security.

Although improving food and nutrition security is a primary goal of LegumeCHOICE, the project also aims to give farmers and development partners better options for decisions on enhancing short and long-term contributions of multi-purpose legumes to farmers’ livelihoods. These include aspects of legume production, input supply systems, and markets.

Akefetey E Mamo is a Liaison and Communications Associate at ICRAF

Blog edited by Daisy Ouya

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