Niébé is a variety of cowpea grown by many smallholder farmers, primarily women, throughout West Africa. The drought-resistant bean thrives even in the dry, arid soils of the Sahel and neighboring countries and improves soil quality by fixing nutrients. The crop is also highly nutritious, acting as a common source of protein. Because niébé is often farmed and controlled by women, it provides them with an entry point to earn income within the agricultural sector, while simultaneously improving nutrition and resilience.
Despite the benefits niébé offers, a number of factors have made local purchases of the bean difficult. In Liberia, for example, production has been kept at subsistence levels. “Farmers are not used to growing beans as an independent crop,” says James Legg, P4P country coordinator in Liberia. In Mali, niébé is usually grown alongside other crops in small quantities, keeping production at subsistence levels. Elsewhere in the region, high-quality seeds can be expensive, and acquiring enough land to grow large quantities can be difficult for women, who sometimes struggle to access land. Niébé is also difficult to store properly. Without proper preservation techniques, the bean is prone to infestation, which has deterred many farmers from growing it for sale.
Triple bagging of niébé
Improving niébé production
In order to help farmers in the region to increase production levels and improve crop quality, P4P and partners provide support to smallholders that reflects production conditions in the country. This support includes training, agricultural inputs and tools specially designed for niébé. In Mali, for example, P4P-supported farmers’ organizations are equipped with triple bags (PICS) specifically designed to extend its shelf life. The benefits of these bags, combined with proper storage techniques, have been clear to many farmers’ organizations, allowing them to aggregate and sell larger quantities when prices are high. The bags were so successful that one farmer’s organization, the Sabati Women’s Association, in Zantiebougou, Mali, decided to buy them directly from the supplier. “The women saw how well they worked and wanted to buy the bags themselves,” says P4P regional coordinator Isabelle Mballa.
Learning and innovation has been another important component to assisting smallholders to grow niébé as a commercial crop. In Ghana, WFP partner, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), has worked to establish crop demonstration plots and Farmer Field Schools for each of the 26 P4P+supported farmers’ organizations in the region. These one-acre plots have allowed ADRA and Ghana’s Crops Research Institute (CRI) to identify high-yielding niébé seed varieties to be used as “foundation” seed. WFP plans to distribute these seeds to the 26 organizations—which have a membership of 48 percent women—and will also continue to work closely with government partners to train farmers in best practices.
Empowering women and improving nutrition
Across West Africa, more farmers’ organizations are now producing higher quantities of niébé, in some cases allowing for purchases by WFP and other buyers. Five out of seven large P4P-supported farmers’ organizations in Burkina Faso are now growing the crop, as are all participating farmers’ organizations in Mali. In Burkina Faso, WFP is planning to purchase 920 metric tons (mt) of niébé through forward purchasing facilities. Farmers’ organizations in the country have also sold niébé to markets beyond WFP.
In Burkina Faso, 96% of participants in cowpea sales to WFP are women. Similarly, among farmers’ unions now producing niébé in Liberia and Mali, the members are primarily women. This means that much of the money earned goes directly into women’s hands, giving them a stronger voice and raising their status in their households and communities. P4P and its partners are also raising awareness for the added benefits of women controlling their own land. Preliminary monitoring data shows that women’s access to inputs and land has improved in some countries during the course of the pilot.
“By giving women the necessary means and specific training to increase production, they were able to increase their revenue and gained autonomy,” Yves Aklamavo P4P country coordinator in Burkina Faso, says.
Thanks to money earned through cowpea sales, Azeta Sawadogo, from Pella, in northern Burkina Faso, was able to buy a bicycle. This allows her to balance the time between farming and caring for her family. Because the bicycle saves both time and labour, she is now able to go to markets to sell cowpeas and spices, and can quickly return home from working in the fields to prepare meals for her family. Communities are also increasingly taking advantage of the legume’s nutritional benefits. In Liberia, niébé will be used in WFP’s school meals programme. In Mali, efforts are also being undertaken to improve nutrition by educating women about the benefits of consuming the crop.
Although great strides have been made to make niébé a viable commercial crop in West Africa, procurement is still limited due to high prices and low production capacities. In Liberia, niébé is still very expensive, and in Ghana it is too costly for WFP to procure from local smallholders. To address some of these challenges, work is ongoing to implement the infrastructure necessary to increase production and improve market access. A recent networking meeting in Liberia brought together actors with a stake in the agricultural sector to identify opportunities and possible synergies among producers and buyers. However, it may take three to four years before farmers produce enough to sell to these markets. In Burkina Faso, WFP plans to construct two 50 mt storage facilities on a cost-sharing basis to improve post-harvest handling, enabling farmers’ organizations to aggregate niébé and sell it collectively.
Other commodities in West African countries have similar benefits. One example is pigeon peas, which are widely purchased and consumed in Sierra Leone. Because of their nutritional benefits, these peas have already been incorporated into WFP’s school feeding programme. After a successful first purchase of 10 mt in 2013, WFP plans to purchase 60 mt of pigeon peas for school meals in 2014.
Story by Eliza Warren-Shriner, WFP, West Africa