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Drought and poverty - a hardy legume to the rescue

March 1, 2013

Ethiopia is a land of natural contrasts, with chilly waterfalls and searing-hot volcanic springs. It has some of Africa's highest mountains as well as some of the world's lowest points below sea level. It has one of the largest number of rivers in the world, earning it the moniker Africa’s Water Tower, while the country's northernmost area is the hottest place year-round anywhere on Earth – and one of the driest. It is a multilingual, multicultural and multiethnic society of about 80 different peoples. It is as famous for its world-beating middle and long distance runners as it is for the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela. It is the legendary origin of the coffee bean, and it remains Africa’s biggest coffee producer … and also its biggest honey producer! It is also home to Africa’s largest livestock population.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia is also world famous for a devastating series of famines in the mid-1980s that severely affected 8 million people, a staggering number of whom perished as a result; and the country's food security situation remains very delicate – with an estimated 6 million people at chronic risk.

Chickpea is the world’s second-largest cultivated food legume after beans. Diverse varieties are grown on over 11 million hectares in the Mediterranean, western Asia, South Asia, Australia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopian smallholder farmers have been working with researchers from the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) to grow new drought and pest-resistant varieties, currently under the auspices of two sister projects named  Improving tropical legumes productivity for marginal environments in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, co-ordinated by the Generation Challenge Programme (Tropical Legumes I) and ICRISAT (Tropical Legumes II). The farmers have found that the new varieties have brought a dramatic increase in yields in recent years, with benefits for their income and the land.

Chickpea is a dry-season legume that grows well on the residual moisture of the post-rainy season, providing a unique opportunity of enhancing legume production in developing countries as it does not compete for area with other major legumes. This feature gives farmers a second crop (where only one crop would traditionally be grown), hence increased income and better nutrition. “The plants are very efficient in using water and possess roots that seek out residual moisture in deeper soil layers,” explains Dr Rajeev Varshney of ICRISAT, who heads the chickpea work under the Tropical Legumes I Project co-ordinated by GCP. Dr Varshney's team is particularly focussed on developing varieties that are drought tolerant, and genetic and genomic resources that will enable breeders to efficiently transfer these characteristics to improved cultivars for farmers in both Africa and Asia.

New cultivars that combine early maturity and disease resistance, especially the large-seeded kabuli, have been rapidly adopted in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Sudan and Kenya, leading to a 50% increase in cultivated acreage and a doubling of output over a thirty year period from 1977.  Chickpea exports from Eastern Africa increased commensurately creating new income generation opportunities for farmers, proving that getting improved seed varieties into the hands of smallholder farmers does increase food production in the developing world.

Temengnush Dhabi, pictured on the left, is a widow who has been farming for 26 years in East Shewa, central Ethiopia. Growing new chickpea varieites with the assistance of researchers from ICRISAT and the EIAR has led to a dramatic increase in her yields. She has turned part of her house into a store, where she sells her grain. ‘I would never have thought chickpeas could bring me such high returns,’ she says. ‘From 1.5 hectares I harvested 42 bags  of grain.’ This is about four tonnes, a yield of over 2.6 tonnes/ha., a high yield compared with the Ethiopian national average of 1.5 tonnes/ha.

Temegnush says: ‘The high yields and market value of chickpea last season meant I could buy a second pair of oxen.' She adds that she can now send all her six children to school. 'I’m no longer seen as a poor widow but a successful farmer’.

EIAR has been helping train farmers to improve farm practices to boost production, and to become seed producers of these high-yielding chickpea varieties. Bedilu Mamo, pictured left, is one such farmer. He received a loan of seeds, which allowed him to start growing the new varieties.  The higher yields have enabled Bedilu to buy more land and a house, which he shares with his extended family. He proposes to form a seed co-operative with fellow seed producers to supply farmers with the high-yielding varieties and train them in crop management.

Targetted farmers are now planting up to half their land with chickpea, up from less than a 10th. This not only improves the fertility of the soil but has direct benefits for their income and diets. Chickpea is nutritionally rich, an excellent source of high-quality protein with a wide range of essential amino acids.  It is high in dietary fiber and low in fat, most of it  polyunsaturated. It also provides dietary phosphorus, magnesium, iron and zinc.

Gebeyehu Melesse, holding a book on the left,  sells grains, including chickpea, in Cazanchis market in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. He grows chickpea on his farm in Gonder in northern Ethiopia, where the land is degraded due to frequent drought, and yields are low. Gebeyehu wants his region’s farmers to have access to the new seed varieties.

The capacity-building interventions go beyond supporting the farmers, reports Dr Fikre Asnake, a chickpea researcher and breeder at EIAR who has been leading project activities since 2009: “In addition to three postgraduate students, five or six of our researchers and technicians have been trained in molecular breeding and related areas, mostly at ICRISAT in India. We have also benefited from infrastructure improvements, including construction of a rainout shelter for our drought trials and cold-rooms for seed preservation. A greenhouse will also be built for trials under controlled conditions.These facilities and staff development will make us more effective in achieving the objectives we have set in the project”.

World chickpea production is well over 9 million tonnes. 96% cultivation is in developing countries. India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of chickpea, accounting for over 66% of world production. Other major producers are Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Myanmar, and Canada. Ethiopia and Kenya are the leading producers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In a significant part due to the collaborative and integrated approach adopted, the story of chickpea in Ethiopia is bound to record growing success - with a real positive impact on the ultimate target group: resource poor famers.

This article was adapted from an ICRISAT picture story first carried in The Guardian, with additional material added. The photographs are courtesy of ICRISAT and Alina Paul-Bossuet.

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