The Little Legume that Could

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The cowpea, or kunde as it is called in Swahili (also known as blackeyed pea throughout the Americas), originates in the center of Africa and is one of the oldest crops known on the continent. First discovered as small, creeping vine in the Sahel Desert, cowpea is extremely drought resistant and adapted to poor soil—making it a useful staple crop for farmers in areas facing increasingly extreme water scarcity and hot temperatures due to climate change.

To help prevent cowpea crop loss, Purdue University developed a storage back called Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS). (Photo credit: Purdue University)

Perhaps for this reason alone, it is understandable that cowpea is the second most widely grown legume in Africa. Only the peanut—originating in the Americas—covers more farmland. Though not widely known in other parts of the world, it is estimated that over 200 million people in Africa subsist on a diet consisting mainly of the crop.

Cowpea is an important source of protein and other nutrients. A member of the grain legume family, cowpea improves the body’s absorption and breakdown of other main foods like rice, maize, and cassava. Cowpea is also rich in oil and digestible carbohydrate.

Eaten at different stages throughout its development, cowpea forms the basis of a wide variety of meals. The leaves and young pods can be eaten like vegetables while the seeds are eaten as a side dish, or made into sauces or dry grain. The seeds are also ground into flour that can be pressed into deep fried cakes called akara balls or steamed cakes known as moin-moin. Cowpea meal is used to make puddings, porridges, and soups.

During especially dry years, when stockfeed is low, the stems and leaves of cowpea are used to feed livestock. The stems and leaves can also be dried and stored for the off season when fodder for livestock is scarce.

Not only good for those who cultivate and eat it, the cowpea is also beneficial to the soil in which it grows. It’s deep tap root—the part that makes it so tolerant to dry growing conditions—helps to stabilize soil, while its shade and dense cover help preserve moisture. Like all legumes, cowpea helps to fix nitrogen in the soil, making anywhere it grows more hospitable to other vegetables and staple crops. An annual crop, the cowpea’s seeds remain viable for several years and it is generally grown intercropped or in relay with maize, cassava, groundnuts, sorghum or pearl millet.

Though cowpea is a hardy plant, it can be difficult to store after harvest. To help prevent cowpea crop loss, Purdue University developed a storage back called Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS). PICS are hermetically sealed to prevent oxygen, moisture, and pests from contaminating the cowpeas. The PICS project hopes to reach 28,000 villages in Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Chad, and Togo by 2011. (See also: Investing in Better Food Storage in Africa).

To read more about Africa’s abundant indigenous crops see: Pigeon Pea: A Little Crop That’s Come a Long Way, Many Good Reasons to Grow Teff, Amaranth: Food Production Without Attention, and African Eggplant: The Fruit that is Enjoyed as  Vegetable.

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