Africa’s exposure to climate change, Covid-19 and volatile global commodity markets is increasing the risk of hunger and unrest. Can investments in the domestic production of food legumes like chickpea and soybean help?
The economics of hunger and agriculture in Africa
According to the United Nations, the Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to double (to an estimated 265 million) the number of people without access to nutritious food, heightening the risk of malnutrition, hunger and social unrest in the near future.
But the deeper truth of the matter is that Covid-19 only acts as an early warning system for problems that the continent will inevitably face as a result of the looming crisis that is climate change. In reality, sub-Saharan Africa’s growing dependence on food imports leaves it uniquely exposed during periods of global uncertainty and disruption, making its overwhelmingly poor population vulnerable to food shortages and sudden price hikes.
In a region with a food import bill totalling some US$35 billion per year, countries will be desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2007–2008 food crisis, which saw the price of staple foods rise beyond what ordinary people could afford — triggering riots and upheavals.
Boosting domestic production of staple foods has long been touted as a potential solution to strengthening national food security. And crop scientists say that, in the harsh growing conditions of sub-Saharan Africa, food legumes are a key option to help countries achieve this.
Legumes: the smart agricultural choice for Africa
Why are scientists so interested in food legumes such as groundnut (or peanut), common bean, chickpea and soybean? Partly because these legumes have a natural ability to tolerate harsh growing conditions and survive with limited amounts of water — climate-resilient traits that guarantee farmers an income even when other crops have failed.
Plus, these legumes have the unique ability to take nitrogen from the air and transfer it to soil — a process known as nitrogen fixation. This enhances soil health and means that when they are grown side-by-side (or immediately before and after) other crops such as wheat and maize, legumes can greatly boost the final harvest while avoiding the need for farmers to buy costly and unsustainable nitrogen fertilisers.
Finally, food legumes are an affordable source of micronutrients and protein — which is why they appear so commonly in vegan and vegetarian recipes. In fact, they contain significantly more protein than the starchy staples most frequently consumed in Africa. This means that they could have a big impact in the work to address the continent’s critically low levels of daily protein intake.
The micronutrients they provide — B vitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc, potassium — could also prevent malnutrition, infant stunting and chronic diet-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. And, because good nutrition contributes to healthy immune systems (as the World Health Organization notes), legumes could even have a role in providing critical protection for Africans against Covid-19.
Identifying the blocks
So why aren’t more farmers growing food legumes? To a large extent, it’s simply because Africa hasn’t had the well organised seed breeding and delivery systems it needs to ensure that African growers can access high-performing legume varieties.
Strengthening Africa’s food legume delivery system is therefore a major focus for organisations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who over recent years have provided tens of millions of dollars to develop food legume seed breeding and supply systems in sub-Saharan Africa.
The results of smart investment in legumes
The approach that Gates Foundation-funded projects like the multi-country Tropical Legumes initiatives have taken is to specifically target those food legume crops that African farmers depend on most — including groundnut, common bean, cowpea, chickpea, pigeonpea and soybean. Strategically, this is a smart approach and has resulted in real impacts that other organisations can build on moving forward.
Over the twelve years that this work has been ongoing, millions of farmers have adopted improved legume varieties, generating economic benefits worth over US$3 billion. Over half of those benefiting from higher yields and incomes are women.
During this period of focused work, sub-Saharan Africa has substantially increased its production of legumes. Pigeonpea and chickpea harvests have nearly doubled, for instance, and soybean production has increased over 2.5-fold to reach a current annual total of 3.5 million tons.
Surpluses have also created opportunities for producers to tap into growing legume export markets. For example, chickpea global exports have shown sustained growth — and some 2.4 million tons now enter world markets each year. And, while most trade opportunities are likely to be within Africa, it is possible some producers could tap into more lucrative markets in Europe, taking advantage of a shift towards healthier, meat-free diets that are now becoming more popular in higher income countries.
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