Promoting Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea Adoption for Enhanced Agricultural Productivity

IGNITE conducted a lean data study, led by 60dB, to provide insights into how to better promote and facilitate the uptake of PBR cowpea by farmers, with a specific focus on gender and nutrition.

African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) engineered the PBR cowpea to introduce an alternative source of protein for farmers who were increasingly seeing their crops fail. The Impacting Gender & Nutrition through Innovative Technical Exchange in Agriculture (IGNITE), a program implemented by Tanager, Laterite and 60 Decibels aims to identify models that demonstrate ways of increasing equitable consumption. IGNITE conducted a study led by 60 Decibels to understand the uptake of PBR cowpea by farmers, with a specific focus on gender and nutrition.

Over 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa depend on cowpea (Vigna unguiculata L Walp) as a staple and source of dietary proteins. In Nigeria specifically, the population consumes more than 3.6 tons of cowpea annually, importing 500,000 tons from other countries. However, farmers are unable to simply increase supply in order to satisfy the growing demand. From low soil fertility to pests, and extreme heat to unpredictable rain patterns, farmers face multiple barriers to maintaining – and increasing – cowpea production. For example, insect pest Maruca vitrata (legume pod borer) causes 80% yield loss in areas with severe infestation and when it coincides with a drought, yield loss can reach up to 100%.

In response to these challenges, AATF and partners developed the PBR Cowpea to provide an alternative source of protein and macronutrients like zinc, iron, and vitamins. It also formalized the cowpea seed distribution system, where farmers get their improved seeds from seed companies. IGNITE conducted a lean data study, led by 60dB, to provide insights into how to better promote and facilitate the uptake of PBR cowpea by farmers, with a specific focus on gender and nutrition.

AATF’s PBR Cowpea Initiative

Since 2009, AATF has been at the forefront of a collaborative effort aimed at supporting Nigerian smallholder cowpea farmers. General cowpea production relies heavily on the use of insecticides, which is not effective, healthy, or sustainable for the farmers or ecosystem. Through the support of both USAID and Rockefeller Foundation, AATF led PBR Cowpea development from 2011 to 2016, undergoing rigorous risk assessment studies to ensure its effectiveness against Maruca and its safety for human and livestock consumption. The new seed reduces the frequency of insecticides spray from 6 – 10 times per production season to 2 sprays, saving 4 liters of insecticides per hectare. By focusing on improved variety development, seed production, and distribution, AATF’s PBR Cowpea allows farmers in Nigeria to increase the yields of cowpea by up to 70%, creating a more consistent harvest and introducing more stability into their income stream. Given both cowpea’s significance as a source of protein and micronutrient, alongside the involvement of both men and women in its value chain, the initiative holds the potential to create positive gender and nutrition outcomes through elevated yields, income, and women’s participation.

Building an effective market distribution network would be key to spreading the benefits of the PBR Cowpea. AATF has created a system to increase widespread adoption of the PBR cowpea through a scalable training program that empowers smallholder farmers across the country to sow and teach others about the improved variety. AATF trained Extension Agents (EAs) to recruit and support Demo Farmers (DFs), who cultivate small plots to be used as farmer field schools for training and demonstration of the technology to other farmers (referred to in the study as Observer Farmers, or (OFs).

So, how effective is the program? The study by IGNITE of the program’s farmer perceptions analyzed three different legs for adoption of the PBR cowpea.

1. Extension Agents Study

This report explores the effectiveness of AATF’s good agronomic practices and stewardship training of PBR cowpea based on feedback from 183 EAs. It also captures the EAs’ experience of sharing their learning with farmers.

Top insights:

  • 98% of Female and male EAs highly value training on good agronomic practices and stewardship of PBR cowpeas. Addressing challenges, such as delays in distribution of inputs, can further increase satisfaction (34% of farmers reported a challenge with the training).
  • EAs find it harder to convince male farmers (22%) to try PBR cowpea compared to female farmers (16%).
  • Many farmers may not yet have consumed PBR cowpea. Nevertheless, EAs believe consumption will increase if training is offered to more farmers.
Dive into the Extension Agents Study
Download the report

Gender nuances are noticeable across the board, with female EAs expressing slightly higher satisfaction levels with the training than their male counterparts. Nearly all EAs recognize the utility of the training in their interactions with DFs, with common challenges revolving around network connectivity and timely provision of training materials which was because of Covid’s impact on movement.

As a result, the AATF team is taking a closer look at how to tailor farmer communication for each gender, and how its EA training can improve farmer uptake – for example, by emphasizing that the PBR cowpea variety is not overly burdensome to plant and manage.

2. Demo Farmers Study

In this study, AATF sought to better understand the efficacy of the PBR cowpea project training on sowing and harvesting experience of female and male DFs. 60dB collected data on perceptions around income, consumption, and dynamics within DF households that planted PBR cowpea – via phone interviews with 250 DFs and additional household members.

Top insights:

  • After training, female DFs’ main takeaways were related to PBR cowpea’s qualities, whereas males were more focused on PBR cowpea’s effects on farming practices.
  • While male farmers are more likely to host farm field days in comparison to female farmers (41% vs. 28%), they are slightly less satisfied with PBR cowpea. 
  • Across both men and women, 68% of farmers are preserving the minimal PBR cowpea seed they harvested for the next farming season, in hopes that they will have more to consume in the future.
  • Most male and female DFs say they are the final decision maker on trying PBR cowpea. Most secondary respondents (SRs) report ‘no change’ for changes in time women spend on agricultural and non-agricultural activities.
Dive into the Demo Farmers Study
Download the report

The storage of harvested PBR cowpea for future consumption is a prevalent practice among DFs, indicating the anticipation of increased yields. The study underscores the potential for increased consumption and improved nutrition because of PBR cowpea integration.

3. Observer Farmers Study

In the final study, 60dB investigated the experience of female and male OFs in their training by DFs, and planting and harvesting PBR cowpea. Across interviews with 552 OFs, the study explores perceptions on income, consumption, and household dynamics among OF households that planted PBR cowpea.

Top insights:

  • DFs effectively disseminate knowledge on PBR cowpea and cultivate an interest among farmers in learning more.
  • The PBR cowpea has a high satisfaction score (NPS of 59) among farmers, in the top quintile of 60dB’s Farmer Benchmarks. Perceived benefits include its high yield and resistance to pests.
  • The introduction of PBR cowpea has led to an increase in earning for 95% of farmers and their households.
  • Only 50% of female farmers attended the field days, compared to 71% of men. Additionally, 95% of male OFs reported being the final decision maker, compared to 75% of female OFs. These results suggest that gender inequalities exist in decision-making processes regarding the adoption of PBR cowpea among farmers.
Dive into the Observer Farmers Study
Download the report

The third study may be the most encouraging yet, as 60dB found effective knowledge dissemination by DFs across the board. Satisfaction levels differ slightly between male SRs engaging more with Demo Farms, and female SRs focusing on agronomic practices. Gender inequalities persist in decision-making processes, indicating a need for focused interventions to promote inclusivity.

This study revealed that some observer farmers are storing their PBR cowpea grain incorrectly. Due to a lack of awareness and limited technology, farmers risk jeopardizing future harvests by not following through on this final stage of the harvest. Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bags (the recommended technology), a key way to protect the harvest correctly, are available but not used at all or not used properly. AATF is developing a strategy around social behavior change to increase awareness around the proper ways of preserving and storing harvested cowpea, including technologies such as PICS bags. AATF also aims to create partnerships with other organizations to promote existing reliable and safe post-harvest technologies.

Next Steps: Nurturing Success and Expansion

The insights garnered from these research projects have been pivotal in shaping AATF’s strategies moving forward. As an organization, it is working on an action plan to incorporate these findings into its everyday work. Down the road, AATF is broadening the reach of its training to more extension agents, helping to build a Nigerian cowpea farming community that will harvest more reliable, income-generating, and healthy crops.

With their specific focus on improving nutritional outcomes for smallholder cowpea farmers, AATF is looking to improve social and behavior change communications to influence adoption of  best practices on post-harvest handling behaviors, especially around preservation and storage of harvested cowpea, will be a priority.

Focusing on gender, AATF fundamentally believes that women will play a key role in transitioning the country to a better seed. The IGNITE program has helped AATF delve deeper into the nuances and opportunities in better engaging women farmers. As AATF continues its journey to enhance agricultural productivity and drive positive gender and nutrition outcomes, the lessons learned from these research endeavors – from the success of different education styles to gendered decision making patterns in households – will serve as invaluable guideposts for future initiatives.

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