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The Power of Pulses | Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa

Poverty and food insecurity: the two biggest welfare and development issues in Sub-Saharan Africa by far. The United Nations named 2016 the International Year of Pulses, since it saw great potential in pulses (a subcategory of legumes) to help alleviate both - but where are we now? Do pulses still have a role to play in the transformation of sub-Saharan African agriculture?

Have you ever enjoyed fajitas filled with kidney beans, crackers with hummus dip, or maybe even a lentil burger? Legumes - or, more specifically, pulses - were traditionally not part of many typical European diets, but a growing trend towards protein-rich meat substitutes, fuelled by a greater awareness of the need for healthy and environmentally friendly food, is slowly but surely changing this. And with the increasing multiculturalism of our society, we are increasingly being exposed to more dishes based on pulses.

What are pulses?
Pulses are defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations as a subcategory of legumes limited to crops harvested solely for dry grain, such as lentils and chickpeas (as opposed to crops harvested green for food, such as green peas and green beans)

Demand for Pulses is Outstripping Asian Supply 

The consumption of pulses is also increasing worldwide, driven by population growth in countries such as India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where vegetarian meals based on pulses are everyday fare for millions, if not billions of people. As domestic production of pulses in these countries cannot keep up with rising demand, pulses are also increasingly being imported. According to the India Pulses and Grain Association, world trade in pulses increased from 1.7 million tonnes in 1981 to 12.4 million tonnes in 2011.

This evolution created a platform for countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia, China, Myanmar and Argentina to double down on growing and exporting pulses. Several African countries are now also seeing opportunities to transform their agriculture systems in response to this growing market – and they have all the more to gain.

Meeting Africa’s Growing Nutritional Needs

Africa is currently home to roughly one billion people. Most of them are smallholder farmers who barely manage to scrape by on what little they make from their agricultural activities. According to statistics from the World Hunger Education Service, 200 million of them are poor and malnourished, partly due to a lack of nutritious food. A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) shows that this figure includes 58 million children under the age of five. 

With the population of the African continent predicted to double by 2050, malnutrition is set to become an even greater issue. On the other end of the spectrum, obesity rates are also on the rise, and as more wealth is accumulated in urbanised areas local diets tend to shift towards more meat and processed foods.

“Pulses may prove to be a key ingredient in tackling both malnutrition and obesity”

According to the FAO, pulses may prove to be a key ingredient in tackling both these nutritional problems. They're rich in protein, nutrients, vitamins, iron and zinc, cholesterol-free, low in fat, and even gluten-free. Nevertheless, the consumption of pulses is relatively low in Africa today compared to other continents. This is partly due to local food preferences, but also a complex interplay between institutional, cultural and socio-economic factors, such as the historically limited focus on pulses in the development policies of African countries. 

Growing Pulses Improves Soil Quality

It’s not only eating pulses, but also growing pulses that could bring great benefits to African farming communities. Old, infertile and very climate-sensitive soils are a major stumbling block for the development and diversification of agriculture in Africa. Since leguminous plants require little water, they're well adapted to these very dry soils. Their broad genetic diversity also lends itself perfectly to the selection of climate-resistant varieties. 

Perhaps even more important is pulses’ unique ability to act as natural ‘nitrogen factories’. They capture nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots with the help of bacteria. This means that they need less fertiliser than other crops. They also improve the quality of the soil in which they are grown, which makes them perfect for intercropping (a technique that involves growing two or more crops on the same field, to the benefit of both.)

Better soil means better harvests

'African farmers can use pulses to diversify their farming systems, which are often based on cereal, maize or cassava monocultures,' says Ken Giller, professor of Plant Production Systems at the University of Wageningen. 'By alternating a maize monoculture with pulses, even just once, the soil quality improves so much that the farmer can harvest an extra half tonne of maize per hectare the following season,' Giller knows from experience. In addition, pulses are more profitable than today's cereals and have a long shelf life, which means they can be eaten or sold by farmers and their families in times of low market demand.

Supporting African Farmers to Grow Pulses

Giller has been working with pulses in Africa for more than 30 years and has led the N2Africa project for nine years. This partnership with local NGOs, governments and universities aims to increase the benefits of cultivating pulses for more than 550,000 smallholder farmers in Africa. 'A crucial step is the inoculation of the pulse seeds with the nitrogen-fixing Rhizobium bacteria. A relatively simple and cheap process, but it has a big effect on crop yields,' says Giller.

Through various communication channels, such as radio and magazines, the most suitable planting and cultivation methods are shared with the farmers. This way, farmers learn how to integrate pulses optimally with other crops. This is important, because historically, in most African countries, pulses have received much less attention in terms of crop research, development and policy than cereals. This has led to weaker cultivation methods, less access to inputs such as improved seeds, and lower average yields than on other continents.

'One of the biggest challenges in increasing crop yields in Africa is the timely delivery of seeds and fertilisers to farmers. This is no different for pulses, which still need phosphorus,' Giller points out. Poor infrastructure throws a spanner in the works here, although Giller notes progress: 'I see rapid changes in rural infrastructure, both in roads and telecommunications. Farmers can now make direct cash transfers via their mobile phones, and trading companies are starting to penetrate rural areas.'

Pricing of pulses remains a problem

Although pulses are worth more than cereals on the world market, most farmers' organisations sell them at market prices that are relatively low. For example, a 2015 study in the academic journal Knowledge Driven Development showed that Kenyan farmers received only 36 per cent of the export value for their beans in 2010. That doesn't leave them with enough money to invest in better and more efficient production methods. A vicious circle, fuelled by a lack of market insight and negotiation skills on behalf of farmers. Capacity building is therefore necessary, as is stronger government support for farmers' organisations and increased access to finance.

The government also has a role to play in controlling price volatility, which Giller says is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for farmers. 'A few years ago, we had great success in northern Ghana, where farmers began to grow soybeans en masse. However, in 2017 the price of soy collapsed due to an excess of cheap soybean meal on the world market. The farmers turned away from soy, because it was suddenly cheaper to order a container of soybean meal from, say, Belgium, than to buy soybeans from a farm just around the corner.' Hence the importance of price stability, as Giller points out. 'When farmers sow a crop at the start of the season, they should have some idea of the income it will provide them by the end of the season. After all, they don't have the capacity to absorb large price fluctuations.'

Encouraging local adoption of pulses

An important piece of the puzzle in this story is finding a way to stimulate the local consumption of pulses. Public awareness campaigns are needed to highlight the health and environmental benefits of pulses in order to promote their consumption. 'This increases the local intake of proteins and nutrients, leading to fewer health problems, while it also enables risk-sharing among farmers,' says Professor Erik Mathijs from the Bioeconomics department at Catholic University Leuven, who is also involved in the 'Wanted: Food for the Future' project. 'A larger local market provides a buffer for farmers when market prices fluctuate.'

Professor Ken Giller also recognises this dynamic: 'I know of women in northern Ghana and northern Nigeria who use cowpeas to make snacks, which they then go out and sell on the street. This allows them to double their income from pulses.' Besides informing people about the health benefits of pulses, it's also crucial to do research to find out which products and recipes are preferred by the local population – and then introduce them.

For example, the SPIFoNS project, short for Scaling-up Pulse Innovations for Food and Nutrition Security (a partnership between an Ethiopian and a Canadian university) is spreading best practices, improved seeds and organic fertilisers, as well as introducing pulse-based snacks, flour and porridges into rural households, schools and village shops. This approach has already proved successful in Kenya, India and Malawi in diversifying local diets and improving maternal and child health, and the project is now targeting 70,000 farming families in southern Ethiopia, a region where three in four pregnant women suffer from zinc deficiency and half of all child deaths are related to protein and micronutrient deficiencies.

Pulses: A Food for the future

Eating more pulses is not only beneficial to our health, but also stimulates pulse production. This, in turn, is good for the environment and helps combat food insecurity and poverty. It sounds simple enough, but there are often cultural barriers that need to be broken down. In many African cities, pulses are seen as the poor man's food, an image that discourages consumption. 'There is a great need for education about what constitutes a healthy diet,' concludes Giller. 'Not only in Africa, but also in the United States and Europe.'

Supporting Pulse Farmers Through COVID-19 
To ensure the regional food supply during the coronavirus pandemic, the Tanzanian President called on the population to plant pulses en masse. David Leyssens, regional director of Rikolto East Africa, testifies: 'Pulses are now particularly important to the food security strategy of every East African country. However, the past two seasons were particularly bad, with extreme drought and months of particularly heavy rainfall, and now there aren't enough seeds available. We've set up a Covid relief programme to provide farmers with quality local seeds, so they can rise to the enormous challenge of producing beans.'

Do you eat pulses like chickpeas, lentils or beans regularly? Let us know in the comments below!

The author originally wrote this text for the Belgian outlet Eos Tracé. Read the piece in Dutch here.

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