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THE POWER OF THE PIGEONPEA, from Guatemala to Malawi

By: Kristin Lacy

Four years ago Semilla Nueva got word of a small, improved bean variety that was changing livelihoods and landscapes all over Africa – pigeonpea. Noting the potential for a similar transformation vis a vis the pigeonpea in Guatemala, we started to set up small experiments with a few farmers in our communities to see how it could help them out economically and environmentally.


Who would have thought that all the potential wrapped up inside this little bean would take us across the ocean to East Africa for our biggest collaboration yet? The International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is a leading crop research group based in Nairobi, Kenya. ICRISAT may be a mouthful to say, but their vision is radically simple – improve the lives of the poor through agricultural research for impact. A CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research) member, they have been a global leader in bringing improved, naturally-bred varieties of key crops to smallholder farmers. One of their specialties? Improved pigeonpea varieties that can tolerate drought, grow higher yields, or even cook faster, some of which Semilla Nueva has been promoting with our farmers for the last few years. These varieties in addition to improved market linkages facilitated by ICRISAT have lead to the doubling of area grown in pigeonpea over the last 10 years in East Africa – a change similar to what we would like to see in Guatemala.

When two leaders of the pigeonpea program, Said Silim and Moses Siambi, heard word of the pigeonpea interest Semilla Nueva was seeing in farmers, they booked a flight from Kenya to Guatemala in January to check out this progress and see if there was area for collaboration. That trip would only be the beginning of a wonderful friendship and a fruitful collaboration. This July, we took the next step in that relationship, traveling to East Africa to learn about the incredible transformation ICRISAT has helped to facilitate with smallholders all across Malawi. From Central America to East Africa, pigeonpea is proving to be one of our most exciting projects.


The journey begins

After battling the woes of jet lag through the first night in Lilongwe, Malawi, we downed some delicious coffee and hopped in the car with Emmanuel and Ngombe who would be our ICRISAT companions for the week. Thus began our African pigeonpea adventure.

A long skinny strip of a country, Malawi fits snuggly in between Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.  While the equator lay just north of the country, it was in fact wintertime there.  Cool nights and bright sunny days brought a surprisingly pleasant climate to peruse farmers’ fields and enjoy the mountains vistas.


Bringing the farm to the family – Pigeonpea for Home Consumption

Our first visit brought us to a small community right outside of Mulanje, one of the biggest and most beautiful mountains in Malawi.  Emmanuel, the ICRISAT field technician, told us that the women had been preparing a special meal of pigeonpea for us and were very excited.  I have to admit, I underestimated them.

Our car drove up and to a singing, clapping, dancing, shouting, smiling group of flamboyant women that brought an overwhelming feeling of welcomeness like none I have ever experienced.  After a short presentation and lots of hoots and hollers, we were taken outside to the table where 10 different pigeonpea dishes awaited our hungry curiosity.  From pigeonpea boiled whole as a snack to pigeonpea with green beans to our favorite: pigeonpea with peanut butter, tomatoes and onion for an incredible salty/sweet combo!

While pigeonpea has been a staple crop here for years, the women expressed that with the improved varieties brought by ICRISAT, they have been able to make use of beneficial characteristics like faster cooking times and better taste.  They said they cook pigeonpea an average of 4-5 times a week in the house, as its essentially free and easily accessible, all the while continuing to the reap the benefits of it as an extra source of income.


Improving Market Linkages

In between a slew of exciting (and delicious!) community visits we also stopped to meet one of the most important business partners helping make pigeonpea an important cash crop for farmers all over the country, the Export Trading Group.

ETG has been a key partner of ICRISAT in the development of the pigeonpea in Malawi through processing for export on an enormous scale.  The first processing facility was only built in 2001 and is already exporting nearly 90,000 metric tons per year, showing just how rapid this change has occurred across the country. Most of this pigeonpea is being processed and exported to China and South Asia to be used in dal, a traditional Indian dish.  While populations continue to expand, pigeonpea in places like Malawi will be an important element to feeding many hungry stomachs around the world.

But this is not your average exporter.  Walking into their office you can’t miss the proudly framed mission statement hanging above the door to the conference room, “To empower farmers to grow quality crops, to be the strongest link between smallholder farmers and consumers globally.”  In order to cut out the middleman, ETG representatives drive out to communities to pick up the product from individual farmers.  They also support several cooperatives, allowing farmers to collectivize their product and sell wholesale to ETG for a better price. To top it all off, the processing facilities are providing hundreds of secure jobs for locals, and are nearly zero waste using all of the left over organic material from processing as animal feed.


Participatory Research for Development

The best part of the whole ICRISAT process is the centrality of farmers.  Woven throughout these community visits, delicious meals and processing center excursions was something ICRISAT has coined participatory variety selection – field technicians work with communities to let the farmers discover the varieties that work best for them.  We drove down the mountain one morning into Blantyre, Malawi’s second biggest city, where we would meet up with Hodges, the local extensionist who helps facilitate this process.

The variety breeding starts in the labs and research farms of ICRISAT located in Nairobi, Kenya.  Leading crop scientists from all over the world are guiding a lengthy, detailed process of crossing 1000s of varieties of pigeonpea to find the best varieties for smallholder farmers.

After two-three years of testing at the research center, varieties are brought to communities to try out in small experiments and see what the farmers think. Extensionists like Hodges organize a field day inviting everyone from the Ministry of Agriculture to NGOs and local farmers to introduce the varieties to the communities.   Multiple lines are tested with multiple farmers throughout the community.  At the time of the harvest, another field day is hosted in which the farmers get together to discuss their various experiences with those lines and choose the variety they liked the best. The best part?  All of ICRISAT’s pigeonpea varieties are open-pollination, meaning that farmers can choose the line they like and continue to harvest their own seed year after year.

As this simultaneous testing goes on all around the country (there can be anywhere from 200-300 at any given time), certain popular varieties are deemed fit for proliferation and ICRISAT begins contracting individual farmers to multiply the high-quality seeds. The seed multiplication process is operated on a pay it forward basis, using a Revolving Seed Bank. A farmer might receive a 2 kg bag of seed, for example.  At the end of the harvest that year, the farmer has to give back twice that amount (4 kg) to ICRISAT or to a neighboring farmer, in order that every year the varieties are expanding and reaching new farmers. Many times these contracted farmers will sell their seed harvests to NGOs around the region, giving farmers a great price for their product and reaching a great medium through which the seed can be disseminated to thousands of more farmers.

This entire process – to get one variety from initial breeding at the research station, through the participatory variety selection with farmers, and multiplied for access by thousands of farmers –takes an average of 10 years.  It really makes you appreciate all the work that goes into crop research!


Pigeonpea has been an important crop to farmers in Malawi for years, but native varieties were low-yielding, late-maturing and susceptible to pests and diseases. Now, the fields of East and Southern Africa are dominated by ICRISAT’s improved varieties, raising farmer income by an estimated average of 80% since 1976.  What worked?  We believe it’s the inclusion of the farmers. ICRISAT did the technical crop breeding, but then brought their product directly to the farmers, letting them decide which variety works best for them.


Collaboration across Continents

This is exactly what we are trying to do at Semilla Nueva, and why ICRISAT is such a beneficial partner for us. We have access to the world’s leading agricultural research on new farm management techniques and new crops.  We want to bridge that gap between the farmers and the researchers, finding ways for the best research world-wide to serve smallholder farmers in a concrete and feasible way. We want to bring those ideas directly to the farmer and let them decide, through small-scale experimentation, what works best for them. “Science, with a human face” as ICRISAT put it.

We started with only a few farmers experimenting with pigeonpea in 2011, which rapidly expanded to nearly 200 farmers last year.  In the coming weeks here in Guatemala, we plan to plant pigeonpea with over 600 families.  Farmers are seeing the benefits of pigeonpea unfold before their eyes, and collaborations with partners like ICRISAT help us unlock the potential for even more benefits.

557 variety

As we drove down the wonderfully-paved highways of Southern Malawi, spectacular mountains adorning the landscape, we saw a lot of similarities between these two countries seemingly worlds apart.  Trucks from the United Nations might drive down the left side of the road here, but they still leave a storm of dust in the paths left behind them.  Bicycles are plentiful here, just like Guatemala, toting thrice the weight previously thought possible.  Women walk with a similar grace and that uncanny ability to balance heavy loads atop their heads while wearing an insatiable smile. And the small farmers rule, with their tremendous work ethic, their leather hands wrinkled from a hard day’s work, and a welcoming smile to the visitors from Guatemala.

We saw a lot of things that reminded us of home. Children running down the narrow dirt pathway meandering fields of pigeonpea, bare feet scurrying over corn stalks and kicking dust into the air.   Farmers wander home at dusk, proudly carrying their machetes, quietly and humbly providing the world its bounty.  It is these moments when you see an undeniable connection among all of humanity.  Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny.   What affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

And pigeonpea, this humble little bean crop, is doing that.  From the coastal plains of Guatemala to the mountainous terrain of Malawi, pigeonpea is transforming lives and landscapes, and facilitating an international collaboration of NGOs to do it.

If you want to learn more about ICRISAT and what they do, check out this simple  informative ebook.  You can read more about ICRISAT’s pigeonpea program here.

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