Cowpea isn't one of ICRISAT's mandate crops. But it is still a key component of the ICRISAT-USAID-LEAD project, for several reasons. It is highly nutritious, drought-tolerant and improves soil fertility. And, as project farmers are discovering, it can make you rich.
The LEAD project aims to make subsistence farmers more market oriented by linking them with a private firm that will buy their produce at a fair price. The partners are ICRISAT, the USAID-LEAD program, and Seed Co, Zimbabwe's largest seed firm. The pilot phase of the project targets four drought-prone districts in Zimbabwe, and results have far exceeded expectations.
Zaka district is a typical smallholder farming area, with poor soils and fickle rainfall. Farmers grow mainly sorghum and cowpea, which tolerate drought better than most crops. ICRISAT and Seed Co distributed foundation seed of two improved varieties, sorghum Macia (developed by ICRISAT), and cowpea IT 18 (developed by IITA). Farmers multiply the crops into commercially certified seed, and Seed Co and ICRISAT monitor quality. Eventually, Seed Co buys the seed harvest for sale under its brand name. (Left, ICRISAT grown cowpea in Zimbabwe).
Sorghum performance was excellent, as expected; so let's talk about cowpea. A total of 1097 farmers in Zaka planted the seed crop. The target was to produce 60 tons of seed. We now expect over 200 tons – more than the target for the entire project, covering four districts.
At a recent community meeting, 35 project farmers discussed the costs and profitability of cowpea seed production. Total costs for a well-managed crop (including pesticides, weeding etc) were estimated at Z$ 78,000 per hectare. With careful management, you can harvest over 1 ton of seed per hectare. Farmers say they can sell cowpea grain (seed is more expensive) in Zaka for Z$10,000 per 20-litre container, or about Z$ 330/kg. Profits? One hectare, yield of 1 t/ha, production cost Z$ 78,000, sell for Z$ 330,000. You can smile all the way to the bank!
Income generation is one part of the project; capacity building is the other. Using a combination of hands-on training, demonstration plots, and intensive discussions, the project delivers knowledge about new varieties, crop and seed production methods, soil fertility management, IPM, erosion control, and water harvesting and conservation techniques. Training workshops and field days have been held in all project areas, and have proved enormously popular: over 1000 farmers, both project participants and others, attended the field day in Zaka last month.
Every smallholder is at heart a full-fledged commercial farmer. All he needs is opportunity. ICRISAT and its partners are providing that opportunity, and in the process setting an example for rural development programs everywhere.
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