Cowpea field trials in Burkina Faso. Photo: N Mishra, ICRISAT

12 Years of Tropical Legumes: 25 Million smallholder farmers now grow improved varieties

Cowpea field trials in Burkina Faso. Photo: N Mishra, ICRISAT

Cowpea field trials in Burkina Faso. Photo: N Mishra, ICRISAT

Over a period of 12 years (2007-2019), the Tropical Legumes projects led to development of 266 improved legume varieties and production of about 498,034 tons of certified seeds of the target legume crops (chickpea, common bean, cowpea, pigeonpea, groundnut and soybean). These seeds have been planted on about 5.0 million ha by over 25 million smallholder farmers in 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South Asia (SA), producing about 6.1 million tons of grain worth US$ 3.2 billion. The project, with a total investment of US$ 67 million by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and implemented by ICRISAT, CIAT and IITA, also trained 52 next-gen scientists. The success stories and achievements of Tropical Legume projects and the way forward for legumes research have been documented in a special issue of the Plant Breeding journal. Papers written by several ICRISAT scientists together with their collaborators are included in this special issue, which can be accessed here:

In the early 2000s, legume production in SSA and SA suffered mainly due to:

  • Shortage of improved variety seeds, especially in small, affordable packs
  • Lack of modern machinery in small farms
  • Informal farmer groups for seed dissemination: no formal seed systems in place

To resolve the issue, the Tropical Legumes projects were implemented to boost legume production and help smallholder farmers achieve better livelihoods. The projects ran in three phases: TL II Phase I (2007–2011), TL II Phase II (2012–2014) and Phase III or TL III (2015–2019). The project activities were implemented in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe in SSA and India and Bangladesh in SA.

Graphical representation of the phases, crops and locations of the Tropical Legumes projects. (Source: Varshney et al., 2019, Plant Breeding Journal)

Graphical representation of the phases, crops and locations of the Tropical Legumes projects. (Source: Varshney et al., 2019, Plant Breeding Journal)

The projects involved a holistic framework that integrated genomics, breeding and value chain development.

  • Genomics: Through collaborative bilateral and multilateral projects, genomic resources and tools viz. draft genome sequence, resequencing data, large-scale genome-wide markers, dense genetic maps, quantitative trait loci (QTLs) and diagnostic markers were developed for use in breeding applications. E.g. The availability of a large number of markers, mapping populations and draft genome sequence of pigeonpea helped in applying them for crop improvement. ICRISAT led genome sequencing of pigeonpea (2011), chickpea (2013), germplasm sequencing of pigeonpea (2017) and chickpea (2019) and co-led sequencing of groundnut (2019) and contributed to efforts of the International Peanut Genome Initiative (IPGI) (2016) to sequence the genome of Arachis duranensis (2016) and ipaensis (2016), ancestors of cultivated peanut, A. hypogaea. During the course of TL projects, a draft genome sequence of soybean and mungbean has also been constructed to facilitate genome research into several legumes related to it, that are important dietary components in Africa.
  • Several molecular breeding lines have been developed using genome information for many traits in these legume crops. By the collaborative efforts of ICRISAT and its partners the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Geletu and Pusa Chickpea 10216 (BGM 10216) were released for commercial cultivation in Ethiopia and India, respectively. Similarly, in collaboration with University of Agricultural Sciences- Raichur MABC-WR-SA-1 resistant for Fusarium Wilt has been identified for release.  In the case of groundnut, two molecular breeding varieties – Girnar 4 and Girnar 5 – was developed with joint efforts of ICRISAT and Directorate of Groundnut Research. Currently, NARS partners such as the ICAR- Indian Institute of Pulses Research are leading the molecular breeding efforts.
  • Breeding: With these advances in genomic information and breeding support tools, there is great potential to improve genetic gains by implementing systematic breeding, tapping into the available natural diversity. To improve efficiency of breeding programs, the broadening of genetic base (for tolerance to abiotic stresses); novel breeding approaches such as MAGIC populations; accurate high-throughput phenotyping; rapid generation turnover; efficient breeding data management system; and genomics-assisted breeding were emphasized in the project. E.g. a QTL hotspot associated with drought-tolerance traits in chickpea enabled development of a drought-tolerant variety with high yields.
  • Seed systems and on-farm practices: To boost legume seed production a multi-pronged strategy was invoked, consisting of building partnerships between farmers, seed companies, governmental organizations and extension workers; training seed producers, marketers in technology and best practices through participatory varietal selection, on-farm demonstrations, mobile app-based advisories and so on.
High-yielding, drought-tolerant, stay-green Serenut 14R groundnut resistant to rosette virus and leaf spots. Photo: ICRISAT

High-yielding, drought-tolerant, stay-green Serenut 14R groundnut resistant to rosette virus and leaf spots. Photo: ICRISAT

In July 2019, the project concluded with some of the work done to be carried forward into the project AVISA – Accelerated Varietal Improvement and Seed Delivery of Legumes and Cereals in Africa. At the TL III End-of-Project meeting in Arusha, Tanzania, Dr Jeff Ehlers, Senior Program Officer, the Gates Foundation, said, “It is satisfying to note that together we have been able to meet the productivity increase target of about 25% in some crops, as intended by the project, and got many improved varieties into the farmers’ fields.” Appreciating the Gates Foundation’s backing over the years, Dr Geoffrey Mkamilo, Director General, Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute (TARI), said, “With a total investment of US$ 67 million together with partners, we have been able to achieve so much on ground.”

“One of the best things about this project is the huge number of partnerships it has created,” remarked Dr KK Sharma, Deputy Director General – Research, ICRISAT.

Dr Hamidou Traore, Director General, Institut de l’Environnement et Recherches Agricoles (INERA), Burkina Faso, noted the great political goodwill and support from the government whereas Dr David Chikoye, Regional Director (Southern Africa Hub), IITA, said, “We have made great progress in capacity building, releasing improved varieties and strengthening our partnerships across regions.”

“We have had an ROI of >US$ 25 in this project,” said Dr Rajeev Varshney, Research Program Director, Genetic Gains, ICRISAT, and Principal Investigator of the TLIII project. “From being orphan crops once, these crops now enjoy the status of genomics resource rich crops. In addition to developing 307 varieties, molecular breeding products have also reached farmers’ field in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. It has been a pleasure to work with around 79 partners and see the outputs of TL projects, both in the form of knowledge and as applications in the field.”

Striking a sobering note, Dr Moses Siambi, former Research Program Director – Eastern and Southern Africa, ICRISAT, said, “The dilemma we have is between commercialization of new technology and ensuring that it reaches the farmer. We need a hybrid system under which seed companies can make money while keeping the technology affordable.”

Key impacts of the Tropical Legumes project

  • Groundnut crop interventions demonstrated 32.35% increase in income, 6.72% households lifted out of poverty and 14% out of food insecurity
  • Ten groundnut varieties, including six high-yielding, drought-tolerant ones and four ELS, released in Mali
  • Seven groundnut varieties with traits such as aflatoxin tolerance, early maturing, drought tolerance etc. released
  • In India, chickpea national program on developing improved varieties resulted in area enhancement up to 68 %.
  • Chickpea program in Ethiopia won a national award in 2013 for science and innovation
  • Seven-fold increase in number of improved common bean variety releases from 2011 to 2018

Gender integration, adoption of digital data collection, and institutional capacity building were some of the key challenges pointed out by Dr Chris Ojiewo, Global Coordinator, Tropical Legumes III project. Sharing his experience, he said, “I learnt about maintaining a balance between the CGIAR and NARS researchers, and the public and private sector stakeholders to deliver high-quality seed of improved varieties to vulnerable smallholder farmers.”

Dr Robin Buruchara, Director, Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), while presenting CIAT’s perspective, said, “The TL project, through PABRA, has benefited not just the focus countries but more than 30 other countries by way of germplasm sharing and capacity building.”

Dr Ramadjita Tabo, Research Program Director – West and Central Africa (WCA), in his remarks highlighted, “I request the national partners and their leadership to invest more in strengthening their research ecosystem in the country to have a sustainable impact in the long run”.

Remembering his long-term association with the Tropical Legumes project, Dr Pooran Gaur, Research Program Director – Asia, said, “In my 18 years at ICRISAT, this was one project that I enjoyed the most. We partners are like one community. This project had a long-term vision and addressed the major challenges of the regions.”

Legumes being high in protein, dietary fiber and mineral micronutrients are excellent for addressing malnutrition issues in society. Legume crops fix soil nitrogen and improve soil health, boosting farm productivity and smallholder incomes, while legume haulms form nutritious feed for livestock. Thus, they contribute to an efficient, sustainable and resilient crop-livestock system.

The Tropical Legumes project, by enhancing genetic gains through genomics-assisted breeding approaches, has helped created a robust legume value chain system with a focus on climate-resilient crops and market-oriented development. While there were initially less than a million farmers growing legumes in the target countries, by the end of the project, there were 25 times as many. Going forward, greater use of digital tools like molecular markers and the Breeding Management System will help to achieve superior scale and efficiency in legume crop breeding, which is key to the well-being of millions of smallholder farmers in SSA and SA.

Project: Tropical Legumes III
Principal Investigator: Dr Rajeev Varshney
Project Coordinator (2017-2019): Dr Chris Ojiewo
Project Coordinator (2012-2016): Dr Emmanuel Monyo
Partners: ICRISAT (lead), International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and other national agricultural research systems partners (NARS) from 7 African countries and ICAR- Indian Institute of Pulses Research, Kanpur, (UP), India
Funder: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
CRPs: Grain Legumes, Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals

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