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Pidgeon Pea Promises to be 'green gold' for semi-arid parts of Africa

Food scientists say a hardy, drought-tolerant crop, well known to Africa, is fast emerging as one of the developing world’s most valuable tools in the fight against hunger. From Nairobi, VOA English to Africa reporter Ken Wekesa spoke with agricultural specialists about the popularity of the pidgeon pea, and reports that it’s cheap and widely available. The pidgeon pea -- Mbaazi in Swahili – is a green, protein-rich legume with many branches and is often used in family meals. It’s grown in the semi-arid tropics of sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.

The International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is a non-profit research institute based in Nairobi. Its goal is to use scientific innovation to help the poor in semi-arid areas of the developing world. ICRISAT says over a billion people around the world consume pidgeon peas.

The organization’s director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Said Silim, explained the benefits of the pidgeon pea: "Its beauty is the ability to survive during drought and grow in poor soils with few or no inputs and later produce high yields where other crops fail.” In China, for example, INCRISAT is helping grow pidgeon peas on the roadsides, hill slopes and riverbanks. The plants have a strong root system, which helps hold the soil on sloping hillsides. More than 90% of the ground in southern China is hilly.

In East Africa, it's consumed mainly as a “dry grain” that’s boiled and eaten at home – often with maize. It’s also canned for the local market and is a popular part of vegetarian meals.

The pidgeon pea takes less than 10 months to mature. Since 1970 its production has increased worldwide by 43 percent and it’s now grown in an area covering over four million hectares.

However, demand still exceeds supply, which is good news for farmers who grow it. India is the largest producer, consumer and importer of pidgeon peas. In Africa, the biggest exporters are Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi.

Salim says Africa exports more than 100,000 tons per year and the demand is so high that the Continent could easily export five times that amount.

The pidgeon pea is also commonly grown in some 50 countries in other parts of Africa, as well as in Asia and the Americas.

It’s often grown among cereals. For example, in China, it’s grown between banana plants and cassava and Its tender stems can be used as fodder for cud-chewing animals -- even as food for fish.

ICRISAT is working to build on the popularity of the pidgeon pea by improving its quality and consistency.

The organization’s scientists and national partners have also developed new varieties suited to various agricultural zones. This is an attempt to reduce food shortages and hunger.

Mary Nzilani is a 43-year-old farmer who cultivates the crop on five-acres in Kitui -- a semi-arid rural region about 200 kilometers east of the capital, Nairobi. She says she’s been planting pidgeon peas for four years, and, “It seems to be the only thing that feeds my family and earns me money.” She says she has more faith in the crop than in maize and beans, which regularly fail. She uses it in her meals and sells the rest for money to educate her children.

Another farmer, Julius Mwendwa, echoes her sentiments. He says he likes the fact that the pidgeon pea matures in different seasons and that there is a huge internal market for the product. He says it earns him 200 dollars per ton – more than anything else he grows on the farm: “When this area is so dry and food is hard to come by, the only green crop that one can see around is pidgeon pea.”

Scientists say the improved varieties are giving new life to the legume. He credits both traditional breeding techniques and the science of molecular biology – using gene identification, marking techniques, tissue cultures and other technologies.

The new hybrids include vital traits that help to battle a devastating soil-borne fungal disease known as Fusarium wilt, a condition which caused losses of over 500,000 tons of the grain in India and Africa two decades ago.

As for a consensus on the future of the pidgeon pea, food scientists and consumers say the plant is a bargain that a food hungry continent cannot resist.