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Harnessing the benefits of food legumes The legacy of the Tropical Legumes projects in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia

About the Tropical Legumes projects

The Tropical Legumes projects, a US$67 million series of initiatives funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, helped to develop, produce, and distribute high-yielding, climate-resilient food legume varieties to millions of poor farmers in drought-prone regions of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The initiatives prioritized the crops that farmers depend on most for their food and income: chickpea, common bean, cowpea, groundnut, pigeonpea, and soybean. The results? Better climate adaptation, higher incomes, and a reliable source of nutritious food for poor households.

The Tropical Legumes projects were run between 2007 and 2019 by three international CGIAR agricultural research centers – the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) – with national agricultural research partners in 15 countries. The Tropical Legumes projects are extremely grateful to the national partners for their valued contributions and resources, without which the projects would not have achieved the results that are summarized here.

Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) – Institut de l'Environnement et Recherches Agricoles (INERA) – Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) – Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) – Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) – Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS) – Institut d'Economie Rurale (IER) – Instituto de Investigação Agraria de Moçambique (IIAM) – Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique du Niger (INRAN) – Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR) – Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) – National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) – Department of Agricultural Research & Extension (AREX)

The country map shows where the projects were run.

The projects worked alongside existing organizations, such as the Integrated Seed Sector Development programs, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, and the United States Agency for International Development, to strengthen breeding capacity, develop better seed varieties, and improve seed delivery systems. The results of the Tropical Legumes projects are due to the collaboration between these organizations, along with national partners, and the systems, infrastructure, and multi-stakeholder platforms they set up.

The Tropical Legumes approach

The projects used an approach that integrated three main aims:

  1. Strengthening breeding capacity
  2. Developing farmer-preferred varieties
  3. Improving seed delivery systems.

The focus was on ensuring that better seed reached the farmers who need it. This resulted in advanced breeding, increased market demand, and improved seed with higher yields.

Strengthening breeding capacity

The Tropical Legumes projects aimed to speed up the breeding processes of African and Asian crop improvement programs – targeting improved infrastructure, resources, and training for staff.

Training in genomics and molecular breeding helped project scientists to more effectively harness the natural diversity available in plants to target specific traits and breed better varieties. The training needs of next generation crop breeders were a priority: early career researchers were trained in essential technical and management skills to ensure crop improvement programs developed the right combination of expertise and skills to meet future climate challenges.

52 next generation scientists (10 women and 42 men) supported in achieving postgraduate qualifications.
Improvements to infrastructure included facilities to screen for resistance to diseases, cold rooms for storage of valuable breeding seed stocks, and irrigation equipment to enable generations to be grown year-round.

Developing farmer-preferred varieties

The Tropical Legumes projects drew on the experience of the private sector, crop science initiatives, and the CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform, combining their approaches and tools to boost the efficiency and effectiveness of crop breeding programs – and the development of resilient, higher-yielding legume varieties.

All 15 national crop breeding programs embraced approaches that guide and inform natural breeding processes. These included genomic and molecular marker-assisted techniques that enable the precise selection of desired traits; more reliable digital data collection tools; and redesigned breeding and hybridization methods that include early generation screening. Together, such approaches speed up crop breeding timetables so that new, improved varieties can be released to farmers more quickly and efficiently.

Farmers also played critical roles. They helped crop breeders precisely target legume varieties to their preferences, the environmental conditions in which they farm, and the demands of the market, and they evaluated the new varieties through on-farm trials.

Improving seed delivery systems

To ensure that high-quality certified seed would reach millions of smallholder farmers, the Tropical Legumes initiatives worked closely with local seed producers – farmers, farmer groups, and small- and medium-sized seed enterprises – to extend the scope of delivery efforts, particularly in areas where markets for seed were absent or weak. Seed producers were trained how to produce and market quality seed. Demonstrations, field days, and mobile apps gave farmers the opportunity to find out about new varieties, and seed was offered in small, affordable packs to make it accessible to all.

Seed roadmaps play a crucial role in enabling national governments, small seed producers, and the private sector to plan, produce, track, and deliver quality seed to smallholder farmers. To support their wider use, the Tropical Legumes projects set up a powerful digital seed catalogue and seed roadmap tool. These online systems do more than just streamline delivery: they provide insights into the strengths and weaknesses of different varieties to inform crop breeding priorities and ensure old varieties are replaced with newer, better ones.

Finally, the projects set up multi-stakeholder platforms to build strong partnerships between farmers, seed producers, government organizations, and extension workers. These continue to coordinate and encourage private and public investment in certified quality seed production. As new legume varieties take off, the top priorities now are to ensure that the right seeds are available, and that farmers want to plant them to supply a hungry market.

Farmers producing the seed have seen their economic prospects transformed. Take Daud Bukuku, a bean farmer in the southern Highlands of Tanzania, who now supplies some 295 farmers with improved seed. The additional money Daud makes from seed production and improved bean grain has enabled him to keep cattle and pigs, grow avocado, and invest in a bio-gas plant.
Daud Bukuku and his wife

In the following video, Chris Ojiewo, Seed systems & Project coordinator for the Tropical Legumes projects, explains the many challenges involved in seed multiplication, why the private sector often fails to invest in these seeds, and what drives farmers to purchase seeds from the open market and not from authentic sources. Keep watching to find out what strategies are needed to improve seed supply and demand for the benefit of smallholder farmers.

Chris Ojiewo, Theme Leader – Seed Systems & Project coordinator TL III, Genetic Gains Program, ICRISAT.

What are the benefits of legumes?

A lifeline for drought-prone communities

Growing food legumes is an important way to help farmers adapt to climate change. They offer food and diversity of income when other staple crops might fail in the face of rising temperatures, unreliable rainfall patterns, and more frequent and prolonged droughts.

Their ability to tolerate harsh conditions and survive with limited moisture makes food production systems more resilient and guarantees farmers an income when other crops fail.

When food legumes are grown in rotation with other crops they can break cycles of pests and diseases. They can also improve soil health. Food legumes can ‘unlock’ phosphorus for other crops to use and have a unique ability to take nitrogen from the air and transfer it to soil – a process known as ‘nitrogen fixation.’ They can therefore provide a cheaper and more sustainable alternative to fertilizers.

Watch the video below to learn about how the Tropical Legumes initiatives have supported smallholder farmers growing groundnut in Tanzania.

Improving diets, health, and nutrition

Diversifying diets with food legumes can be a cheap and sustainable way of supplying protein and nutrients to poor households, bringing important health benefits.

Eating food legumes can help to control and lower blood cholesterol levels, manage sugar levels in diabetic patients, and reduce gut inflammation. Food legumes can also address deficiencies in essential micronutrients such as iron and zinc – a form of hidden hunger that suppresses the immune system and is linked to learning difficulties and poor physical development.

Unfortunately, despite the benefits of growing and consuming food legumes, farmers have limited access to higher-yielding and climate-resilient food legume varieties. Most tend to rely on older varieties – some 20, 30, or even 50 years old – that are defenseless against drought, heat, pests, and diseases.

How did the projects support and empower women farmers?

The initiatives made special efforts to support women farmers. Although food legumes are often referred to as ‘women’s crops’ because of the important role women play in producing and marketing them, the productivity of women farmers remains low – due to their limited access to land, labor, and capital.

The Tropical Legumes projects attempted to close the ‘gender gap’ in farmer productivity through training and outreach efforts and acknowledged women’s preferences when designing agricultural practices.

Efforts to support women farmers were inspired by the knowledge that enhancing their access to agricultural inputs and services would not only raise yields. It would also lead to households having more food, more nutritious diets, and more income – allowing greater spending on education and health.

Enhancing awareness of gender issues and the constraints on women

The Tropical Legumes initiatives worked with country teams (crop breeders, social scientists, and seed system specialists) to improve their awareness and understanding of gender issues – and make sure that gender was taken into account at all stages when projects were prepared, designed, implemented, monitored, and evaluated.

For example, in Uganda, studies explored the traits that appeal most to women. Beans that took less time to cook were particularly attractive – as they reduced fuel use and freed up time for other activities.

The initiatives also prioritized the training needs of early career female crop scientists by hosting internships for MSc students and training and fellowships for PhD students. These included Happy Daudi, a young groundnut breeder, who was mentored throughout her PhD and now works for the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute (TARI). Happy is one of ten female PhD researchers who previously received support from the Tropical Legumes initiatives and now work for their national crop improvement programs.

Tanzanian researcher Dr Happy Daudi inspects her groundnut breeding nursery in Mwtara
A stronger awareness of gender issues and the constraints holding back women farmers resulted in several innovative approaches to female empowerment.

The Tropical Legumes projects identified strategic partnerships as a way to reach women farmers. In northern Ghana, to address women’s limited access to finance, the initiatives worked with small-scale community financial institutions (Village Savings and Loans Associations, VSLAs) to extend loans to women farmers. VSLA members were also introduced to the improved legume varieties and trained in seed production. Some 80% invested their money in off-farm activities like seed and grain aggregation businesses and achieved good returns. Watch the video below to find out more about the role played by VSLAs.

70% of women involved in VSLAs reported that they experienced a higher social standing within their communities and more decision-making power in their own households.
80% of women involved in VSLAs received loans and invested the money in off-farm activities like seed and grain aggregation businesses.

How will the benefits support future generations?

A self-sustaining crop improvement pipeline

A crop improvement pipeline has now emerged in participating countries that efficiently develops, releases, and delivers climate-resilient legume varieties at scale.

The pipeline is also self-sustaining and continually reinforced. By increasing demand for the legumes – initiating marketing campaigns, linking farmers to exporters and processors, and improving the quality of produce – the projects ensure that additional seed production is further stimulated.

Continuous development of new legume varieties is also sustained by the rich genetic information that Tropical Legumes research has generated – which helps breeders keep pace with evolving demands and needs.
Accelerated Varietal Improvement and Seed Delivery of Legumes and Cereals in Africa (AVISA)

The gains of the Tropical Legumes initiatives are now being consolidated by a new project, Accelerated Varietal Improvement and Seed Delivery of Legumes and Cereals in Africa (AVISA), which is building on the experience of its predecessors to continue enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of breeding programs and seed systems.

For millions of drought-prone communities across Africa and Asia, where farmers are struggling to produce enough food amid a worsening climate crisis, the market-oriented and research-supported approach of the Tropical Legumes initiatives offers a promising lifeline.

Photos credited to Neil Palmer (CIAT), Georgina Smith (CIAT), Felix Clay (CGIAR), C. de Bode (CGIAR), A. Diama (ICRISAT), A. Paul-Bossuet (ICRISAT), L. Vidyasagar (ICRISAT), and B. Sreeram (ICRISAT).