Bringing a `green revolution' to a barren continent

A sudden rainstorm swept over us as we stood in late afternoon on a slope above a lake in southern Nigeria. But B. B. Singh (his given names are Bir Bahadur, but everyone calls him B. B.) seemed not to notice.

Dr. Singh, a short, stocky Indian in dark-blue shirt and trousers, kept urging me to look closely at the two-foot-high bushes stretching away in front of us.

American Southerners would call the contents of their long green pods black-eyed peas. Africans call them cowpeas.

Call them what you will, Singh and other researchers here are convinced that these ordinary-looking bushes, with yellow or purple flowers, hold part of the key to a semiarid and tropical ``green revolution'' for Africa.

Singh's new varieties require as little as 40 days of moisture. They can be harvested after two months -- half the usual growing time -- with such staggeringly high yields that some farmers have had to fence their fields to keep out almost incredulous neighbors.

Planted immediately after a rice harvest, the cowpeas provide a priceless extra crop, requiring only the residual moisture of the rice stubble. Able to grow in semiarid soil, already known to farmers as a minor crop in parts of the Sahel and Sudan, the cowpea could be on the verge of becoming a significant source of protein in a hungry continent.

This kind of African ``green revolution'' is urgently needed as part of any blueprint for African survival.

Every year for the past 20 years, African food prodution per capita has fallen by 1 percent. Today, gripped by drought, suffering from famine, beset by civil wars, and struggling with the impact of record rates of population growth, the continent is still deep in its food-production crisis.

Emergency famine relief alone won't solve it. Scientific research alone won't heal it. But as Asia and Latin America proved with their own ``green revolutions'' 20 years ago, progress begins with someone having a new idea in the relevant area: in this case, tropical and arid food crops.

The quiet and scholarly Dr. Singh is one of a team of scientists striving to find such ideas here at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), 90 minutes by road north of Nigeria's capital city, Lagos.

Other scientists are at work on research for Africa and the third world in 12 sister institutes around the world coordinated by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research in Washington, D.C. The institutes include several that launched the Asian and Latin American ``green revolutions'' in rice and wheat.

Money comes from two dozen governments, the World Bank, and private groups. Research is only a start

Of course, the research itself is only a start. Singh might get marvelous results on test plots -- but how to get those ideas out to Africans in a continent where good farm-extension work hardly exists?

How to get military governments interested enough to push new ideas through agriculture ministries?

How to punch through centuries of superstition, tradition, male dominance, grinding poverty, fatalism, apathy?

``But we have to start somewhere,'' says IITA's deputy director general, Dr. B. N. Okigbo. ``Research takes time. Although the IITA was established in 1967, we are only now at the point of a real basis of knowledge.

``Spreading it is the next task. We've begun in Nigeria and neighboring countries with joint ventures, agreements with governments, and more.''

The IITA's 2,500-acre experimental farm is an oasis of order, discipline, and manicured lawns amid the chaotic growth and clamor of Ibadan, Nigeria's second city. About 120 scientists from 35 countries hunch over test tubes, peer through microscopes, plant out test squares of soil, engage in genetic engineering and tissue culture research, and wage war on pests and predators.

They are coming up with maize (corn) that is resistant to prevalent streak virus and with hardier, higher-yielding types of yams, cassava, sweet potatoes, millet, sorghum, plantains (similar to bananas), and more.

Charlie Garman, a fruit farmer's son from Niagara County, N.Y., presides over an engineering shop cluttered with low-cost types of tools from a rotary no-till injector planter to a wheeled two-row planter with a lawn-mower-size engine. Some seeds outperform all expectations

A socioeconomic unit headed by Natalie Hahn, a Nebraska farmer's daughter who holds a Harvard PhD, looks at how African families (i.e., women) might take to the new strains of crops, new ideas.

A steady stream of the Nigerian middle class with introductions to scientists, or with family or friends working at IITA, penetrates the gates and comes away with ideas and/or seeds that outperform anything they have ever known.

Meanwhile, back in the rain, my notebook is wet and my pen clogged, but B. B. Singh is in full flood. ``Just look at these cowpeas,'' he urges. ``Much of the world's crop is here in Nigeria. Cowpeas grow in Niger, in Burkina Faso, in Senegal, in Sudan, in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana.

``Imagine if we can boost yields in drought-prone areas. . . .''

Cowpeas are eaten in West Africa boiled with onions, tomatoes, and so on, or women make them into a paste and fry them. In East Africa the leaves are eaten, like spinach.

Average West African yields are 200 to 300 kilograms per hectare (175 to 265 pounds per acre.) ``Our new varieties in farmer tests in Kano [northern Nigeria] reached 2,700 kilos per hectare . . . that's a ton per acre . . . ,'' Singh says with enthusiasm. ``We had oceans of cowpea pods in the fields. . . .''

One catch: bugs. Singh and co-workers have bred resistance to aphids, thrips, and storage weevils into the cowpeas. But so far the pod-borer and pod-sucker insects have defeated them.

Genetic research continues into strains of wild cowpea, and laboratory help is sought from Singh's alma mater, the University of Illinois. Meanwhile, big yields still require two or three sprayings of insecticide each season.

Philip Franks, of the British company Imperial Chemical Industries, is here perfecting a simple oil-based spray and sprayer -- while worrying about whether poor farmers will actually use them.

``They will, the moment they see all the new pods,'' says Singh. ``In Nigeria the government is already feeling farmer pressure to bring down the price of the spray.

``Oceans of pods, I tell you. Oceans. . . .''

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