Improving crops

Modernizing cowpea breeding in West Africa

  • October 16, 2020

Cowpea is an important grain legume crop grown in sub-Saharan Africa which produces 90% of the annual global production of 6.5 million metric tons. The crop experiences multiple biotic and abiotic stresses that considerably limit its production. IITA and national partners in the region have bred varieties tolerant of several of these stresses. There are, however, no improved varieties for all key production areas and market types, and none of them possess a broad suite of resistant traits. To significantly increase efficiencies of breeding programs, IITA and national partners in the region have bred varieties tolerant of several of these stresses.

There are, however, no improved varieties for all key production areas and market types, and none of them possess a broad suite of resistant traits. To significantly increase efficiencies of breeding programs, IITA and national agricultural research systems (NARS) established a collaboration with Monsanto/Bayer.

This public/private collaborative project aimed to increase the scope, efficiency, and output of cowpea breeding programs, through learning from Bayer. This collaboration is intended to serve as a model for how the expertise of private sector breeding companies can be leveraged to help increase genetic gains in CGIAR and NARS breeding programs. Expected outcomes included a significant increase in scale and the modernization of breeding approaches.

The project, Increasing the performance of cowpea breeding programs across West Africa, enabled IITA and four West African NARS, through collaboration with Bayer, to substantially improve the performance of their cowpea breeding programs by introducing best practices from the private plant breeding sector which can benefit public breeding programs. The project provided the opportunity to implement modern technologies and approaches in cowpea breeding.


Planter in Minjibir, Nigeria.

The direct beneficiaries were the four national institutions and IITA’s breeding programs, but all cowpea breeding programs in sub-Saharan Africa benefited since IITA interacts with them on several platforms (e.g., CGIAR Research Program [CRP] on Grain Legumes, Kirkhouse Trust project, Legume Innovation Lab, Crop Trust’s wild crop relatives).
Another benefit was the availability of improved varieties that can help enhance the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and consumers in non-project countries. In addition, scientific capacity of cowpea researchers across the globe has been significantly improved.

Intensive interactions between IITA, NARS, and Bayer covered several activities targeting modernization of participating breeding programs. The achievements can be grouped into five major areas:

Breeding management

To substantially increase the impact of breeding programs, the emphasis of activities shifted from trait-driven to demand-led breeding. The consumers, farmers, and markets now guide efforts for product designs and management. Product profiles that maximize client satisfaction were developed.

Breeding strategies

All the collaborating programs developed parental profiles displaying the reactions of parental lines to major production constraints or their fitness to identified market traits. The number of elite lines used in hybridization was increased by 50%. The project increased effective population sizes by up to 25% and implemented single seed descent workflows with molecular markers usage for quality control and marker-assisted breeding. The resulting increase in the size of F2 (by at least 40% at IITA) and increase in the genetic base of the populations have led to the increase in selection intensity (15-20%). To increase the number of generation cycles per year, irrigation facilities were established or upgraded. For example, IITA took advantage of the cropping season, off-season, and screenhouse facilities at both Kano and Ibadan, Nigeria, to obtain three to four generations of breeding materials each year.

Operational protocols

The efficiency and effectiveness of the breeding program require standardized operational protocols. Seed storage was upgraded by creating inventory into the Breeding Management System (BMS). Some basic best practices for site selection were used. Standard operating procedures for data collection were developed. Strategies to reduce cost without losing efficiency of testing have been optimized.
Regional trials were carried out in all four countries at 12 locations. To increase mechanization and operational efficiencies towards better data quality, Bayer donated one refurbished cone planter, four seed threshers, and four seed counters to IITA. The team successfully set up a workflow towards 100% operational implementation of genotyping for seed purity and digital data capture.

Marker technologies

With the support of Intertek, the project developed an SOP for leaf collection and delivery for genotyping. Genetic integrity and purity of breeding lines had been routinely ascertained with a set of 19 SNPs selected across the cowpea genome. In addition, forward breeding has been implemented for aphids and bacterial blight after the conversion of markers associated with the resistance QTL to these two traits. Detailed QTL deployment strategies were developed based on the number and effect of QTLs and the donor of the QTLs.

Analytical tools

Several discussions on analytical methods and tools essential for modernizing the breeding programs were conducted (for example, use of BreedingView and R for data analyses). BLUP was used in the advancement decisions given its accurate prediction of future performance. Towards the estimation of genetic gain, a strong recommendation was made concerning the use of common checks in the trials to minimize the effects of the environment, estimate the year effect, and compare against mean of cohort for advancement. R
scripts for both the estimation of genetic trend and for multilocation analyses were discussed.


IITA and Bayer partners

IITA, Bayer, and national partners in a meeting at IITA, Ibadan, Nigeria.

This project was designed to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of cowpea breeding programs. All areas of the breeding programs were analyzed and ideas for improvement were recommended and adopted. IITA and NARS breeding programs have been fully transformed and are ready to increase the rate of genetic gain of varieties from their program. A culture of continuous improvement has been instituted to sustain the implementation. Best practices from the private breeding companies are being deployed and their successes replicated in the public sector. High performing market-driven lines are being developed. Better food, nutrition and enhanced livelihoods of smallholders is expected to be achieved as a result of this modernization.

The project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and includes the following partners: Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria, Nigeria; Institut de l’Environnement et Recherches Agricoles (INERA), Burkina Faso; Institut d’Economie Rurale (IER), Mali; Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI), Ghana; and Monsanto/Bayer, USA.

The project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and include the following partners: Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria, Nigeria; Institut de l’Environnement et Recherches Agricoles  (INERA), Burkina Faso; Institut d’Economie Rurale (IER) , Mali; Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI), Ghana; and Monsanto/Bayer, USA.

Authors: O. Boukar, CA Fatokun, A. Togola and PO Ongom.


Another project that helped modernize the cowpea breeding program is the Tropical Legumes III project – Improving Livelihoods for Smallholder Farmers: Enhanced Grain Legume Productivity and Production in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (TL-III). TL-III was implemented by IITA, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), and International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) from 2015 to 2019 in collaboration with national partners in seven African countries and a state in India. The project had three complementary research components of (a) development of improved varieties, (b) improvement of capacity of crop breeding programs, and (c) establishment of sustainable seed delivery systems.


Cowpea Farmer

Farmer checks out improved cowpea variety developed by IITA.


TL-III was a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded initiative. It was designed to provide smallholder farmers with improved cultivars of four major grain legumes: common bean, cowpea, chickpea, and groundnut. The project aimed to strengthen international plant breeding programs and, most importantly, the breeding programs of national partners in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The project was designed to increase the productivity (by 20%) and production (by 10%) of groundnut, cowpea, common bean, and chickpea. These grain legume crops provide substantial nutritional, cropping system, and economic benefits to smallholder farmers.
Cowpea was the crop of focus for IITA in collaboration with INERA Burkina Faso, SARI Ghana, IER Mali, and IAR Nigeria.


A total of eight cowpea varieties were released in four sub-Saharan African countries: two in Ghana, four in Nigeria, two in South Sudan, and two in Tanzania.

A study on the adoption of cowpea varieties in 10 Nigerian states of Borno, Bauchi, Gombe, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, and Zamfara showed that 42% of the households were growing improved cowpea varieties. This was equivalent to 945,000 households. Nearly 30% of the cowpea area was under improved varieties, which was equivalent to over 1 million ha planted to improved cowpea. The farmers who adopted the improved varieties had 26% higher yield per hectare and 61% increase in net returns.

Through TL-III, the IITA cowpea breeding program was able to significantly modernize its operations. Some interventions to improve efficiency and effectiveness included undertaking the Breeding Program Assessment Tool (BPAT) assessment followed by recommendations for improvement and Program Improvement Plans (PIPs) such as improving physical infrastructure and human capacity to adapt to modern breeding requirements. The program developed two product profiles that are now guiding its breeding pipeline: (1) Short- and medium-duration grain-type cultivars with large white or brown grain for the Sahelian and Sudan Savanna zones; and (2) Medium- and late-maturing dual-purpose (grain + hay) cultivars with large white or brown grain for the Guinea Savanna zone.

The program adopted the shuttle breeding approach where national agricultural research system (NARS) partners were incorporated in the research.

The use of modern breeding tools were promoted during this phase. The Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) developed a Breeding Management System (BMS) that has helped in data management and analysis. Digitization of data collection, curation, and archiving plus experimental designs using BMS were implemented by the project. Most of the data are now captured using tablets and recently a barcoding system was introduced.

Breeding modernization was also initiated at the NARS level. All the programs underwent BPAT self-assessment from which PIPs were developed and implemented. Product profiles were then developed. All the programs have increased the number of crosses by at least 25% and subsequently increased the number of entries in their breeding pipelines by more than 80%. The number of both on-farm trials and demonstration sites have increased by more than 100%. The number of generations was also increased from 1 to at least 2 per year.

The Cowpea Breeding Program also adopted an inclusive, pluralistic, and integrated seed systems approach that recognizes the complementary roles of seed producers such as individuals, seed companies, government organizations, non-government organizations (NGOs), and farmer groups. The program engaged national partners to popularize new improved varieties using various complementary approaches such as field demonstrations, extension guides, field days, agricultural/seed fairs, and radio-TV programs.

For the period 2015-2019, there were more than 1,345 demonstrations conducted, 54,000 extension guides distributed, 89 field days and 27 agricultural seed fairs held, and 139 radio/TV programs conducted in the four participating countries. Also more than 783 (1-9 kg), 1,457 (25 kg), and 1,090 (size 25-50 kg) seed packs were made available to farmers across the four countries. From 2015 to 2018, NARS partners were able to produce 56.6 t of breeder seeds, 1,684.6 t of foundation seeds, and 17,683 t of certified seeds.

IITA also contributed about 4,000 kg of cowpea foundation seed in 2017 to ‘Seeds of Renaissance,’ an initiative aimed towards rehabilitating farmers in the terrorist-ravaged North East of Nigeria.


Capacity building of NARS scientists

A woman scientist from Burkina Faso was trained on plant breeding and a gender specialist from Nigeria was also trained at PhD level. There was a workshop for TL-III scientists on monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL). All NARS breeders have received training in genomics and molecular breeding at CEGSB-ICRISAT, Patancheru (India). Annual training were organized on the use of BMS at the national or regional levels, or across the project for both IITA and NARS scientists and technicians.

Leveraging on TL project funds and other sources, NARS programs were able to renovate their irrigation facilities (Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali), screenhouses (Ghana, Nigeria, Mali), and cold rooms for seeds (Ghana Burkina, Mali, Nigeria). They have also been able to acquire other important items such as a generator and thresher (Burkina Faso), water pump (Nigeria), and tablets for data capture (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, and Nigeria).

Future research or development

The achievements of TL-III constitute a strong foundation for modernizing the IITA and NARS cowpea breeding programs. The strong collaboration established with NARS offers a solid testing network.

Authors: Christian Fatokun, IITA–Nigeria (Ibadan); Ousmane Boukar, A. Togola, and PO Ongom; IITA–Nigeria (Kano).

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