Elizabeth Mpofu grows maize, legumes, and various types of beans on her 10-hectare farm in Masvingo Province, about 290 kilometres southeast of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
Despite a region-wide drought this year, she harvested 150 kilograms of dried beans. Although this is far less than she yields in a good season, dried peas and beans will help her family stay food- and nutrition-secure.
Dried peas and beans belong to a class of legumes known as pulses, which are defined as the dried seeds of legumes. The UN is marking 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. Pulses are rich in protein and drought-resistant. They are an alternative to cash crops and are a perfect food for Africa, and any area challenged by malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies.
Pulses include dried chickpeas, kidney beans, butter beans, lentils, pigeon beans, and cowpeas, among others.
Mrs. Mpofu knows the value of pulses. She says: “Pulses are the key to food security and nutrition in Africa, taking into consideration the climate crisis being faced on the continent. Pulses are providing a diversity of food for my family, and also are important in improving soil health, especially in promoting an agroecology farming system.”
Mrs. Mpofu is the general coordinator of La Via Campesina, an international peasants’ movement with a membership of over 200 million farmers. She is also one of six ambassadors nominated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to promote pulses across Africa.
In Malawi, Janet Mingo also knows the value of pulses. She is a farmer and is fortunate to have pigeon peas to eat when her maize crop fails—which it has done often because of drought. Mrs. Mingo intercrops maize with pigeon peas on her quarter-of-a-hectare plot in Chikalogwe village, in southern Balaka district.
Like other pulses, pigeon peas are nutritious and fix nitrogen in the soil, improving soil fertility. Pigeon peas are also a key cash crop. Mrs. Mingo harvests up to 1,500 kilograms of pigeon peas each season, which allows her to purchase additional household needs.
She has changed the way she markets her pigeon peas. She explains, “I now sell my maize and pigeon peas through the Agriculture Commodity Exchange.”
Mphatso Gama is the principal agricultural officer for Machinga agriculture development division in southern Malawi. She says many farmers have diversified. They no longer rely solely on maize, but also grow pigeon peas. As a result, he says, their food security and income have improved.
He says: “The drought-resilient pigeon [pea] has been a lifesaver. While intercropping the nitrogen-fixing legume with maize has boosted yields, importantly, pigeon peas have become a viable cash crop for farmers in Malawi, where it has a ready market and is a good source of protein for families.”
Many pulses—and cowpeas in particular—are also drought-tolerant. Christian Fatokun is a cowpea breeder with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, which has developed more than 80% of the cowpea varieties for Nigerian farmers. He says: “There is no doubt that pulses are very important in food and nutrition security in Africa…. Apart from being good sources of plant-based protein, they also help in providing nitrogen in the soil for companion or following crops because they are capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Mpofu wishes farmers had better access to information and inputs, so they could understand the importance of growing pulses—and start growing them. She says promoting pulses will promote agroecology and food sovereignty.
To read the full article on which this story is based, The beating pulse of food security in Africa, go to: http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/10/the-beating-pulse-of-food-security-in-africa/ 
Photo credit: Busani Bafana/IPS