WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue University will receive $1.1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to determine whether a storage technology developed for cowpeas and now widely used by farmers in sub-Saharan Africa will work for other African crops.
The award builds on the $11.8 million Gates-funded project called Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage, or PICS, which began in 2007. It found that hermetic storage of the staple cowpea, known in America as the black-eyed pea, was practical and profitable for African farmers and ensured a supply of the nutritious legume for many months after harvest. Without the storage, farmers would have to sell their cowpeas immediately after harvest when the price is lowest or treat them with sometimes dangerous insecticides.
The new project, PICS2, provides for research to determine whether the Purdue-developed storage method is feasible for other crops grown in Africa, including corn, sorghum, rice, couscous, hibiscus seed and cassava chips, which are similar to tapioca.
"We look at this as pouring the foundation for something greater than PICS1 for the hungry of the world," said project director Larry Murdock, a professor of entomology.
The grant continues Purdue's initiative to help sub-Saharan farmers who have few resources of their own, said university President France A. Córdova.
"Our success in the first part of this mission in Africa, and now the continuation of our vital work there, is testimony to Purdue's commitment to helping the farmers provide a more stable food supply throughout the year," she said. "As a result of this extended project, more than 800 million people in sub-Saharan Africa could have not only more food but also healthier and safer food."
The storage method is simple, safe, inexpensive and effective, said Jay Akridge, Glenn W. Sample Dean of Purdue Agriculture.
"This project will have tremendous benefits for the people of Africa," he said. "It is a great example of the difference agricultural research and outreach can make in creating a more secure and consistent food supply for millions of people."
The storage involves triple-bagging cowpeas in plastic and sealing the bags airtight. Airtight storage goes back to ancient times, but what was lacking for Africa was a practical, useful and affordable way to implement it, Murdock said.
When the PICS project began in West and Central Africa, most people did not know about the triple-bagging technology or did not employ the method properly. The process is low-cost – primarily involving the expense of the plastic bags – and is safer than no protection or treating cowpeas with insecticides.
"Above all, it is easy to learn and use," Murdock said.
Hermetic storage protects cowpeas from a weevil that in two to three months can consume nearly all cowpeas stored on a farm. Although the pests remain inside the bags, they become inactive because they use up all of the oxygen, preventing them from reproducing. The population is unable to grow, leaving little or no damage.
Plastic bags that had been used for storage in the region before PICS often were vented or were a single airtight layer, making them prone to puncture.
From 2007 to 2010, there were cowpea hermetic storage demonstrations in more than 29,000 villages in West and Central Africa. In places such as Niger and Burkina Faso, hermetic containers were used on farms to store more than 70 percent of cowpeas in 2010.
The program's goal is to have at least 50 percent of farm-stored cowpeas in 10 countries in West and Central Africa using hermetic storage by 2012.
While hermetic storage has worked for cowpeas, which are grown in dry climates and can be readily stored, the process is less certain for other crops such as corn or beans, which are grown in more humid conditions. Researchers will try to identify at least three important African crops or crop-derived products that can be effectively stored in PICS sacks in ways that protect the grain from insects while maintaining viability of seed for planting and minimizing effects of mold and accumulation of mycotoxins.
Partners with Purdue in the new initiative will be the National Agricultural Research Institute of Niger and the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology.