Africa has made monumental progress in the adoption of biotech crops positioning the continent for a major take-off towards crops resilient to adverse effects of climate change. In this month alone Nigeria and Kenya made landmark approvals of genetically modified (GM) Bt cowpea and Bt cotton respectively. Nigeria’s Federal Government approved commercialization of a biotech cowpea variety resistant to pod borers. This development places Nigeria as the first country ever to commercialize genetically improved cowpea. The biotech cowpea is Nigeria’s first ever GM crop to go commercial.

Going into 2019, the west African country had approved two GM cotton varieties (MRC 7377 and MRC 7367) for planting by farmers to help increase supply for the textile industry and cut lint imports.

The situation is not different in East Africa. Last week (19th December 2019), the Kenyan Cabinet, chaired by President Uhuru Kenyatta, approved commercial planting of Bt cotton heralding a new dawn for the almost collapsing cotton farming in the country. The approval followed several years of field trials that showed positive results. The biotech crop is expected to increase cotton production of Kenyan farmers and boost the manufacturing pillar of the ‘Big Four’ Agenda, Kenya’s national development plan. Under the manufacturing pillar, the country aims to be at the forefront of global textile and apparel production.

The Kingdom of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), Ethiopia and Malawi also approved commercial planting of insect resistant Bt cotton raising Africa’s profile in biotech crop adoption. Currently South Africa, Sudan are planting the GM crop.

Pod-borer resistant cowpea

In Nigeria, the approval of pod-borer resistant Bt cowpea is a culmination of more than nine years of intensive trials into GM cowpea and a breakthrough in eradicating Maruca vitrata pod borer, an insect that can cause up to 80 percent yield loss.

The new variety, named SAMPEA 20-T, was developed by scientists at the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in collaboration with several partners under the coordination of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). 

During the Multilocational Advanced Yield Trials conducted across Nigeria’s agro-ecologies, researchers found SAMPEA 20-T to have high stable grain yield across the test locations. The minimum observed average grain yield increase over the conventional cowpea varieties was at least 20 percent, and this could be higher depending on severity of the Maruca infestation.

According to the PBR cowpea projects Principal Investigator Prof. Mohammad Ishayaku, SAMPEA 20-T is high yielding, early maturing and also resistant to Striga and Alectra, two notorious parasitic weeds that are a major constraint to cowpea production in in Nigeria and other dry savanna regions.

“The protein and nutrients content of variety SAMPEA 20-T is the same as that of other conventional varieties meaning that the Bt gene that was introduced into the variety has no negative influence on the nutritional composition of both grain and folder,” said Prof. Ishiyaku.

Farmer to access superior seeds

The decision to release the variety means that Nigerian farmers will have access to the seed that will help them significantly reduce the number of sprays they currently apply, from six to seven times to only two per cropping season. Farmers are expected to realise better yield in quantity and quality. PBR cowpea will also contribute to addressing the national cowpea demand deficit of about 500,000 tonnes and improve the national productivity average of 350kg/hectare. This means that Nigeria will record a revenue increase of more than N48 billion ($132 million) annually from cowpea. 

AATF Executive Director Dr Denis Kyetere thanked the Federal Government of Nigeria for releasing the new cowpea variety saying it showed its commitment towards improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. “We at AATF express our joy with Nigeria as it takes the lead in the deployment of necessary technologies that show promise of solving the challenges which farmers encounter on a daily basis,” said Dr. Kyetere. 

“Cowpea farmers have had to endure difficult farming conditions that required them to spray their crop 6-8 times just to make a profit which could be a risk to their lives,” he added.

For more information, contact Dr. Margaret Karembu, Director ISAAA AfriCenter on