Every legume its own approach

Photography: Taskscape Media

In Zimbabwe, farmers now have better connections to the markets for selling their legumes, thanks to N2Africa. But not every legume is the same. Each crop is used and traded in a different way. Responding to the wishes and needs of farmers is therefore essential when rolling out new technologies.

One of N2Africa’s overall aims was to drive a value chain approach for the various legumes, linking farmers to markets. Value-chain approaches work well with more commercial crops – such as vegetables – but had not been tried much with grain legumes and are now delivering successes in many countries, in particular with soyabeans. However, after discussions with farmers’ groups during the early phases of N2Africa in Zimbabwe, it turned out that there are different markets for different types of legumes.

Cowpeas and groundnuts

A value chain approach was in fact appropriate for soyabeans, with the main problem being one of consolidating the grain harvest into loads for transport to markets – a market coordination issue. For groundnuts, the challenges were similar in terms of consolidating the produce. But unlike soyabeans, which are only consumed in small quantities at the household level, people know what to do with cowpeas and groundnuts. They eat them a lot and groundnuts are also processed into peanut butter for sale at local markets.

There are various markets for different types of legumes in Zimbabwe.

Photo: Ken Giller

The situation was different again for common beans. Some farmers were growing large fields of common beans, targeting a local market of residential mission school kitchens. Others complained of problems of keeping seed from one season to the next – not because of post-harvest pests – but because the beans are so popular that they get eaten! So there is generally little surplus, and what there is can readily be sold through local markets.

Common beans generally grow well under maize on good soils and produce more grain than when grown as sole crops on outfields

The other major issue for farmers growing beans is that they do not perform well in the coarse granite sandy soil that predominates in most of the smallholder (communal) farming areas. Common beans only grow well in the ‘infields’ – the fields close to the homestead that are treated regularly with cattle manure. But these fields are where maize, the main self-sufficiency food crop, is grown. The farmers have the perfect solution – simply planting common beans as an intercrop without reducing the density of maize planting. Common beans generally grow well under maize and tend to produce more grain than when grown as sole crops on poorer fields.

Video: Members of the N2Africa team reflect on the value chain and markets in Zimbabwe. Produced by Taskscape Associates

A particularly striking issue was the markets for cowpeas. Essentially, cowpeas are grown by most farmers for their own consumption (both the grain and the leaves) and it is liked but not the most popular legume. In contrast with common beans, cowpeas grow well on the coarse sandy outfields in Zimbabwe, as long as a little phosphorus is applied. The varieties offered by N2Africa were very popular with farmers and there was considerable demand for them locally. But apart from trade in cowpea seeds by a few companies, cowpeas are not sold much on open markets, either locally or through the central grain markets in Harare.

Quality time with farmers

So where does this leave us? Not with a problem but with an opportunity! We need to use differentiated models for the various legumes – a value chain approach for soyabeans, a mixed model for various varieties of groundnut, and various local niche models for common beans and cowpeas.

Seed packets and peanut butter made by an N2Africa farmers' group at a market in Murewa, Zimbabwe. Photo: Ken Giller

This provides another example of the importance of spending quality time on discussions with farmers. Many seem to think that all the good ideas come from farmers – and that may often be true – but interactions between farmers, development agents and researchers also leads to innovation. Recognising the different aims and objectives of the farmers is key to designing approaches for rolling out these techniques in new areas.


  • A value chain approach linking farmers to markets works well for soyabeans but a mixed model is needed for various varieties of groundnut and various local niche models for common beans and cowpeas.
  • Cowpeas are an important food security legume for poorer and wealthier farmers alike, and one where introducing new varieties and ensuring they are spread through local women’s groups can have an important impact at the household level.
  • Interactions between farmers, development agents and researchers leads to innovation.

Share this article

Next article

A nutrition boost thanks to soyabeans