“Grain legumes don’t get the attention or investment that they deserve”, so say more than 50 grain legume experts and value chain actors who gathered in Nairobi on 28 to 30 January 2015 – which is precisely why the UN has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses (otherwise called grain legumes).

But why exactly should legumes have a whole year dedicated solely to them? What are the problems that are holding legume farmers – and their crops – back? And how did finding a solution to these challenges bring former PABRA coordinator, Mathew Abang, back into the fold?

A number of important staple crops fall under the ‘grain legume’ family – including beans, groundnuts, cowpeas, pigeon peas, chickpeas, soybeans, lentils and faba beans. Collectively they play a crucial role in human food and nutrition, and income security, and the sustainability of agro-ecosystems. They are especially important for small scale farmers, doubling up as cash crops for income, and subsistence crops for family nutrition.

But, for such an important food crop, small holders still struggle to access good quality seed of improved varieties. Many rely on their own seed or from local sources while the private sector involvement in legume seed markets is minimal. And where many new improved varieties have been developed with the potential to drastically improve production, the majority of farmers are not aware and their use is still limited.

In complete contrast, improved varieties of more commercial crops, such as hybrid maize and vegetables are readily available from private agro-dealers across Eastern Africa and beyond.

So, against the backdrop of inadequate seed systems and a global drive to raise awareness of, and increase investment in, grain legumes, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) organised a regional grain legumes workshop.

The workshop brought together more than 50 experts working in grain legume value chains in Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan. Participants included representatives of FAO country offices, senior government officials, international and national grain legume researchers, international and national non-government organizations, farmer associations and the private sector.

The first thing they heard was that there are great examples of successful grain legume seed systems in action across the region,  supported by governments and donor-funded initiatives such as the Tropical Legumes II Project and the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA. These seed systems have had a positive impact for millions of smallholder legume farmers, many of whom are women; moreover, the models applied also provide important lessons that need to be shared and scaled up to improve the overall performance of legume seed systems in the region and reach to more millions.

“PABRA still has a huge place in my heart and, with FAO placing increased importance on grain legumes, I saw an opportunity for FAO, CIAT, sister CG centres, senior ministry officials, NARS and partners to join forces and start some much needed dialogue to bolster grain legume seed systems in Eastern Africa” said Mathew Abang former PABRA coordinator and now at the FAO Sub-regional Office for Eastern Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The objective of the workshop was to share experiences on impact of proven legume seed systems, identify most appropriate and scalable legume seed system practices, engage public policy makers, donors and private sector to scale up these seed system practices and develop a clear follow up plan in each of the participating countries.

CIAT’s seed systems specialist, Jean-Claude Rubyogo, commented: “If seed systems are improved, countries in the region would get enhanced access to new and better legume varieties, and thereby improve their food and nutrition security in a gender equitable manner. This workshop is the first step towards achieving that.”

During the meeting, participants presented successful legume seed system case studies from their respective countries. The cases presented various entry points – community, private and integrated seed systems, market led approaches to seed system development, nutrition driven systems as well as the use of innovative approaches such as small packs.

They collectively agreed on the need to bolster the immense interest in legumes and discussion centred on how to catalyse national efforts on legume development by addressing high impact potential bottlenecks that affect implementation of legume initiatives across multiple countries in the region.

It was clear from discussions that the countries have varied approaches to seed systems development with unique opportunities for success. The role of regulatory bodies in ensuring better access to quality seed of improved varieties was emphasized, whichever model of seed production was being applied at country level.

Participants from each country agreed to develop concept notes on specific interventions needed to bolster grain legume seed systems nationally and also proposed the following major regional interventions:

  1. Establish a cross-legume platform: Despite so many legume crops being grown in the region, only beans have a regional coordination body – the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA). Proposals were made in favour of establishing a Pan Africa Legume Alliance (PALA) as an overall coordinating coalition that would facilitate the sharing of legume technologies, innovations and management practices.
  2. Engage Regional Economic Communities (RECs) to improve the policy and regulatory environment: engagement with RECs such as the East African Community (EAC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in pushing forward the process of harmonization of seed policies, fast-track implementation of harmonized seed regulations and allow multi-country release and cross-border seed and grain trade so as to make seed business profitable and attract private sector investment and participation in legume seed systems.
  3. Develop appropriate evidence to improve the profile of legumes: Participants agreed there is an urgent need to make legumes a priority issue in the eastern Africa regional development agenda and felt that the upcoming International Year of Pulses (IYOP) 2016 is a major opportunity to share promising ideas on how to transform the legume sub-sector in the region. They agreed to develop the case studies to share with stakeholders and lobby high-level policy actors from member states to make a strong compelling case for improving access to good quality seed of improved legume varieties.

Where some policymakers arrived at the workshop sceptical, they left enthused and positive that collectively, with researchers, farmers and the private sector, we can find sustainable solutions to this challenge.