Cowpea is one of the most drought tolerant of all grain legume crops and it serves as a major source of protein for millions in sub-Saharan Africa. Similar to other ‘minor’ food crops little investment has been directed towards the improvement of the cowpea. Yet, the cowpea is vulnerable to the parasitic weed Striga gesneroides. With no chemical options for disease control, one feasible solution is improved breeding.
In order to identify genes for cowpea resistance, marker aided selection (MAS) can infinitely speed up the process compared to conventional breeding and varietal selection. The Kirkhouse Trust, a UK-based charity, is helping to bring MAS technology to West African cowpea breeders. With support from the Trust, a consortium of cowpea breeders has been formed across the region, all provided with equipment, chemical reagents and training. Progress has been uneven, attributed in part to a lack of trained personnel, but Burkina Faso has succeeding in building a functional laboratory.
The major focus of the Trust has been to support in situ programmes, but it has also invested in a cowpea genome sequencing programme, the foundation for designing genetic markers. Junior and senior breeding staff have been trained through a series of 3 to 6 month courses, supported by visits from researchers from the University of Virginia, regional workshops, and working visits for technicians to the Ouagadougou laboratory.