Considering all the protein sources that might possibly help Africa’s malnourished millions, none seems more promising or more practical than grain legumes. Legume seeds famously deliver the amino acids needed to grow or repair protein-based tissues such as brain, nerve, and muscle, as well as to construct the enzymes and proteinaceous hormones necessary for normal life functions. As tools for balancing nutrition they can have a powerful overall effect among the impoverished masses. By providing protein (not to mention vitamins, minerals, and energy), they make main foods—notably, the bulky staples, such as rice, maize, cassava—work better in the body. In this sense, they help increase the bioavailability of other nutrients. Grain legumes, in other words, act like nutritional cogwheels, making everything else go round and round in proper order.
Luckily for the particular malnourished millions in Africa there are grain legumes for almost every local soil and climatic zone.1 In the specific areas most at risk of hunger and malnutrition, though, the leading locally domesticated candidate is cowpea. Although hardly known in global terms, cowpea constitutes Subsaharan Africa’s most widely planted native legume. At present it is the second most important grain legume continent-wide; only peanut—a native of the Americas—occupies more African farmland. West Africa’s farmers alone grow cowpea on an estimated 6 million hectares. More than 95 percent of the world crop comes from that area; Nigeria, the biggest producer, grows an amount variously estimated at several million tons a year.
Given quantities like that, one might question this species’ inclusion in a “lost crops” book. But the cowpea’s widespread occurrence and importance in the lives of the most malnourished makes this particular grain legume critical for lifting the nutritional baseline for many societies and many levels of those societies. In a sense, it is a fulcrum for leveraging Africa’s basic nutrition. For all that, though, it is now not being intensively used to leverage the continental wellbeing. In this special sense, then, cowpea is being “lost,” at least to future progress.