Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research in Grain Legumes

Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Grain Legumes (Legume Innovation Lab)

Legume Innovation Lab and Feed the Future Alignment Overview.The Legume Innovation Lab is a 4.5-year (20013–2017) research and capacity building program funded by USAID’s Office of Agriculture Research and Policy that focuses on edible grain legumes, including common bean, cowpea, pigeon pea, lima bean, and the like. This program builds on the scientific advances and technological achievements of the Bean/Cowpea and Dry Grain Pulses CRSPs that ran from 1980 to 2012, while responding with innovative research to the agricultural development priorities and objectives set forth in USAID’s Feed the Future (FTF) Global Food Security Research Strategy and in the development strategies by USAID Missions in FTF Focus countries and regions.


The Legume Innovation Lab is strategically positioned to support and contribute to the goals and objectives set forth in USAID’s FTF global research strategy. Legumes are recognized as a nutrient-dense staple that plays multifunctional roles in smallholder farm systems in developing countries that include providing for the food and nutritional security of households; generating needed income, especially for women, who are the principle producers of grain legumes in many regions of the world; and contributing to the sustainability of farm systems.

Geography.The Legume Innovation Lab supports eight projects involving collaborative research, capacity building, and technology dissemination activities in 12 countries in four target regions “Focus” countries:

  • West Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, and Senegal
  • East and Central Africa: Uganda and Tanzania
  • Southern Africa: Zambia
  • Latin America: Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala

Beans and other grain legumes are among the strategic value chains and core investments for Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, Uganda, and Zambia.


Research Strategy. The global themes of the Legume Innovation Lab are as follows:

  • To reduce production costs and risks for enhanced profitability and competitiveness of bean, cowpea, and other grain legumes
  • To increase the utilization of bean and cowpea grain and food products to expand market opportunities and improve community health and nutrition
  • To improve the performance and sustainability for bean and cowpea value chains, especially for the benefit of women
  • To increase the capacity, effectiveness, and sustainability of agriculture research institutions that serve the pulse sectors and developing country agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America

The research, technology dissemination, and training investments by the Legume Innovation Lab seek to achieve these global themes by the following strategies:

  1. Increasing legume productivity through genetic improvement
  2. Increasing legume productivity through integrated management of legume-based cropping systems
  3. Increasing legume utilization through improved knowledge of dietary contributions of legume to human nutrition and health
  4. Strengthening legume value chains

The Legume Innovation Lab is well aligned and effectively contributes to the FTF research goals of “advancing the productivity frontier of grain legumes” and “enhancing the nutritional value of diets,” especially of young children and women in focus countries. Examples of specific ongoing Legume Innovation Lab projects that are consistent with USAID’s FTF Research Strategy include:

  • enhancement of biological nitrogen fixation in grain legume cropping systems,
  • genetic enhancement of bean and cowpea yield potential,
  • genetic improvement of drought and heat tolerance in beans and cowpeas,
  • assessment of the impact of bean technology dissemination,
  • use of insect genomics and biologicals as part of a comprehensive IPM strategy to manage pod-sucking insect pests in cowpeas, and
  • nutritional rehabilitation and strengthened immune systems in HIV+ children through consumption of bean- and cowpea-based foods.

Production Systems. The Legume Innovation Lab research themes and engaged approach directly contribute to the sustainable intensification of smallholder farming systems in the West African Sudano–Sahelian systems and the Southern and Eastern Africa maize-/legume-based systems, and to the bean-/maize-based hillside cropping systems in Central America (a priority region in FTF).

Research Focus. Collaborative research and technology dissemination activities of the Legume Innovation Lab contribute to four global themes, which is consistent with USAID’s FTF Research Strategy. Crosscutting themes that are integrated in all subcontracted Legume Innovation Lab projects include improving the livelihoods of women and sustainably enhancing the research capacity of NARS (National Agricultural Research System) and agriculture universities in participating host countries.

Title XII and the Legume Innovation Lab The Legume Innovation Lab has been funded under Title XII legislation. Enacted in 1975, the primary objective of Title XII is “the development of the LDC capacity for research, education, and/or extension; the training of participants; the conduct of research; the building or strengthening of related institutional infrastructure; and/or the provision of university advisors to development projects, all in agriculture, nutrition, agroforestry or closely related fields” (USAID Policy Directive 9/9/82, p. 1). As shown above, the Legume Innovation Lab ensures that its projects with U.S. universities and host country institutions are designed to meet the combined objectives of quality research and institutional building. Each project should dedicate a minimum of 30 percent of funds to host country capacity building, for example, in training and equipment.

The Legume Innovation Lab has also dedicated a specific line of special funding for competitively bid, capacity-building projects submitted by host country institutions. All projects have invested in formal degree programs for host country nationals. When formal training programs such as master’s and doctoral degree programs are funded through Legume Innovation Lab projects, a U.S. scientist is always present as an official member of the advisory committee or as an external advisor to ensure appropriate mentoring of students. Through the Legume Innovation Lab, U.S. university researchers have the mandate and funding to extend their research with host countries in Latin America and Africa, creating sustainable professional research exchanges and collaboration, and achieving Title XII objectives.

Alignment with Other USAID Partners. The Legume Innovation Lab Management Office has proactively sought to strengthen partnerships with other institutions involved in international research on edible grain legumes. Partnerships are important to the Legume Innovation Lab because they allow for scientific leadership to influence the international research agenda on grain legumes, the setting of joint research priorities, the avoidance of duplication, improved complementary efforts, coordination of collaborative research activities to exploit comparative institutional strengths and capacities, and partnering to facilitate the dissemination of research outputs to achieve developmental outcomes in target countries and regions.

Examples of such strategic partnerships by the Legume Innovation Lab include:

  1. Research collaboration by USDA–ARS scientists with financial support in Legume Innovation Lab projects.
  2. Research collaboration by scientists at IITA and CIAT (serving as Co-PIs) in several Legume Innovation Lab projects.
  3. The Legume Innovation Lab has been identified as a “strategic research partner” in CRP3.5 on Grain Legumes. In this role, the Legume Innovation Lab contributed to the planning and preparation of the CRP3.5 proposal and has ongoing discussions with the leadership about setting research priorities and coordinating international research activities on grain legumes.

The Legume Innovation Lab, 2013–2017, supported research and institutional capacity strengthening projects to (1) enhance grain legume productivity through genetic improvement and integrated pest management, (2) improve smallholder farmer decision making regarding sustainable soil fertility management in legume–cereal cropping systems, (3) strengthen legume value-chain performance, and (4) improve human nutrition and health through increased consumption of grain legumes. Administered by Michigan State University, ten multi-institutional, multi-country and multidisciplinary projects were subcontracted to Lead U.S. universities that sub-subcontract to collaborating research institutions (NARS, agriculture research centers) in 11 Feed the Future focus countries in West Africa, Eastern and Southern Africa, and Central America and Haiti. research projects focused primarily on common bean and cowpea because of their strategic importance to the food and nutritional security of the rural poor in these regions. As an extension of the Dry Grain Pulses CRSP (2007–2013), was a mature program with a relatively full research pipeline of technological solutions (e.g., improved climate-resilient and disease resistance bean and cowpea varieties; sustainable integrated pest management practices using biologicals to control insect pests in cowpea; communications tools for low education farmers) and new knowledge (e.g., factors influencing farmer soil fertility management decision making, attributes of sustainable of seed systems for legumes, nutritional and health benefits of grain legumes in diets of young children, function of grain legume value chains), benefitting stakeholders of grain legume value chains in developing countries.

Strategic Objective 1 (S01): Advancing the Productivity Frontier for Grain Legumes Genetic Improvement of Middle-American Climbing Beans for Guatemala (SO1.A1)

The highlands of Guatemala are a unique bean producing region where intercropping (milpa) is still the main production system, mostly with maize–bean association. The system involves planting climbing beans that grow and develop concurrently with maize or planting in relay.

This Legume Innovation Lab project focuses on developing genetically improved varieties of climbing beans that can enhance the productivity of the highland milpa system. The main objectives are:

  1. to breed varieties with improved disease resistance and agronomic performance,
  2. to characterize the genetic diversity of this unique set of germplasm,
  3. to improve understanding of the current socioeconomic status and needs of bean production within the context of intercropping systems in the region, and
  4. to train the next generation of plant breeders for Guatemala.

Development and Implementation of Robust Molecular Markers and Genetic Improvement of Common and Tepary Beans to Increase Grain Legume Production in Central America and Haiti (S01.A4)

This project develops, releases, and disseminates improved common bean cultivars with enhanced disease and/or pest resistance and greater tolerance to abiotic stresses for the lowland tropics in Central America and Haiti.

Drought and heat tolerant tepary bean lines (Phaseolus acutifolius) are being bred for improved seed and agronomic traits and greater disease resistance. Bruchid resistance genes (arcelin 2 and null phaseolin) resulting from an interspecific cross are being introgressed into black, small red and white beans with resistances to BCMV, BCMNV, and BGYM for Central America and the Caribbean regions. In Guatemala, breeding efforts focus on increasing resistance to common bacterial blight and web blight in humid tropical lowland regions, such as the Petén. The next generation of breederfriendly molecular markers linked with pathogenresistant genes are being developed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of selection for traits of economic importance.

Genetic Improvement of Cowpea to Overcome Drought and Biotic Constraints to Grain Productivity (S01.A5)

lab-based phenotyping in Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Senegal are being matched with SNP marker high-throughput genotyping to identify and select for target QTL. Advanced breeding lines are being tested regionally across the host countries to broaden their release potential. In addition, several near-release advanced lines are being performance tested for full release decisions in Burkina Faso and Senegal, capitalizing on previous USAID investments. In California, cowpea dry grain novel market classes of breeding lines are being advanced together with leveraged funding in support of the U.S. dry bean industry.

IPM-omics: Scalable and Sustainable Biological Solutions for Pest Management of Insect Pests of Cowpea in Africa (SO1.B1)

The major biotic constraint on cowpea crops in West Africa is an insect pest complex. Pesticides and/or transgenics do not provide the long-term solutions needed to manage these pest populations. The logical strategy is Integrated Pest Management (IPM), involving a pipeline of diverse biological

control situations. This project focuses on the development and deployment of scalable pest control solutions involving a combination of traditional pest control and deployment strategies and cutting-edge technologies, including genomics and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to help direct the most effective deployment of these approaches, as well as testing and deploying cutting-edge ICT (Information and Communications Technology) tools as part of the scaling of these solutions.

Farmer Decision-Making Strategies for Improved Soil Fertility Management in Maize–Bean Production Systems (S02.1)

Poor and declining soil fertility is the primary constraint to common bean productivity among smallholder farmers in Africa, affecting cropping systems, food security, nutrition, incomes, and livelihoods. Adoption of improved crop
management practices, particularly regarding soil fertility, has been modest. The central premise of this project is that addressing soil-related constraints requires understanding farmers’ current practices and enhancing their capabilities in diagnosing and finding solutions to yield constraints.
To contribute to widespread and sustainable improvements in bean productivity and soil fertility, the research objectives are to:

  1. characterize smallholder farmers’ agricultural motivations, current knowledge, and practices; problem diagnoses; and livelihood and risk management strategies;
  2. develop and refine models about their decision making;
  3. develop and validate appropriate diagnostic and decision support aids; and
  4. develop and assess the effectiveness of innovative approaches for disseminating information and decision support aids, training, and follow-up technical support.

Enhancing Pulse Value-Chain Performance through Improved Understanding of Consumer Behavior and Decision Making (S02.2)

Despite knowledge about their high nutritional benefits and profile, grain legumes are not prominent on the food hierarchy in Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia. The challenge confronting grain legume producers and their supply chains is how to enhance their competitiveness in their local markets and gain the necessary policy support from their government to sustain it. This project seeks to make two critical contributions to this challenge. First, to develop a clearer appreciation of the factors influencing grain legume consumption in these three countries to provide empirical direction for market and policy development. Second, to provide training and capacity building support for the industry’s stakeholders to seize identified opportunities and address existing and emerging challenges. When this project succeeds, it will contribute to creating value in the grain legume value chain.

Legumes and Growth (SO3.1)

Because millions of children die annually due to undernutrition and hundreds of millions more are stunted, interventions that decrease the burden of childhood malnutrition are urgently needed.
Environmental Enteric Dysfunction (EED), a pervasive, chronic, subclinical, inflammatory condition among children that can occur when complementary foods are introduced, places them at high risk for stunting, malabsorption, and poor oral vaccine efficacy. Here we propose two randomized, controlled clinical trials to determine if common beans or cowpeas improve growth, ameliorate EED, and alter the intestinal microbiome during this high-risk period.

Impact Assessment of Dry Grain Pulses CRSP Investments in Research, Institutional Capacity Building and Technology Dissemination in Africa, Latin America and the U.S. (S04.1)

Building on the momentum and experience gained over the last five years, this project will contribute to evidence-based, rigorous ex ante (i.e., potential) and ex post (i.e., realized) assessments of outputs, outcomes, and impacts of research with the goal of assisting the Legume Innovation Lab program and its Management Office (MO) to achieve two important goals—accountability and learning. Greater accountability (and strategic validation) is a prerequisite for continued investment from USAID and better learning is crucial for improving the effectiveness of development projects and ensuring that the lessons from experience—both positive and
negative—are heeded. Integrating this culture of impact assessment into publicly funded programs such as the Legume Innovation Lab will ultimately help increase the overall impact of such investments.