Purdue research aims to improve African food security

A team of Purdue University researchers are beginning the second phase of a project to create hermetic storage containers for various crops in sub-Saharan Africa.

Entomology professor Larry Murdock began exploring storage options in the mid-1980s for the cowpea, a staple of the country that is similar to the black-eyed pea.

Though cowpeas are considered a cash crop in West Africa, they are usually stored inadequately and are ruined by weevils, whose rapid reproduction consumes the oxygen in the storage containers. Because of this, many farmers sell their cowpeas at harvest — when they bring in the lowest price.

Without the storage, some farmers rely on insecticides that are not safe nor used properly, Murdock said.

The work by Murdock and others led to a practical storage method — known as Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage, or PICS — that involves triple-bagging the cowpeas in plastic and sealing the bags so they are airtight.

This turns out to be profitable for African farmers who can now sell the crop many months after harvest.

The success of the bags resulted in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation giving an $11.8 million grant in 2007 to help people in 10 African nations safely store the crop.

In April, the foundation gave an additional $1.1 million to find out whether other crops also could be stored in the bags.

Murdock and others at Purdue will try to identify three more African crops or crop-derived products that can be protected from insects and minimizing mold while in the PICS sacks.

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