Senegal's scientists hope black-eyed peas used in recipes will help reduce cost of bread

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — At a pilot bakery inside the Food Technology Institute in Senegal's capital Friday, cooks in white smocks tried to make bread out of a novel ingredient — peas.

Wheat is still a crucial ingredient in bread because of its gluten content, necessary for the dough to rise. But after months of testing, the experimental bakers have been able to reduce the wheat used in their baguettes and dinner rolls to 85 percent.

They supplant the remaining 15 percent with flour made from black-eyed peas, a crop that has been grown locally for centuries and which is far cheaper than wheat because it is not imported.

Still hot from the oven, the dinner rolls the cooks baked on a recent morning sell for 50 West African francs (around $0.10 cents) — about 40 percent cheaper than its all-wheat equivalent. The taste is roughly the same.

To address the spiraling cost of food which elsewhere in Africa has degenerated into violent riots, Senegal is looking to a crop from its past. The black-eyed pea — known also as the cowpea — has the potential to feed millions and to act as a substitute for wheat which is not grown here or in many countries in the region, according to participants at the Fifth World Cowpea Research Conference set to start in Dakar next week.

"Whatever is imported is always going to be more expensive," said Ababacar Ndoye, the director of the state-funded food lab where the pea-infused bread is being tested. "So by replacing a part of our bread with the black-eyed pea, we can bring down the price of bread."

The nutritious legume first came to America from Africa in slave ships. The peas grew well in the hot, humid climate of the southern United States. They have since become a staple of American cuisine in the deep south.

While black-eyed peas were thriving in the U.S., the same crop was neglected in Africa. Members of colonial regimes imported rice and wheat to the continent, and the foreign crops replaced the native legumes. Research groups have now labeled black-eyed peas as an underutilized crop, one that has the potential to seriously impact the food insecurity issue in Africa, including in this nation of 13.7 million if cultivated to its full potential.

Recent months have seen riots in Mozambique over the rising cost of bread, and in Dakar the hike in the price of wheat caused bakers to go on strike.

Ndoye says that in recent months, a 110 pound (50 kilogram) sac of wheat has spiked from 16,000 francs (around $32) to over 20,000 ($40), highlighting the volatility of a cereal that has become far too ingrained in the local diet. Many Senegalese families begin the day with a glass of coffee or tea and a baguette. They end the day with a plate of thieboudiene, a local dish consisting of a fish or meat over a large serving of rice.

The purpose of the World Cowpea Research Conference is to try to find more uses for black-eyed peas. Reporters were invited Friday to a sample an entire meal cooked from the peas, including an 'exotic salad' sprinkled with the almond-colored peas, chicken served with a red, pea-based sauce and a desert made from pea flour. The food lab is already working to introduce the composite bread in local bakeries throughout the country.

In her food processing operation in Dakar, Aissatou Diagne Deme employs 52 people to transform dried black-eyed peas into flour. Deme sells 1,700 pounds of black-eyed pea flour to local markets around Senegal's capital every month and says that she is not able to meet local demand.

"The demand for black-eyed peas is increasing," Deme said. "It's the crop of the future."