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Publication review: Examining the production potential of lentils in East Africa

Ethiopian farmers Farmers winnowing lentils. Photo credit: Bioversity International/T. Wolday

In East Africa, food security is threatened by by several factors like poverty, population growth, land degradation, climate change and limited crop production.

Improving food security in vulnerable dry areas through the promotion of sustainable agricultural and land management practices is essential to the mission of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.

The recently published article “Production potential of Lentil (Lens culinaris Medik) in East Africa” examines the potential to increase lentil production in East Africa as an opportunity to ensure the necessary growth, food security, and sustainable improvement to rural community livelihoods.

In East Africa, lentils are grown in marginal lands of arid and semi-arid areas. However, poor practices of irrigation, weeding or pest control limit the potential lentil yield. The initial aim of the study was to analyse the geographical areas that have the potential for consistent lentil production. Additionally, our researchers investigated the probability to increase lentil production through changes in different agricultural management practices and the use of different plant phenotypes.

The article hypothesizes that changing sowing dates can improve lentil yield. Moreover, the yield production of short-season, early-flowering plants typically grown in these latitudes was compared with that of long-season, late-flowering ones to assess possible improvements.

The development of cultivars capable of better performance under limited water conditions is the result of many possible characteristics that interact with one another and with the environment. Although it is challenging to experimentally determine which among these traits has a predominant effect on yield in a given situation, crop simulation modeling can help navigate biological complexity by testing the effect of traits on yields across many locations and time periods. It also helps in combining both agronomic and genetic options to maximize crop production at the plot level.

The lentil growth and yield was simulated using a Simple Simulation Model (SSM) (Soltani and Sinclair, 2012). Eight countries including Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen were covered in the study. The main findings are reported below.

Geographical areas for lentil production

According to the simulation, Ethiopian highlands, South Sudan, Uganda, eastern Kenya, Tanzania are suitable for lentil production, even under the agricultural practices and plant phenology that are currently used. Whereas in Ethiopia and South Sudan lentils are already grown, in Uganda, eastern Kenya, and Tanzania lentils are not yet a common crop. These results, therefore, open an opportunity for future development in these areas.

Different results were found for the northern tier of East Africa. Much of the great Horn of Africa and western Tanzania risks not obtaining sufficient or any yield for 2 or more years out of 30 growing season, suggesting lentil is not a suitable crop in the region.

Number of years without yield for standard short cycle lentil sown in June.

Effects of sowing date

Changing the sowing date from early June to later dates can be an appropriate variation in management practice to increase lentil yield. In fact, a high probability to increase the average yield was found for almost all the studied locations when delaying sowing to late July. Further delaying the sowing date to mid-August improved lentil yield eastwards in Ethiopia and Somalia. September showed the highest probability of yield gain (85% increase) in Kenya, Uganda, northern parts of Tanzania and central parts of Somalia. Delaying the sowing date is not only advantageous for increasing yield, but it would be also favorable for limiting the competition between lentil and other rainy season crops like maize.

Changes in phenology

When sown in early June, late-flowering lentil was shown to give higher yields than the short-season, early-flowering types in locations such as South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, southern parts of Somalia and coastal areas of Kenya. Delaying the sowing date of late-flowering lentil to July or mid-August can be a successful practice for increasing yield in Ethiopian highlands, South Sudan and Uganda. However, if the crop is sown in September, only a few locations in the southern regions would experience yield increase.

Combining changes in sowing date and phenology

Combining changes in sowing dates and phenology was also investigated. It was found that, in general, delaying sowing combined with a longer phenology tended to have similar distribution patterns of probability of yield increase in East Africa.

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Simulation of average yield gain (WGRN, g dry weight m-2) by changing both sowing date and phenology.

The article provides valuable knowledge that can boost the production of lentil in this important region. As shown by the authors, lentil could possibly become a major crop in some regions of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania , and Somalia. Depending on the location, simulations show that delaying sowing alone or in combination with long-season genotype can increase the probability of improving yield. The diversification of agricultural systems with lentil can improve food security of rural population as well as improve the sustainability of the cropping system.

Read the full article here.


The study reviewed in this blog was supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems. The study was authored by M. E. Ghanem, H. Marrou, C. Biradar, T. R. Sinclair.

About the author

Martina Antonucci is the Science Communications and Knowledge Management intern at the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.