Low agricultural productivity, malnutrition and poverty affect the majority of rural households in Malawi and Tanzania. Poor soil fertility and unreliable rainfall are major factors limiting crop productivity. Consequently, most households do not produce enough food to feed themselves for more than nine months of the year. More than 49% (Malawi) and 40% (Tanzania) of children under five in the rural areas are malnourished to such a degree that their development is retarded. Food shortfalls play a major role in malnutrition but a lack of protein, oil and vitamins in a largely cereal-based diet is also of major importance. More than half of the populations in the two countries live below the poverty line. Thus, the purchase of additional food to supplement the family diet, or of external inputs to improve crop productivity, is not possible for the average household.
Groundnut (also known as peanut) is an important legume crop in the region. Increasing groundnut production has the potential to help mitigate these serious problems for the more than 300,000 rural households in the two countries who live in areas where groundnuts are commonly grown. Because they fix atmospheric nitrogen, groundnuts can thrive under low nitrogen conditions. They also improve soil fertility for the subsequent crop. Increased groundnut consumption will help families reduce problems of malnutrition, since they are nutritious (high protein [12 - 36%], high oil content [36-54%]), thrive under low rainfall and can be grown with low capital investment. Being a popular commodity that is widely traded in local regional and international markets, groundnuts can also be an important source of income, especially for women farmers, who are the main cultivators of groundnuts and who have tended to be excluded from growing traditional cash crops, such as tobacco.
Foliar diseases are generally considered the major constraint to increased groundnut production. Groundnut Rosette Disease, caused by a viral complex, is endemic to the African continent and epidemics occur often, with losses approaching 100% in many fields. Early leaf spot caused by Cercospora arachidicola, late leaf spot caused by Phaeoisariopsis personata, and rust caused by Puccinia arachidis, are other key fungal diseases that cause considerable damage to groundnut production. Leaf diseases can be controlled by timely applications of fungicidal sprays. However, the cost of fungicidal application is prohibitive for smallholder farmers. Therefore, the use of resistant crop cultivars provides the most appropriate means of disease control, being easily incorporated into farmers' operations at little extra cost.