The response of four cowpea (Vigna unguiculata(L.) Walp.) cultivars to the warm, semi-arid tropical environment at the ICRISAT Sahelian Center at Sadore, Niger was studied during 1985 and 1986 interms of leaf area index (LAI), dry matter (DM) accumulation, net photosynthesis, stomatal conductance, total water use and yield. Among the three improved cultivars, IT82D–716 is early and erect, cv. IT83S–947 is early and spreading and cv. TVX4659–03E is a medium-duration, highyielding, dual-purpose type. The local cv. Sadore Local is a long-duration, photosensitive, spreading type used mainly for fodder. In both years, Sadore Local recorded the highest LAI. IT82D–716 and IT83S–947 produced < 1·3 t/ha of DM in both years, whereas TVX 4659–03E produced > 2 t/ha of DM and proved superior to Sadore Local in partitioning DM into pods. The four cultivars did not differ significantly either in stomatal conductance or in net phytosynthetic rates. Observed maximum photosynthetic rates of c. 20 μmol/m2/s lie at the bottom of the range 21–38 μmol/m2/s reported for 31 cowpea genotypes in an earlier study. Photosynthetic rates increased with increasing photon flux density. TVX4659–03E had an advantage in total seed plus fodder yields while the local cultivar gave significantly greater fodder yields in both years. Seed and fodder yields, as well as water-use efficiency, confirmed the advantages offered by the dual-purpose cultivar TVX4659–03E. Future breeding efforts in the Sahel should focus on dual-purpose (grain/fodder) cowpea types.