Access to fertilisers: Finding the right path

Producing more and better is a priority for farming worldwide. But in Africa, the task is even more difficult given that agricultural productivity is lower than in any other region. Providing access to fertilisers is therefore vital.


Until recently, increasing food production in Africa had generally been achieved by extending cropland. But population pressure, increased competition between crop and livestock farming, and declining soil fertility are forcing African countries to ramp up their investment in fertilisers. So what fertilisers are best – chemical, organic or mixed? While some promote fully organic farming, most experts agree that chemical fertilisation is necessary to a greater or lesser extent, albeit in combination with a relatively high level of soil organic matter and good cropping practices. Opinions differ, but all agree on the importance of producing more on the same amount of land without damaging the resource base, an ambition now widely known as ‘sustainable crop intensification’.

The statistics are startling: on average, fertilisers are applied at a rate of 10 kg/ha in Africa, compared to 100 kg/ha worldwide and 200 kg/ha in Asia, and are typically focused on cash crops or commercial plantations. Africa’s minimal use of fertiliser can be explained by a number of factors: high fertiliser costs (up to four times greater than elsewhere in the world), insufficient ports, roads and distribution infrastructure, and weak access to credit among smallholder farmers are three of the most significant.

Reducing fertiliser costs

Driven by international markets, fertiliser prices are high and will remain so, making them unaffordable to the majority of African smallholders. Many countries strive to offset this problem by subsidising fertilisers, but this is costly, weighs heavily on state budgets and is frequently ineffective: subsidised fertilisers do not always reach the targeted farmers and cases of misappropriation and fraud are common.

In response, ‘smart subsidies’ have been developed by the International Fertiliser Development Center (IFDC), which is active in various countries including Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria and Rwanda. The subsidies come in the form of fertiliser vouchers that are issued on a case-by-case basis to targeted farmers, who in turn take them to registered distributors to obtain fertilisers at a discounted price. This more transparent system, typically implemented through a public-private partnership, is a way for countries to provide direct help to needy farmers and develop an effective fertiliser distribution network.

Tailored fertilisation

Farmers’ fertiliser expenditures may also be reduced by tailoring fertiliser formulations to soil and crop characteristics, thus boosting their efficacy. Ideally, specific fertilisers should be formulated to match the characteristics of each field; while this is clearly unrealistic, current trends in fertiliser manufacturing are moving in the right direction.

In Ethiopia, for instance, 3,500 soil samples were taken throughout the country to draw up a comprehensive soil map. Levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and trace elements in the samples were recorded. Fertiliser formulations were then developed for specific regions and crops, based on field test findings and mathematical model simulations. An initial 120 formulations were subsequently narrowed down to 12.

Ethiopia’s next step has been to invest in a number of fertiliser blending plants to manufacture complex, ready- to-use fertilisers, thus overcoming the need to import these formulations. The first plant, located in the Oromia region, began production in June 2014. Three others should soon be operational in Amhara, Tigray, and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region. The ultimate aim is to help 11 million smallholders increase their crop yields by giving them access to these tailored fertilisers. Farmers’ cooperatives are full partners in the initiative, operating the fertiliser blending plants with the support of regional governments and Ministry of Agriculture agencies.

“Bespoke fertiliser formulations will generate much higher agricultural and economic returns. Hence, at virtually the same cost, crop yield increases of over 35% can be achieved through just slight adjustments in the fertiliser compositions and especially by focusing on trace element levels,” says Patrice Annequin, IFDC senior market analyst and coordinator of the initiative.

Reaching farmers

Fertilisers must be accessible for farmers, which means establishing distributor networks. While there are vast regions with no distributors at all, networks have been relatively well developed in some countries. Uganda, for instance, has around 2,000 input distributors, and since the turn of the century, Niger’s Ministry of Agriculture has been developing fertiliser outlets (currently around 800) that are managed by farmers’ organisations. Farmers can purchase inputs in small quantities while also getting advice on how to apply them.

Another way to improve input availability is to link smallholders with markets i.e. input suppliers put fertiliser producers in contact with the farmers. For example, WIENCO, the main private fertiliser distribution company in Ghana, links farmers with the Masara N’Arziki maize farmers’ association. One hitch, however, is that farmers have to sow at least 5 ha of maize to qualify to be an association member, which in practice excludes farmers with small or very small farms. Apart from being privately run, this resembles the public integrated cotton production sectors in West Africa.

Towards ecological intensification

In terms of organic approaches, a number of new technologies and alternative solutions are being developed to help farmers address the challenges they face. These include agroecology, agroforestry, permaculture and crop- livestock integration. Overall, the trend is moving towards ecological intensification, which implies that nothing is lost and everything is transformed; dung becomes manure and plant waste becomes compost. New practices are being implemented, such as direct seeding, mulch-based cropping systems and crop rotations, especially with legumes or nitrogen-fixing trees. These ‘green manures’ enhance soil fertility management and are affordable for smallholders.

In Africa, a green revolution is in the making but will, undoubtedly, be very different to the model that prevailed in Asia and Latin America.

Article Source:


Share This Post