Mineral fertiliser is the key to unlocking Africa’s agricultural potential

3 July, 2013 by (comments)

What is the answer to increasing fertiliser use in Africa? It’s a question many have asked for decades, yet, despite a myriad of meetings, programmes, movements and initiatives, the vast majority of efforts to increase fertiliser use among smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa have failed to make a noticeable impact.

soil blogBut, argues Rolf Sommer, CIAT soil scientist and lead author of a new report, new players and technological advances mean “the time is ripe to re-invest efforts” – and agricultural research institutes are key to ensuring those efforts are sustainable and eco-efficient.

For Sommer, there is no doubt that sub-Saharan Africa must increase its fertiliser use if it is to become food secure. Yet, for the last 30 years, fertiliser consumption in sub-Saharan Africa, while it has gone up in actual terms, it has lingered at less than 3 per cent of the world’s total.

When you look at the lot of your average smallholder farmer, it’s hardly surprising. Investing in fertiliser is often a gamble, particularly for crops like maize that usually do not achieve a high market price. While the average picture looks promising (agronomic surveys show that, on average, investing in fertiliser does pay out), there are still a significant number of cases where fertiliser fails to produce the additional yield needed to pay back the investment plus a margin, for instance, to pay back interest. Depending on the region, up to 20 per cent of cases observed fall into this category.

In other words, one-in-five farmers will fail to gain enough from their fertilised maize crops. That, coupled with fertiliser recommendations that often don’t take regional soil fertility differences into account, and you can understand farmers’ scepticism.

So what’s changed? “Well, nothing much has changed for farmers – yet”, says Sommer, “but the environment around them is changing, which could finally lead to the increase in fertiliser use that Africa’s food production so desperately needs.”

Firstly, new technology, which makes it cheaper and quicker to test soil, is putting an end to blanket fertiliser recommendations. Long-winded, expensive lab tests are gradually being replaced by faster infrared-spectroscopy methods to determine which nutrients are missing from the soil, and thus, what needs to be put back in. This can help maximise the returns farmers receive from fertilisers, making their upfront investment less daunting. In addition, computer models can now identify the best strategies to help the poorest farmers out of poverty. For example, farmers that can’t afford fertiliser might start with cheaper options, such as planting nitrogen fixing legumes. And new concepts, such as ISFM+, which uses the step-by-step approach of ISFM (Integrated Soil Fertility Management) to work towards Conservation Agriculture (CA), are allowing for easier, smoother and faster adoption of CA at a pace farmers can feel comfortable with.

Secondly, countries like Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania have set benchmarks for the policies needed to increase fertiliser consumption, such as subsidies, consistent pricing and improved trade policies.

Finally, and most excitingly, new players, initiatives and thinking have entered the agricultural development arena. The likes of the African Fertiliser and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP), Grow Africa, One Acre Fund, Root Capital, or initiatives like the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), with their sizeable budgets and impressive short-term track records, have reinvigorated the interest of classic stakeholders, such as the World Bank.

It seems the time has finally come for fertiliser to be integrated into Africa’s farming systems. The challenge for all is to ensure that the intensification of farming is not just profitable in the short run, but sustainable and eco-efficient in the long run, which is where the likes of CIAT, CGIAR and other agricultural research institutes can make a major contribution.

The full report – ‘Profitable and Sustainable Nutrient Management Systems for East and Southern African Smallholder Farming Systems: Challenges and Opportunities’ – commissioned by AusAID/ACIAR, is available to download.

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Filed Under: Africa @en, Soils, Soils website