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AGRA launches new book on sustainable use of fertiliser

AGRA fertiliser book

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and its partners has launched new book on sustainable use of fertiliser as key to Africa’s food security which has been worrying in the recent past with current yields of cereals and legumes at only 15–30 percent of the potential. This is despite the continent’s vast arable land, water and manpower resources.

This has contributed to the worsening food crisis with about 250 million people going to bed hungry and the continent spending more than $35 billion on food imports annually as it continues to grapple with low agricultural productivity.  

However, the new book- Feeding Africa’s Soils: Fertilisers to Support Africa’s Agricultural Transformation – finds that increasing targeted fertiliser application by 20 percent would, for example, raise yields of rice by 5.1 percent, wheat by 11 percent, and maize by 9.9 percent. Besides increasing productivity, this would permit 2 million hectares of currently cultivated land to be set aside for reforestation with great environmental benefits.

Although fertilizer use has marginally increased, many African soils are unable to supply crops with the nutrients they need due to infertility and degradation that has stemmed from inappropriate land-use practices over several centuries. A changing climate and booming populations have increased demands on Africa’s already overworked soils. For example, the intensively cultivated highlands in East Africa lose an estimated 36 kg nitrogen, 5 kg phosphorus, and 25 kg potassium per hectare every year.

The low level of soil fertility is a major crisis in Africa, reducing farmers’ livelihood, increasing hunger, and accelerating environmental breakdown.  This stems from a lack of knowledge about soil health, and low awareness of and investment in the production and use of appropriate fertiliser.

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Speaking during the book launch, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Hon.  Mwangi Kiunjuri, stressed that African governments recognise the need to improve food security by investing in agriculture, adding that increasing fertiliser use is critical to increasing productivity and the likelihood of Africa being able to feed itself.

“Fertiliser is one of the critical factors of agricultural production. While Kenya is among the countries with better fertiliser application rates in Africa, we still have a long way to go. This book gives a sobering assessment of the progress we are making and offers great recommendations that we will implement to fast track action,” he said.

The book acknowledges the failings of past farming models elsewhere in the world that were powered by intensive fertiliser use with harmful environmental effects and calls for innovative approaches to fertiliser use that are tailored to Africa’s soil conditions and crop needs.

“Technologies now exist that enable us to produce and apply fertilisers judiciously and that address specific needs of soil and crops. These includes fertiliser blending and micro-dosing that ensures the production of soil specific nutrients and application to meet specific crop needs. This reduces cost to the farmer, reduces impact on the environment while increasing yield per hectare.   This is all critical given a changing climate,” said AGRA President, Dr. Agnes Kalibata, in her remarks at the book launch.

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The continent’s demand for fertiliser is projected to grow by 8 percent annually to reach 5.5 million tonnes of nutrients, or 2.8 percent of world demand, by 2021. While the application of inorganic fertiliser is increasing across the continent, the usage in most countries is below the commitment made at the 2006 Abuja Fertiliser Summit of applying 50 kg of fertilizer nutrient per hectare of arable land against a global average of 150 kg fertilizer nutrient per hectare.

Although it’s well understood that organic fertilisers play an important role in improving soil fertility, they cannot on their own supply the required nutrients. Crop residues and manure contain relatively low levels of nutrients. For example, crop residues contain only up to 4.2 percent of the six primary and secondary nutrients, while poultry manure, the richest type of manure, has only up to 15 percent nutrients. This means that Africa cannot produce the food it needs by relying solely on organic fertilizer.  On the other hand, applied correctly, inorganic fertilisers offer a precise content of nutrients which is critical for intensive agricultural systems, allowing more produce from existing land under cultivation.

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Key Recommendations

Governments are central to the success of fertiliser use in Africa: Governments play a critical role in the entire fertiliser value chain. They need to invest in key infrastructure ensuring that fertiliser gets to the farmers at affordable price. They are required to formulate policies creating an enabling environment for the private sector as well as develop the regulatory frameworks for quality assurance taking advantage of existing continental and regional entities, including the newly signed African Continental Free Trade Area.  They should improve and re-design current input subsidies to ensure they address challenges that have led to market failures but also ensure they do not incentivise bad behaviour that would adversely impact the environment.

Private Sector is critical for a sustainable fertilizer supply chain: The private sector such as fertiliser producers, industry associations, importers, distributors and dealers form an important part of the fertiliser system. For example, the involvement of agro-dealers has significantly reduced the distance farmers have to travel to access inputs as we have seen in countries like Kenya where the distance has been reduced by half from 8.4 km in 1997 to 4 km in 2017. A strong private sector could create a favorable environment for fertilizer quality control.

Innovative and sustainable approaches to fertiliser application are needed: The book acknowledges that fertiliser use, if not managed properly, can have harmful effects on the environment. It recommends moving away from blanket fertiliser application to innovative approaches like fertiliser blending and micro-dosing that ensure the production of soil specific nutrients and application to meet the crop needs. It also calls for the integration of organic and inorganic fertilisers along with soil amendments such as lime and bio- stimulants to improve nutrient use efficiency.

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Farmers need to be trained on appropriate fertiliser use for optimum results: Efforts should be made, including through extension workers, to train farmers on what types of fertilizers are available and how to use them appropriately. Tools such as the “4Rs” of nutrient stewardship (right source of fertilizer, right rate, right time and right place) should be emphasized during farmer training. Fertilizer use must be guided by soil tests and mapping to ensure the right types and quantities are recommended. 

Financing gap remains: Developing proactive and effective high-level financial arrangements and mechanisms is key to increasing production and procurement capacity in Africa. Technical assistance should be provided to entrepreneurs, smallholder groups and financial service providers to improve the provision of financing to the fertiliser value chain, as well as farmers’ and agrodealers’ ability to access the funds available. Financing for farmers and agro-dealers should take advantage of digital technologies.

Download the Book Feeding Africa’s Soils: Fertilisers to Support Africa’s Agricultural Transformation >

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