Smallholder farmers in Uganda have been urged to maximise fertiliser use alongside organic manure to improve soil nutrients. Photo Credit: Istock

How Africa can achieve fertiliser security

Charlotte Hebebrand, Director of Communications and Public Affairs, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), discusses the state of the fertiliser industry in Africa, how adoption of innovations can make the commodity affordable and the need to build viable fertiliser markets

What is the state of fertiliser security in Africa currently on the back of the Ukraine-Russia conflict?

Charlotte Hebebrand: The conflict initially led to an actual scarcity of fertilisers globally and especially in sub-Saharan Africa, as exporters and traders catered more to larger markets. This has now eased, as have the international prices of fertilisers, which have come off their 2022 peaks. But there is still a problem of affordability since domestic prices remain high in many African countries due to depreciating currencies or other factors.

What is the annual demand and use of fertilisers in Africa?

Estimated annual consumption in Africa is 15 million tons. Consumption is estimated to have declined between 5.0 percent (by the International Fertilizer Association) and 25 percent (by the International Fertilizer Development Center).

How much fertiliser is Africa currently producing and are we able to meet continental demand?

Africa produces double of what it consumes – circa 30m tons, but a significant portion of that is exported. A case in point is Nigeria where there is now substantial production of nitrogenous fertilisers. The three major producers are Indormana, Notore and since last year also Dangote. The product is there for the Nigerian market and efforts are made to export to other West African countries.

But a large share of the total Nigerian production is being exported outside the continent. These are the realities of the market: a new plant like Dangote likely needed to show strong offtake agreements in order to attract the financing necessary for building a large facility, and export markets such as Brazil and India are much larger and more attractive than the African market where fertiliser consumption is still relatively low and the markets are not as developed.

How are fertiliser companies coping with global supply chain disruptions?

The reverberations of the RussiaUkraine conflict were widespread, compounded by some fertiliser export restrictions imposed by countries like China keen to ensure sufficient supply for domestic use. Over time trade flows have been altered.

What can be done to wean Africa of fertiliser imports?

Considering that today, Africa imports of circa 90 percent of its fertiliser use (and would require more if farmers would increase their use), it would not be possible to wean Africa completely of fertiliser imports in the foreseeable future.

However, keeping more of the fertilisers already produced in Africa or increasing that production and marketing it only in African markets (rather than larger, more lucrative markets) would help ease the reliance on imports. But it takes several years and it is very costly to build new fertiliser mines and plants. And non-African markets remain more attractive than African markets given transportation infrastructure, trade and regulatory bottlenecks, inadequate access to finance for farmers, agro input dealers, etc.

It is important to remember that even with increased production on the continent, countries would have to import from other African countries since it is neither realistic nor a good idea to build up a fertiliser industry in all 54 countries! The end game – whether fertilizers are sourced from imports and/or production in the continent – is to have a viable fertiliser market facilitated by increased yield responses to fertilisers and better offtake prices in order to increase the fertiliser crop price ratio so as to incentivise the use of fertilisers.

Improved infrastructure, improved intra-African trade and aligned regulatory regimes are also crucial to make fertiliser markets work more efficiently. Extension services can support farmers to apply fertilisers more efficiently and provide advice on integrating organic fertilisers, or support farmers switch to less fertiliser-intensive crops.

Smallholder farmers struggle with high fertiliser prices annually. What actions can be taken to ease the pain of high prices?

Many governments have fertiliser subsidy schemes to make fertilisers more affordable. Fertiliser subsidies can take up a significant portion of government expenditures, especially in a high price environment, and cannot always be maintained. Subsidy schemes can be improved through better targeting and ensuring that they do not distort markets.

Providing cash transfers to smallholders who may not see much return on their fertiliser use (due to poor rainfall or other less than ideal growing conditions, suboptimal practices and information)

may be a good alternative to fertiliser subsidies which might be of more benefit to struggling farming households and possibly decrease the budgetary pressure on government.

What are the latest innovations or business solutions to make fertilisers affordable?

With regard to Africa, there are some long-standing issues that if solved, would help to make fertilisers more affordable. It’s important to provide farmers, especially women farmers, greater access to finance, and to ensure good linkages to both input and output markets.

Financing is also required for the fertiliser supply chain. Even prior to the Ukraine crisis, fertiliser prices in Africa were higher than elsewhere due to hurdles in moving fertilisers to the final consumer and trade and regulatory bottlenecks.

On the industrial side, “green ammonia” produced from electrolysis powered by renewable energy is being explored as a much climate friendlier alternative to ammonia produced from traditional ammonia production which is heavily reliant on the use of fossil fuels. The technology could – if it becomes economically viable – also potentially make nitrogenous fertiliser more affordable or if taken up in a way that leads to more plants (some start-ups are even looking at mini green ammonia production sites at the farm level) reduce transportation costs.

Do you see the rise of agroecological/sustainable farming practices such as conservation farming, minimum tillage, and regenerative agriculture having an impact in Africa at all?

These practices are important for two reasons – they can provide more organic plant nutrients, but they also improve soil health (many African soils are depleted) which, in turn, is important for improving fertiliser response. Organic and inorganic fertilisers both play an important role in integrated nutrient management, something being looked at in the CGIAR initiative on Excellence in Agronomy.

According to the First Resolution of the Abuja Declaration on fertilisers, African governments agreed to increase fertiliser use from an average of 8.0kg of nutrients per hectare to 50kg of nutrients per hectare by 2015. Have any African countries met this target?

Yes. But most countries in subSaharan Africa still use below 25 kg per hectare.

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