Sub-Saharan farmers are being denied high yields because they cannot afford the chemical means to replenish nutrient-depleted soil
The ‘container village’ in Kampala is Uganda’s main agricultural trading centre.
The bunches of bananas that Teo Kataratambi and her husband, Silver, grow on their land fetch the equivalent of only £1.40 each. The larger bunches that they used to grow sold for double that amount.
A few years ago, though, the Kataratambis noticed a drop in the size and quality of the fruit they produce on their small third-generation farm in Nyamiyada village, south-west Uganda.
“In the first years, the soil was good but then it changed,” says Silver. Teo adds: “We don’t make much money. We can’t break even.”
The change was caused by years of farming without using sufficient fertilisers to replenish the soil’s nutrients. The result, as the Kataratambis now see, is poor crop yields.
In contrast with their counterparts in the global north and Asia, many farmers in sub-Saharan Africa rely on manure rather than chemical fertilisers. But the organic alternative cannot meet the demand.
In Europe, organic farming makes up only 5.4% of all agricultural land, according to Eurostat. Food and Agriculture Organisation data shows that, globally, less than 1% of agricultural land is farmed using organic methods.
Organic fertiliser can help freshen up Africa’s ailing, rusty-red soils, but there is not enough land available to produce manure in sufficient quantities, says Professor Ken Giller, a soil scientist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. One cow can produce about 15kg of nitrogen in manure annually. But a healthy maize crop needs up to 100kg of nitrogen a hectare, Giller says.
Manure doesn’t contain all the nutrients that plants need to grow, adds Giller, leader of the N2Africa programme, which encourages African farmers to grow legumes to help fertilise their soil. Harvests have stagnated on the continent since the 1960s, according to data from the World Bank. On average, farmers in Africa harvest about one ton of maize (corn) a hectare, whereas their American counterparts reap up to 12 tons.
“Sub-Saharan Africa has by far the lowest rate of improved seed and fertiliser use of any region … [leading to] increased hunger and food insecurity,” says Sarwat Hussain, a World Bank spokesperson. Ugandan farmers are among those that use fertiliser the least.
The changing climate and booming populations will add further demands on Africa’s overworked soils. At the UN climate change conference in Lima, Peru, in December, politicians and scientists will discuss the impact on agriculture and the role of fertiliser.
African farmers are sometimes put off chemical fertiliser because of cost. The Kataratambis say they can’t afford to buy chemical fertilisers – consistently.
A bag of fertiliser could cost Ugandan farmers the equivalent of £40 – double the sum paid by their American or European counterparts. Much of the extra expense comes from import and transport fees, since chemical fertiliser is often manufactured abroad. Some economists claim international fertiliser companies are manipulating the market by charging certain African nations more than richer countries.
Martin Byamukama, sales manager of a fertiliser dealership, sits in a quiet alcove off the main drag of Kampala’s bustling Container Village – the country’s main trading area for agricultural products. Byamukama and his colleagues travel by road to Kenya to buy fertiliser (Uganda is land-locked). This travel ramps up the cost. Byamukama calculates that it costs him about £4.60 in fuel, import and loading fees to transport a 50kg bag of phosphate fertiliser from Mombassa in Kenya back to Kampala. Byamukama’s customers – farmers and smaller fertiliser dealers, many of whom work in villages around 200km away – can add another £14 to the bill.
About 1,800 meters up Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda, Betty Liaibich’s one acre plot of rocky land feeds her 10 children and pays for their school fees. Her success is down to her tenacity and the chemical fertiliser she uses each season on her maize, beans and cabbages.
Roughly 20 years ago, Uganda’s publicly funded National Agricultural Research Organisation showed Liaibich and her neigbours how fertiliser works. They have been using it ever since.
“Once you have introduced fertiliser, you won’t go back,” says Liaibich.
Fertiliser is slightly cheaper here. The area is close to Kenya, and local dealers cross the border to Kitale to import the fertiliser themselves, rather than buying from Ugandan middle men. But still, Liaibich and her neighbours cannot afford to buy the recommended amounts to get the best out of their crops.
Subsidising the cost of fertiliser could encourage farmers to use more. National subsidy schemes in Malawi and Rwanda are showing some success. But they are controversial; the World Bank warns that subsidies often benefit the wealthiest farmers rather the poorest, and that they can stifle the private sector and economic development.
Organisations such as the FAO are pushing for greener solutions, including encouraging farmers to grow trees and legumes to fertilise the soil. But most experts agree Africa’s green revolution can’t blossom (pdf) without chemical fertiliser.
“Using legumes is a great way to help fertilise the soil, but we recognise that, on its own, it is not enough,” says Giller. “The bottom line is there is not enough in the system to keep it going organically.”
The process of revitalising African farming must be based on both conventional and alternative approaches, agrees Dr Bashir Jama, who runs a programme on soil health for the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), an NGO working to improve food security.
There is more to improving soil health than chemical fertilisers, says Jama, but they are essential to increasing production and meeting the goal to end hunger in Africa by 2025, which was agreed by African leaders in June.
Without fertilisers, Jama warns, farmers will increasingly struggle to feed their families as the drain of nutrients from African soils becomes a major threat to food security on the continent over the next 20 years.
“It is a misconception to say Africa can grow crops using just organics. The rest of the world is fed using fertiliser,” says Jama.
Chemical fertiliser can help kickstart Africa’s farms and, as crop yields rise over time, farmers can use the extra crop residues as organic manure, and so reduce their dependence on chemical fertiliser, suggests Jama.
Organic approaches are more sustainable in the long run, he says, but chemical fertiliser use is unlikely to grow in Africa to the levels seen in the West and Asia that cause environmental problems, he says. Without fertilisers, Jama warns, some vulnerable countries, including Niger, will struggle to feed their growing populations in as little as three years.
• The reporting trip to Uganda was facilitated by an innovation in development reporting grant from the European Journalism Centre