More intensive use of chemical fertilizer is known to be a prerequisite for a rapid increase in the agricultural output of ACP countries. Since the food crisis of 2007, more and more African governments have decided to subsidise these costly inputs, in a bid to make them more accessible to producers.

"You cannot feed six billion people today and nine billion in 2050 without judicious use of chemical fertilizers", declared FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf, back in 2007. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, farmers use just 8 kg/ha of fertiliser a year, compared with a global annual average of 90 kg/ha. Even more alarming, a study by the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) reveals that 85% of the continent's arable land lost an annual average of 30 kg/ha of nutrients between 2000 and 2004. Soil degradation is a particular cause for concern in tropical Africa, where the earth's ability to retain water is now less efficient in many regions. The problem is less marked in the Caribbean, but there is no room for complacency given the increasing pressure on land and natural resources due to population growth and urbanisation. Sound management of soil and other resources plays a key role in productivity.

Poor access to mineral fertilizer is the main obstacle to a greater use of these inputs in ACP countries. Frequently imported, fertilizer is expensive due to the cost of transport, as well as import tariffs, weak competition and scattered demand. "Transporting fertilizers from an African seaport to a farm 100 km inland can cost more than shipping the same fertilizers from North America to the African seaport. As a result, African smallholders pay two to four times the average world price for fertilizer", observes the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Paying €1/kg of fertilizer, as is the case in Burundi, when farmers do not earn that figure in a week, is unthinkable. The sharp hike in oil prices in 2007 has pushed fertilizer costs even higher: they rose fourfold between the beginning of 2007 and mid-2008 and are still twice as high as before the crisis.

The Abuja Declaration

In 2006, at Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria, the Africa Fertilizer Summit set a goal of boosting fertilizer use from an annual 8 kg/ha to at least 50 kg by 2015. In its final declaration, the Summit urged more local fertilizer production, the removal of taxes and import tariffs on these products and the creation of financial mechanisms to make it more accessible. It proposed the creation of a fund, to be hosted by the African Development Bank (ADB), to finance programmes aimed at boosting fertilizer use. It also called on member States to grant subsidies to the fertilizer sector with support from African development partners, with a special focus on poor farmers.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund opposed such aid as a matter of principle. But the 2007 food crisis and the success of the subsidy policy pursued by Malawi since 2005 have caused them to soften their position. In response to the crisis, the World Bank funded the distribution of subsidised fertilizer. As part of this programme, Benin has, since late 2008, benefited of US$7.5 million (€5.5 million) which has enabled it to purchase and distribute 9,800 t of fertilizer to 50,000 small-scale producers of maize and rice. At the beginning of 2010, Benin's government announced a record harvest of 1.2 million t of maize - 350,000 t more than the national requirement.

Mali also responded to the price rise in imported products with a policy aimed at boosting rice production. The Rice Initiative seeks to reduce imports and increase the country's food sovereignty. "Thanks to fertilizer, average yields have increased from 1.5 t/ha in 2008 to between 2.3 and 2.5 t in 2009", said Adama Berthé, Director General at the Mopti rice office. By subsidising fertilizer, Mali's government has cut costs by half. The success of this initiative has prompted the Minister for Agriculture to extend the subsidy to maize and wheat production for the 2010-2011 season.

Earlier, Malawi, which suffered a devastating famine in 2005, had decided to help its smallholder farmers by making fertilizer available to them at subsidised prices. Yields increased dramatically and maize production reached 3.6 million t - more than double the country's requirements. Just a year earlier, Malawi had imported 400,000 t of the crop, according to President Bingu wa Mutharika, who is also Minister for Agriculture, (quoted by Kenyan newspaper, The East African). Dyborn Chibonga, executive secretary of the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi (NASFAM) is enthusiastic about this approach and claims that: "it is much cheaper to help people produce than to help them to consume imported food. It is a process that is far more sustainable and much less expensive." A number of other African countries have followed Malawi's experience with interest.

But increased use of fertilizer is not enough on its own. It has to be accompanied by a clear and decisive policy and improved farming practices in soil and water management, for example.

West African initiatives

One major challenge lies in ensuring that subsidised fertilizer actually reaches the people for whom it is intended. On numerous occasions, inputs have been distributed unfairly, often grabbed by the richest farmers, who are also the most informed, while those who really needed them have been sidelined. In 2008, in an effort to overcome this hurdle, the IFDC, together with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) launched a system in Ghana and Nigeria that involves the private sector. Money for the subsidy is first deposited in a bank. Instead of distributing fertilizer itself, the agricultural ministry issues coupons with which the farmers pay the dealer at a subsidised price. The dealer then takes the coupons to the bank which, in exchange, hands over a cash sum that is equal to the subsidy. In Nigeria, 140,000 farmers from Kano State and 80,000 from Taraba State benefited from this system. "This way, fertilizer diversion, adulteration and political patronage using fertilizer have been eliminated in the two states", said the IFDC's Belo Yakasai.

Another initiative, a project aimed at promoting markets for regional agricultural inputs in Central and West Africa (MIR), has, since 2004, been seeking to remove obstacles to fertilizer trade within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region. The project is the result of a partnership between the IFDC, ECOWAS, the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) and USAID. After 3 years, inter-regional trade for organisations and companies taking part in the initiative had risen by 20%.

Yet another issue is the sustainability of these subsidies, unless governments decide to include them in their budgets over the long term. Less interventionist alternatives being explored include the purchase of fertilizer in bulk by farmers groups. Another approach, currently pursued in Niger by the national network of farmers' groups RECA as part of a project to boost agriculture by strengthening cooperative fertilizer stores (IARBIC), uses a credit system based on a 'buffer fund'. The fund fulfils the same role as seasonal credit and enables farmers to have access to the money they need when it is time to buy fertilizer. They repay the loan after the harvest.

Micro-credit is another strategy: the farmer borrows money to buy his fertilizer and pays it back when he sells his output. But such systems are still not well developed and in any case, they do not resolve the problem of the high cost of fertilizer. So if influencing prices is not an option, it is important to promote farming or fertilizer techniques that limit the amount that needs to be used.

And as with all measures seeking to boost output, there needs to be a steady flow of products on markets where the supply of foodstuffs still fails to keep up with demand. Close coordination with trade policies is therefore crucial to the success of these initiatives.

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