Declining food production in Southern Africa has shifted the region's focus to improving small-scale farmers' access to agricultural inputs like fertilisers.
"For each kilogramme of fertiliser applied per hectare, a minimum yield of more than 3 kg of grain can be produced. Our farmers are applying 16 kg/ha, while the desirable level is 100 kg/ha," noted Samuel Muchena, head of the Zimbabwe-based African Centre for Fertiliser Development (ACFD).
Fertilisers account for one-third of the increase in cereal production worldwide, and 50 percent of the increase in India's grain production, according to the UN Food and agriculture Organization (FAO).
But most of Southern Africa's 20 million farmers are applying smaller quantities of fertilisers. "The reason simply is that of accessibility and availability," said Muchena.
The FAO warned last year that unless the nearly 70 million smallholder families in sub-Saharan Africa adopted sustainable integrated soil fertility and land and water management practices on their farms within the next decade, they "will seriously jeopardise their long-term food security, productivity and incomes, while environmental degradation will accelerate."
The UN agency suggested that average fertiliser application rates in sub-Saharan Africa needed to increase from 9 kg/ha to 23 kg/ha within the next decade to prevent continuous mining of plant nutrients in the soil and low productivity.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been considering several options at the regional level.
Most of Southern Africa's fertiliser requirement is imported. It is shipped to the ports of either South Africa or Mozambique for forwarding, but many countries in the region lack efficient distribution systems and infrastructure, roads and rail transport, to supply the inputs to their rural areas cost-effectively, so by the time the fertiliser arrives at a village the farmer often pays at least three times the original price.
"The price of common urea in the global market is about US $200 per tonne at present, but because of transport, poor storage facilities, the price for a farmer in Africa goes up to $300 or even $400 per tonne," said Muchena.
To address the question of availability and accessibility, SADC is considering the possibility of setting up a regional fertiliser manufacturing plant, but has yet to conduct a feasibility study, which will take at least another five years, Muchena pointed out.
The ACFD is currently working with six countries in the region - Angola, South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe - to assess the availability of fertilisers and the level and ease of access in each country.
According to the FAO, improved procurement and marketing practices could reduce transaction costs. FAO studies in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe have shown that the distance to roads and fertiliser retail outlets, and availability at planting time were significant factors in determining fertiliser demand.
An important component in building demand for inputs is to improve farmers' knowledge of fertiliser products and application. While cash crops sometimes receive fertiliser applications, in Africa food crops hardly ever do.
Improving farmers' knowledge of the doses and combinations of fertilisers to be applied, particularly in drought-affected regions, should be a priority, said Jan Poulisse, a senior officer with FAO's land and plant nutrition management service.
The International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has been involved in determining appropriate doses of fertiliser, and "their findings have already been very beneficial", explained Poulisse, helping to improve fertiliser recommendations and usage in Malawi and Zimbabwe.
"We have noticed that microdosing of fertilisers, applied whenever there is a little rain in drought-affected areas, have been very effective," said Muchena. Microdosing is based on research proving that small doses of fertiliser are beneficial when there is a good moisture level in the soil. "Farmers need to be better informed about the weather conditions, so they can prepare to apply the fertiliser whenever a little rain is expected."
ACFD has also developed an integrated farming system, which has helped improve soil and water conservation, crop yields, cash incomes and soil fertility, and provided a more balanced diet. This farming system combines proper and timely input use of both organic and mineral fertilisers, liming, seed and agrochemicals, with eco-friendly farming practices such as diversified cropping. This has improved maize yields from 1 to 5 tonnes/ha to 2.7 to 9.3 tonnes/ha.
Many agriculture analysts believe that lower fertiliser costs and attractive produce prices for farmers, in conjunction with ample fertiliser availability, would stimulate demand.
According to FAO, research in Africa has shown that improving farmers' crop prices has also helped stimulate fertiliser use. "It is highly significant that changes in crop prices have a greater impact than changes in the cost of fertilisers. Research into the price elasticity of fertiliser demand shows that a one-percent increase in the crop price will be at least 25 percent more effective than a one-percent reduction in both the short- and long-term cost of fertiliser."
In the 1990s most of the countries in the region, under pressure from donors, dismantled their state marketing boards, which had determined food-crop prices and subsidised input distribution.
Countries like Zambia rushed into liberalisation when the private sector was not developed. According to an International Monetary Fund document, "there were initially few agents [in Zambia] to take advantage of the new opportunities. There were few private traders: even by 1996 only 40 percent of farmers were within 5 kilometers of a food market, and only about one- quarter of farmers received satisfactory information on output markets."
Muchena suggested that in countries with parastatals, governments could continue controlling prices, but where free markets existed, buyers or millers could let farmers know the prices on offer in advance to help them plan their purchase and use of inputs.
Poulisse recommended the creation of an environment to strengthen the local fertiliser industry and private sector involvement in the distribution of inputs.
"Importing fertilisers is a very high-risk business: traders hike up prices, as they have to take the fluctuating values of their respective currencies into consideration," he pointed out.
To help reduce costs, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) is considering the establishment of a fertiliser trade credit fund, at an estimated cost of US $100 million to $175 million, to underwrite any losses incurred by importers: "until we develop our own manufacturing capabilities, this is the only option to make importation cheaper," Muchena commented.
The ACFD has been developing initiatives with the private sector. In the early 1990s, CARE, the humanitarian agency, along with ACFD and the private sector, established a network of rural retail agro-dealers in Zimbabwe, with the intention of improving access to inputs and lowering transaction costs and prices.
Dealers were identified in various rural communities and trained. CARE initially purchased inputs from regional wholesalers and supplied dealers; later in the decade, dealers could source inputs directly from manufacturers. More than 2,000 rural dealers were trained, with each dealer reaching at least 100 farmers, pointed out Muchena. This system was undermined when the government decided to take over the supply of inputs and provide them directly to farmers.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions