Boosting African farm yields

Citing the potential environmental risks to African soils and water sources from too much chemical fertiliser being applied to farms – as sometimes happened during Asia’s “green revolution” – proponents of sustainable agriculture in Africa argue that farmers should use more animal manure, compost and other organic fertilisers. If farmers better integrate stock-raising with crop cultivation, cattle and other livestock could provide them with not only more manure but also with animal traction for ploughing fields and hauling crops after they are harvested.

While organic fertilisers are important, agrees Roy, he points to a serious limitation. “The quality of animal manure is dependent on the quality of the food the animals are fed.” With much soil severely depleted, he says, “the fodder contains little of the nutrients needed by crops”. Organic fertilisers alone “are simply not the answer to the crisis of Africa’s soil fertility. We need to increase the use of both organic and chemical fertilisers.”

The CAADP makes the same point. Under the new, integrated approach to African agriculture advocated by NEPAD, “mineral fertilisers and organic matter are treated as complements rather than substitutes”.

One way to make chemical fertilisers more available and affordable is to increase local production. This can reduce costs, ease the pressure on foreign currency reserves and shorten the supply chain to farmers. Although Africa consumes only about 1% of global fertiliser production and currently produces even less, prospects for the commercial manufacture of fertilisers are good. Nitrogen is among the most common elements on earth, but converting it into use for plants is energy-intensive. West Africa’s vast and largely untapped natural gas resources, notes Roy, therefore make the region ideally suited for the manufacture of nitrogen fertiliser. Africa also has ample deposits of phosphorus and already exports the mineral to Chinese and Indian farmers. If these minerals can be utilised in local production, Africa would need to import only potassium fertiliser.

But investment in fertiliser production will only come in response to increased demand from farmers, Roy asserts. Persuading Africa’s family farmers that purchasing fertiliser is worth the money and effort will require significant improvements in rural transport networks and infrastructure, an expanded network of rural farm suppliers and markets, and greater financial returns, including protection from price fluctuations and subsidised northern competitors.

Fertiliser no ‘silver bullet’

“Fertiliser is not a silver bullet for Africa’s agricultural problems,” Roy admits. “The fertiliser doesn’t help if it arrives too late, or the crops aren’t watered or you can’t sell the harvest. Farmers know this. That is why CAADP is so important. It addresses the needs of farmers comprehensively.”

In the face of erratic and unreliable rainfall in large swaths of East and Southern Africa, expanding the acreage of irrigated land is also urgent. Former UN Food and Agriculture Organisation director-general Jacques Diouf once complained to a group of African agriculture ministers that only a portion (around 4%) of sub-Saharan Africa’s arable land is irrigated, compared with 38% in Asia. Although much of Africa has abundant water supplies, he further added, “the region uses less than 3% of its water resources, the lowest percentage of the developing world”. NEPAD researchers have estimated the initial investment of irrigating 20m more hectares of African farmland at US$37bn, with an additional $31bn in operating costs through 2015.

Rebuilding rural supply networks and marketing systems so farmers have the means and incentives to produce more is another major challenge. Government-run agriculture marketing boards used to perform some of these functions, providing stable prices, credit extension services, improved seeds and technology to local farmers.

Roy says that expanding private sector involvement in rural marketing and supply activities is a long-term solution. But he acknowledges that high poverty rates in the countryside and the need for “public goods” like roads and markets give African governments a key role in creating incentives for private investment.

Finally, Roy observes: “Africa needs to do a better job in applying science and technology to agricultural problems, and getting those advances to the farmer more quickly.” Here too there are encouraging signs.

Expanded and more effective extension services can also bring big dividends by improving land- and water-management techniques, introducing new techniques (such as rotating crops and mixing different crops on the same farm) and bringing scientific expertise and new technologies to farmers quickly.

“The African farmer is primarily a woman farmer,” Roy concludes. “And she is a good farmer who can feed her family and her continent if she is given the tools and the opportunities to do so.”

This article was first published by African Renewal