Africa - capable of being the breadbasket for the continent - needs to increase the use of improved inputs such as fertilizer to address poor productivity and help farmers cope with challenges one of which is climate change.
Greater use of fertiliser is being touted as one of the tools in Africa's arsenal to fight poor agriculture productivity and food insecurity.
Fertilizer use in Sub Saharan Africa is on average below 10 kg/ha, says the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA). The poor use of fertiliser is attributed to among other factors, lack of infrastructure, lack of quality inputs, feeble distribution networks and lack of roads, storage facilities as well as local blending units maintain the cost of fertilizer significantly higher than in other regions of the world.
In addition, to helping Africa boost the productivity of its farmers, fertilizer is strategic to helping the farmers cope with climate change, argues the IFA, noting that fertilizer production, distribution and use account for between 2-3 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions resulting from agriculture.
"Fertilizers can have a positive impact on climate change," says Charlotte Hebebrand, IFA director general. "Because fertilizers contribute to plant growth, and plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), fertilizers can help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the atmosphere. The use of fertilizers directs carbon from the atmosphere to the plant, and then from the plant to the soil, where it can be trapped in soil organic matter."
Hebebrand says the fertilizer industry helps farmers grow more food on land already in production.
"Fertilizer use helps protect forests, which play a critical role in capturing and storing carbon," says Hebebrand. "According to the IPCC Fourth Assessment report, 89 percent of agriculture’s future mitigation potential is based on soil carbon sequestration. Fertilizer use helps restore land degraded by deforestation through adding nutrients to the soil, promoting crop production, and thereby capturing carbon. Overall, when used appropriately, fertilizers are one of the tools that can help farmers become more resilient to climate change by increasing their production in a sustainable manner that reduces GHG emissions."
IFA together with the African Fertilizer and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP) in August launched a campaign in Ethiopia targeting African leaders to act on input access to farmers for agricultural transformation and economic development.
Prof. Richard Mkandawire, AFAP Vice-President, says working with its many partners in Africa AFAP will take the campaign next to the UN Committee on World Food Security in Rome this year.
Agriculture employs as much as 60 percent of Africa's labour force but only accounts for 25 percent of the continent's GDP because of low productivity, according to the Africa Economic Outlook Report 2013, published jointly by the African Development Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the UN Development Programme.
Africa has all the potential to feed itself and the world boasting of abundant land, vast water resources, a favourable climate and growing global interest as an investment destination. According to World Bank estimates more than 50 percent of global fertiliser and foreign direct investment in African agriculture is forecast to grow to more than $45 billion in 2020.
African's low productivity is compounded by limited access to new technologies, poor soils and lack of markets for small holder farmer who keep the continent fed. Without adequate and timely inputs farmers even fail to need their own household food needs, underlying the need for urgent action to embrace increased use of improved inputs such as seeds and fertilizers in addition to enhanced financial investment into agriculture.
African governments have committed themselves to a number of frameworks to restore the viability of agriculture as a driver of economic growth. The Maputo Declaration of 2004 calls on African governments to invest at least 10 percent of national budget into agriculture, while the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) calls for a 6 percent annual growth in agricultural production. However, only nine out of Africa's 54 countries have to date invested 10 percent of their budget into agriculture.
Just two years after signing the Maputo Declaration, African Heads of State and Government committed to the 2006 Abuja Declaration recognising fertilizer as crucial in achieving an African Green Revolution and underlined the urgent need for a strategic investment programme to increase the availability and use of fertilizer alongside with other inputs.
Under the Abuja Declaration African countries should increase the level of use of fertilizer from the average of 8 kilograms per hectare to an average of at least 50 kilograms per hectare by 2015. However, none of the African countries have to date reached the 50kg/hectare threshold. Malawi using its input subsidy programme has been able to increase its fertilizer use to 33 kg/hectare, a triple increased from the 10kg hectare in the 1990s.
Many soils in Africa's cropped areas are leached nutrients because of years of weathering resulting in highly acidic soils in Sub Saharan Africa, soil fertility maps show. The 2014 Atlas of African agriculture research and development published by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) indicates that about 80 percent of SSA’s cropland is not considered highly suitable for agriculture, because the extremely weathered soil limits farmers’ yields. The atlas indicates that low-input farming further degrades soils when farmers fail to replenish nutrient reserves mined by crops.
But investment in a range of inputs, including the push for greater fertilizer use by African farmers is not the solution to increasing production, argues the World Development Movement, a UK based, anti-poverty campaigning organisation. In a April 2014, report, Carving up a continent: How the UK government is facilitating the corporate takeover of African food systems, WDM says alongside multinational seed companies, major global producers of fertilisers and pesticides are keen to develop new markets and win market share in Africa but this introduces social and environmental risks for small-scale producers and contributes to a less environmentally sustainable global food system.
"Encouraging increased use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides by African farmers with the rationale of increasing production and therefore food security, provides a convenient way for major agrichemical companies to increase their sales and profits," says the report. "Yet many small-scale farmers do not want to become reliant on artificial fertilisers and pesticides because of the problems they cause.
WDM further says in addition to the dangers of soil and water pollution from agrichemical use, fertiliser production is highly energy intensive. The Movement says many small-scale farmers use and want to improve agro ecological methods enable the production of good quality food products while enhancing soil fertility, making sustainable use of natural resources and avoiding pollution of the local or global environment.