Fertilizer Use in Africa

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Fertilizer Use in Africa became a hot topic in 2006 with the Africa Fertilizer Summit June 9-13, 2006 in Abuja, Nigeria, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation (among others). The summit ended with the Abuja Declaration on Fertilizer for African Green Revolution, a commitment by African governments to increase fertilizer use in Africa from 8.0 kg/ha to 50.0 kg/ha by 2015. At the Summit, Jeffrey Sachs was a major proponent of fertilizer subsidies. In 2007, the World Bank released a report on African fertilizer use, largely discouraging subsidies but making other recommendations, which is summarized in this article.

Synthetic fertilizer use (and promotion of synthetic fertilizer use) is controversial as equal or greater crop yields can be achieved using organic methods and as synthetic fertilizer is made from nonrenewable resources and results in environmental degradation, among other reasons.

2007 World Bank Report on Fertilizer

The Call for Increased Fertilizer Use as a Prerequisite for Increased Agricultural Yields

In 1962, fertilizer use was low throughout the Global South: 3 kg/ha in South Asia, 12 kg/ha in East and Southeast Asia, 10 kg/ha in Latin America, and only 1 kg/ha in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the next 20 years saw fertilizer skyrocket in all regions except Sub-Saharan Africa: to 38 kg/ha in South Asia, 53 kg/ha in East and Southeast Asia, and 43 kg/ha in Latin America. At that time, fertilizer use was only 7 kg/ha in Sub-Saharan Africa. By 2002, South Asia was using 101 kg/ha, East and Southeast Asia was at 96 kg/ha, and Latin America was at 78 kg/ha in 2002. Sub-Saharan Africa was then using only 8 kg/ha of fertilizer.[1]

The World Bank correlates the low use of fertilizer in Sub-Saharan Africa to low cereal yields and lack of growth in yields over time:

  • "In 2000, cereal yields in Sub-Saharan Africa averaged just under 1.0 metric tons per hectare, while yields in East and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and South Asia averaged 3.4, 2.9, and 2.4 metric tons, respectively.
  • "Between 1980 and 2000, cereal yields in Africa grew at an average annual rate of only 0.7 percent, whereas yield growth rates in other developing regions ranged from 1.2 to 2.3 percent."
"Low fertilizer use is one of the major factors explaining lagging growth in agricultural productivity in Africa relative to other regions."[1]

History of Fertilizer Promotion in Africa

Promotion of synthetic fertilizer use in Africa began decades ago. "During the 1970s and early 1980s, fertilizer programs in Africa were often characterized by large, direct government expenditures using various entry points to stimulate fertilizer demand and ensure supply."[1] This included direct fertilizer subsidies, government input credit programs, centralized control of fertilizer procurement and distribution, and centralized control of key output markets "(with the goal of stabilizing prices and linking input and output markets to ensure smoother credit management)." According to the World Bank, these programs were expensive and thus fiscally unsustainable, governments "lacked capacity to implement them effectively," and the programs did not meet the diverse needs of many farmers.

During the 1980s and 1990s, under fiscal deficits and Structural Adjustment Programs, African governments changed their course. "The most salient changes included privatization or dissolution of government input supply agencies and liberalization of the fertilizer sector (for example, removal of price controls, elimination of subsidies, and dismantling of state fertilizer distribution agencies)."[1]

As the private sector did not step in to increase fertilizer use among African farmers, as of the early 2000s, African governments are seeking to get involved once again.

World Bank Recommendations

In 2007, the World Bank offered "Ten Guiding Principles for Public Interventions." These are:[1]

  • 1. "Promote fertilizer as part of a wider strategy.
  • 2. Favor market-based solutions.
  • 3. Promote competition.
  • 4. Pay attention to demand.
  • 5. Insist on economic efficiency.
  • 6. Empower farmers.
  • 7. Devise an exit strategy.
  • 8. Pursue regional integration.
  • 9. Ensure sustainability.
  • 10. Promote pro-poor growth."

In advising African governments on how to get involved in promoting fertilizer use, the World Bank advised taking a long-term perspective and advised against limiting interventions to fertilizer subsidies. "Public interventions can be used to help farmers, but they can also be used to help fertilizer importers and manufacturers, fertilizer distributors at the wholesale and retail levels, financial services providers, and other key actors on the supply side," says the Bank. They recommend:

"Public interventions that can be used to strengthen demand for fertilizer include
  • "strengthening agricultural research and extension (for example, by increasing support to organizations that conduct crop management research and by sponsoring on-farm fertilizer trials and demonstrations),
  • "improving farmers’ ability to purchase fertilizer (for example, by improving their access to credit or by introducing cost-sharing mechanisms such as matching grants),
  • "providing farmers with financial tools to better manage risk (for example, by introducing innovative insurance instruments tailored to the needs of farmers — such as weather-indexed crop insurance),
  • "improving market information (for example, by increasing investment in market information systems and building capacity in the private sector to manage such systems on a commercial basis),
  • "protecting farmers against low and volatile output prices (for example, by investing in measures to reduce production variability — such as irrigation, research on drought-tolerant crops, and grain storage systems),
  • "empowering farmers by supporting producer organizations (for example, by increasing investment in rural education and by offering farmers training in organizational management skills), and
  • "improving the agricultural resource base so that use of fertilizer can be more profitable (for example, by investing in soil and water conservation measures and irrigation infrastructure).
"Public interventions that can be used to strengthen supply of fertilizer include
  • "reducing fertilizer sourcing costs (for example, by lowering trade barriers, adopting common quality standards, and harmonizing approval processes to increase the size of national and regional markets, which would allow fertilizer importers and eventually manufacturers to capture economies of size and scope),
  • "reducing fertilizer distribution costs (for example, by improving road and rail infrastructure to reduce high transport costs),
  • "strengthening business finance and risk management instruments (for example, by implementing credit guarantee schemes and innovative types of insurance), and
  • "improving supply chain coordination mechanisms (for example, by enacting and enforcing regulations relating to product grades and standards and by introducing market information systems that can help to reduce information costs)."

The World Bank discourages policy makers from using fertilizer subsidies, but does feel that they can play a role:

"Although the long-term objective of policy makers must be to support the emergence of viable private sector–led fertilizer markets, use of subsidies may be justifiable on a temporary basis to stimulate increased fertilizer use in the short run. If fertilizer subsidies are to be used, however, they should be implemented in ways that encourage the efficient uptake of fertilizer as part of a integrated package of improved crop production technologies, and they should not distort the relative price of fertilizer so as to encourage economically inefficient use."

Fertilizer: A Necessity?

In 2007, the World Bank stated: [1]

"In every region of the world, the intensification of crop-based agriculture has been associated with a sharp increase in the use of chemical fertilizer. Given the generally low levels of fertilizer use in Africa, there can be little doubt that fertilizer use must increase in Africa if the region is to meet its agricultural growth targets, poverty reduction goals, and environmental sustainability objectives. For this reason, policies and programs are needed to encourage fertilizer use in ways that are technically efficient, economically rational, and market-friendly." (emphasis added)

However, it has been well demonstrated that organic farming (farming with zero synthetic fertilizer) produces yields that match conventional farming (with fertilizer) and organic farming yields exceeded conventional yields in years of drought.[2] While it is quite true that farming without any source of fertility is sure to fail, proven alternatives to synthetic fertilizer such as manure, cover cropping, crop rotation, mulching, and compost can provide enough nutrients to the soil and to the plants.

Additionally, synthetic fertilizer:

  • Is made from non-renewable materials (typically natural gas)
  • Depletes organic matter from the soil
  • Adds carbon to the atmosphere
  • Leaches out of the soil, polluting waterways and drinking water, and sometimes resulting in fish kills and dead zones
  • Kills soil microorganisms that benefit plants
  • Harms the soil's ability to absorb and hold water, making crops more vulnerable to drought and flood

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Michael Morris, Valerie A. Kelly, Ron J. Kopicki, and Derek Byerlee, "Fertilizer Use in African Agriculture: Lessons Learned and Good Practice Guidelines," World Bank, 2007.
  2. The Farm Systems Trial Celebrating 30 Years, Accessed April 2, 2012.

External Articles