Nelly Bassily | September 28, 2009
Farmers in many parts of Africa are suffering today. Whether from flooding or drought, crops have been devastated. But in some areas, there is reason to celebrate.
Abdu Mohammed is a farmer in Kano State, northern Nigeria. He says the quantities of millet they are harvesting are “wonderful.” All of his community’s crops – maize, guineacorn, groundnuts, and beans – are maturing well. Mr. Mohammed says yields are expected to surpass those of last year. Farmers in Kano say there are two reasons for good crops this year: good rains and fertilizer provided by the government.
Nigeria is one of many African nations that now subsidizes its farmers with free or low-cost fertilizer. This practice was rare for some time, but is now more common. Governments increasingly see fertilizer subsidies as a way to promote food security. The effectiveness of Malawi’s fertilizer program has served as inspiration.
A few years ago, the average Malawian farmer had difficulty producing enough food for her family. Small-scale farmers did not have access to the tools they needed. Inputs such as fertilizer and seeds were unaffordable. The situation came to a head in 2005. After a devastating maize harvest, almost half of Malawians needed food aid.
Just two years later, the situation was dramatically different. Malawi was much more food secure. UNICEF shipped three tons of powdered milk to Malawi. Juan Ortiz-Iruri, UNICEF’s deputy representative in Malawi exclaimed: “We will not be able to use it!” The powdered milk was re-routed to Uganda.
During the 2008 food crisis, Malawi remained self-sufficient in food. The country that once relied on regular shipments of food aid enjoyed a surplus of maize.
Malawi is now considered a success story because of a fertilizer subsidy that had not been used since the 1970s and ’80s. In the Malawian subsidy system, farmers are given coupons to buy fertilizer and seeds from agro dealers at below market value. The program has proven that even disadvantaged farmers can achieve good yields. Maize production almost tripled between 2005 and 2007.
Other African nations are following suit, with promising results.
In Ghana, research conducted by the Peasant Farmers Association showed that more than half of farmers who participated in the subsidy system were able to increase production. For example, rice farmers increased yields by almost 60 per cent between 2004 and 2007.
Kenya is a good example of fertilizer coupons reaching their intended beneficiaries. Fertilizer subsidy programs are often criticized for not reaching smallholder farmers. In Kenya, however, the subsidy system is allowing average farmers to access fertilizer. The proportion of smallholder farmers using fertilizer has increased significantly since 1995.