Nelly Bassily | October 5, 2009
In both Malawi and Ghana, governments subsidize fertilizer for farmers. They provide coupons, which farmers can use to purchase fertilizer at below-market cost. These programs are designed to support farmers to produce food. But they don’t always reach those most in need. For example, a Malawian woman living with HIV may not receive a coupon because of her status. And a small-scale farmer in Ghana may be passed over in favour of a farmer with more land.
Malawi’s fertilizer subsidy system has gained international attention. Its success in improving the country’s food security has inspired other African governments to try fertilizer subsidies. But the Malawian system is not without problems.
Members of the Coalition of Women Living with HIV/AIDS charge that they have been discriminated against. Agricultural extension workers are responsible for distributing fertilizer coupons in Malawi. Before they distribute the coupons, they consult village heads. According to the women’s coalition, village heads singled out individuals who are HIV positive. The group says that people living with HIV do not receive coupons because the village heads believe they are “less productive.”
In response to these kinds of criticisms, Malawi’s President promised in 2005 that each individual living with HIV and AIDS would receive two coupons in the next year. This did not happen. Now the women’s coalition is calling on the government to reserve coupons for people living with HIV and AIDS, and to put community-based organizations in charge of distributing them.
In other countries where fertilizer subsidies are provided, there have been similar charges of discrimination. There are also accusations of corruption and mismanagement.
Ephraim Nkonya is an agricultural economist who has studied subsidy systems for the International Food Policy Research Institute. He has said that the “rich” and the “well-connected” farmers often end up with the subsidies. There is evidence that poorer farmers with less land are less likely to get vouchers than those with larger plots.
In Ghana, there have been reports that the subsidy system limits access by lower-income farmers. Caesar Kale is the Deputy Upper West Regional Minister. He charges that “middlemen” designated to distribute coupons have been selling them for a fee. As a result, only 10 per cent of the coupons intended for his region were actually used.
A final concern is that fertilizer coupons may not be distributed in time to be useful. Tanzania subsidizes fertilizer in an effort to help farmers improve yields. But a 2007 study showed that fertilizer coupons arrived late in all regions. Farmers could not purchase fertilizer in time to use it effectively.
Many people who study fertilizer subsidies say it’s time for what they call “smart” subsidies. They suggest that changes are needed to ensure that subsidies reach those most in need. Suggestions include removing middlemen from the system and allowing for more community-based distribution.