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Cost of fertilizer spirals amid worsening food crisis

29 June 2022

Cost of fertilizer spirals amid worsening food crisis

By Anastasia Mbatia, Senior Technical Manager, Agriculture.

Vulnerable farming communities in eastern Africa are facing a triple C crisis as conflict, Covid shocks and the climate crisis cause widespread threats to lives and livelihoods.   

Hunger is rising, with Ethiopia and Kenya both facing acute food insecurity. Both countries are now in the emergency Phase 4 as measured by the IPC Acute Food Insecurity Phases.
Phase 4 refers to situations where households either have large food consumption gaps, which are reflected in very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality, or are able to mitigate large food consumption gaps but only by employing emergency livelihood strategies and asset liquidation.

If rains continue to fail this year, Ethiopia and Kenya face the risk of moving into the fifth and final phase of food insecurity: famine.

Kenya and Ethiopia are both heavily impacted by crop failure due to an ongoing severe drought and conflict in northern Ethiopia, while the Covid pandemic has disrupted access to markets, leading to higher prices and lower availability of agricultural inputs such as fertilizer.

By the start of 2022, the price of fertilizer in Kenya was already around 30% higher than before the Covid pandemic. Since then, the conflict in Ukraine has sparked further shockwaves through the market, forcing prices to rise sharply and even triple in some places.

The majority of smallholder farmers that Farm Africa supports rely on fertilizers to grow enough crops, but with the drought depleting farmers’ savings and stores of food, many have no cushion to absorb the price shock. Instead, they must prioritize paying for food or healthcare for their families over buying fertilizer.

Agriculture will certainly be impacted by fertilizer taking a back seat during this year’s first planting season. Fertilizer increases plant growth and adaptation to weather extremes, such as heat stress and low rainfall. As farmers use less fertilizer, their vulnerability to one of the most severe droughts seen in decades will grow.

Although the triple C crisis is out of Farm Africa's control, Farm Africa is helping farmers adapt to these challenges, with regenerative agriculture practices offering a long-term solution to increasing productivity.

Across eastern Africa, soils have been overused and become acidic, making them hostile for good plant growth. Regenerative agriculture practices such as mixed cropping, using mulch and manure instead of synthetic fertilizers, and agroforestry, help to restore the soil's health and promote carbon sequestration.

Silas Muchiri, a Village-Based Advisor (VBA) who works on Farm Africa’s Regenerative Agriculture project in Embu County, Kenya, helps local farmers to introduce regenerative agriculture practices that improve soil health, increase productivity, build climate resilience and reduce reliance on expensive synthetic fertilizers.

Silas explained, “We introduce the use of mulching and micro-dosing of manure and good agricultural practices, which embrace soil testing and the use of certified seeds to help improve food security in Kenya.”

“Micro-dosing of manure means using the fertilizers in small quantities in the right place so that the plants absorb the right nutrients. We help the farmers to use other products that help plants absorb nutrients. This means that instead of using a full bag of fertilizer on one acre, the fertilizer use can be reduced by almost a half.”

The prices of fertilisers are too high for farmers. The prices they can sell their crops for does not cover the price of buying nitrogen fertilisers. Using organic matter as fertilisers helps farmers to increase their productivity at a lower cost.

Silas Muchiri

Silas continued, “The big challenge that farmers face is the climate has changed drastically. Introducing regenerative agriculture has helped farmers overcome this challenge.”

Farm Africa helps farmers to build resilience to climate change through various approaches: promotion of farm enterprise diversification with crops and livestock and farming as a business. For instance, growing maize and legumes, and keeping goats, poultry and bees are all resilience mechanisms, which ensure that if one source of income fails, farmers have another to fall back on.

Patrick Nyaga, the Coordinator of Farm Africa’s Regenerative Agriculture project funded by AGRA, noted: “Silas has introduced another crop on his farm: green peppers. He uses mulch on them, which helps the peppers withstand the high temperatures in the drought we're experiencing at the moment. After realising he could now afford to put food on his table, he introduced this horticulture crop to sell.”

Silas added, “There has been great improvement since I worked with Farm Africa. Unlike before, I can now school my children and feed my family. I now stand a better chance of harvesting.”

The adoption of technologies such as drip irrigation or access to weather forecasting systems are also important in building resilience, as well as access to finance, which enables farmers to buy inputs.

Good storage facilities are key too, enabling farmers to store their produce until the prices are favourable, so that they can command the best price for their crops.

The government of Kenya has helped by introducing some fertilizer subsidies. However, the government is unable to reach all farmers with agriculture extension support. In some areas, the ratio of agricultural extension workers to farmers is one to 1,000.

Patrick Nyaga commented: “The farming community is huge. Village-based advisors like Silas can only reach some of the farmers with regenerative agriculture practices, so food security is a big issue in the area for other farmers who cannot afford fertilizers now.”

“We don't have enough VBAs to support farmers. I support 192 farmers,” Silas added, who uses his own farm as a demonstration plot to teach practices from the project.

While these practices will help next year’s yields and insulate farmers from future shocks, they will not help this year. In the short term, the unaffordability of nitrogen-based fertilizers poses grave risks to farmers’ livelihoods and food security across eastern Africa.