[Column] Bob Koigi: Why liberalization of fertilizer market holds the promise of a prosperous Sub Saharan Africa
The world population is expected to grow by nine billion by 2050. Out of this meteoric growth, Sub-Saharan Africa will record the world’s largest growth, of three billion according to a Population Reference Bureau report.
However even with this staggering growth, several studies also show that Sub-Saharan African countries have been experiencing an unprecedented shrinkage of arable land. While population pressure bears some responsibility, heightened competition for land from the real estate coupled with numerous discoveries of natural resources have put a strain on arable land.
But even as these phenomena unfold, scientists predict that food production rate is nowhere commensurate with this burgeoning population growth. In fact food production is dwindling currently standing at a paltry 2 percent of less a year.
Land scarcity is compounded by low soil fertility, resulting from the shortening or elimination of the fallow period without concurrent efforts to increase soil nutrients through fertilizer application or other soil management practices.
Closing this gap and increasing food production is now no longer a case of if but when. This has therefore called for intensive agriculture based on modern technologies, chief among them fertilizers. Focus is now on increasing yields within limited land space.
Many Sub Saharan Africa countries are bereft with fertilizer woes that have conspired to condemn to a hunger cycle even as the Food and Agriculture Organization insists that most of these nations are capable of comfortably feeding its population and becoming global agricultural powerhouses.
Biting shortage and uncoordinated distribution channels have opened a tirade of effects and further fanning Kenya’s hunger cycle.
The fertilizer distribution chain has been marred by delayed and inconsistent supply, exorbitant and exploitative prices and uncoordinated supply chain.
In Kenya for example, a government subsidy programme meant to correct this has only complicated matters. Farmers who were meant to access the fertilizers in time at a reduced price to motivate them to grow more have never known peace with the subsidy.
The delay in accessing the fertilizers by the farmers has meant late planting which ultimately takes a toll on yields, further aggravating the food security situation in the country. Unscrupulous middlemen, keen on exploiting the farmers, also buy the fertilizer at the subsidized price and repackage it selling it at a higher price.
This even as statistics show Kenya, and in extension Africa, lags behind in fertilizer use, which explains low productivity in the fields. Kenya‘s average fertilizer application rate is 13 kilograms per hectare compared with an average of 94 kilograms per hectare in other developing countries.
Bridgenet Africa a research body, places delayed fertilizer distribution to farmers as among the causes of the 2009 drought that placed over 10 million Kenyans under food relief and led the then President Mwai Kibaki to declare it a national disaster.
In a shocking revelation recently farmers in the country's food baskets said they have never seen or come across any subsidized fertilizer and infact had decided to buy their own following multiple delays in planting as they waited for the government subsidy. The subsidy has never benefitted the very same people it set out to benefit the small holder farmers.
Importation and particularly port costs is another especially significant contributor to farmers fertilizer woes because it means higher prices. Liberalizing the market and allowing more private companies to enter the market and package the fertilizer would go a long way in halving the yawning deficit especially between intent and action.
Multiple award winning Kenyan journalist Bob Koigi is the Chief Editor of East Africa at Africa Business Communities