Tanzania is throwing money at irrigation and fertilizer plans, and President Kagame says organic farming offers a path to reducing external shocks on food.
By Ivan Mugisha
A fertilizer boom is breaking out across Africa as calls for food security gain momentum amidst a widespread continental food crisis.
With an estimated 346 million negatively impacted by a severe food crisis, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the use of fertilizers has become more central, even as environmental and green farming activists call for caution.
The global production of fertilizers is responsible for around 1.4% of annual CO2 emissions, and fertilizer use is a major contributor to non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, according to Carbon Brief.
World consumption of the three main fertilizer nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus expressed as phosphate, and potassium, is estimated to have surpassed 186 million tons, up by more than 1.4 percent since 2015.
That said, Africa has barely used fertilizers. Only 6 percent of Africa’s cultivated land is irrigated, and the average fertilizer consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa is estimated at 17kg of nutrients per hectare of cropland, according to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
That is only a drop in the ocean when compared with a world average fertilizer consumption of 135kg/Ha.
At the just-ended AGRF Summit in the Rwandan capital Kigali, Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa urged Africa to embrace increased use of fertilizers, irrigation, and thermal power in order to ensure food security.
“I recently inaugurated a fertilizer plant in my country… and I for one would not abandon thermal power,” he said, drawing the audience at the Kigali Convention Centre into laughter.
“We have all the resources necessary to ensure food security for our countries and all the inputs for fertilizers security. Africa must be allowed a reasonable transition, but if they [international green energy agencies and governments] want us to leapfrog to their level, they must pay the cost.”
Zimbabwe, which suffered a failing economy and western sanctions for two decades, now offers a rare example of food security policies and programs.
For example, with multiplied irrigation and fertilizer use, the country has been able to increase its wheat production from a three-month supply to a 15-month supply, according to the country’s Ministry of Agriculture.
“We used to] grow only about three months of supply of wheat for the entire country. Under the last season, we have now produced 13 months of wheat supply for Zimbabwe.
“So the wheat crisis from Ukraine does not affect us now,’ President Mnangagwa said.
“Our wheat comes from Ukraine and our fertilizers from the Russian Federation. We have introduced a model that says that we need to have food security by exploiting domestic resources, and we have solved that big problem.”
Much as there is no single silver bullet to make Africa self-sufficient in food and cease to be a net importer, fertilizer use and irrigation are touted as key tools. But such projects cannot happen without good leadership.
Enock Chikava, the Director of Agricultural Development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says that “trial and error” farming – which is practiced across Africa – is not sustainable. He argues that leaders across Sub-Saharan Africa are largely to blame for not adopting the so-labeled “green revolution of Africa”.
“If there is anything close to being a silver bullet that guarantees food security in Africa, it is good leadership. We can outsource technology but we cannot outsource good leadership. We need leaders who understand the need to prioritize modern agriculture and deliver the Green Revolution” he said.
Tanzania is among those that have acted quicker. Its government introduced a three-year program that will see the construction of dams for irrigation in each of its provinces – to cover an area of up to 360,000 hectares.
The country is also constructing a second fertilizer plant – expected to be completed by the end of 2022 – to benefit the 65 percent of its population that is engaged directly in farming.
“Productivity in agriculture in Tanzania has remained low due to low technology and limited use of fertilizers. We still depend on the vagaries of weather…we still have huge post-harvest losses to the tune of 30 percent,” Philip Mpango, Vice President of Tanzania said.
Chilli Bucks in Rwanda
“But we now have a new fertilizer factory under construction and soon we shall have two, to cover up for the deficit in fertilizer use. We also increased our budget allocation to agriculture from an average of around $125m per annum to $404m, targeting research, irrigation, seed multiplication, and training.”
Rwanda President Paul Kagame, however, sees the possibility for greater diversity in African agriculture. He argues that Africa has enough biomass and resources to shift to organic farming and stop being too exposed to external shocks.
“The food crisis is a serious one and in order to deal with it we need to develop a sense of urgency…to treat food like a business,” he said during the AGRF summit.
“If you look at the crisis in Ukraine, the whole of Africa suffers because we cannot get wheat or fertilizers. All these are lessons we should learn from, but these lessons have been here for a long time. We need to act quicker.”
One Rwandan who has benefitted from agribusiness is Diego Twahirwa, a chili farmer who in 2019 signed a $500 million-dollar deal to supply 50,000 metric tons of chili annually to a Chinese firm, GK International.
Mr. Twahirwa’s firm – Gashora Farm – also exports chili products to Europe.
“I have now expanded into Zimbabwe, where we have about 2,000 hectares to grow chili in partnership with a Zimbabwe company,” Twahirwa told The East African.
“At our Gashora Farm, we use modernized farming including irrigation and fertilizers to ensure that the effects of climate change do not affect us much. It may not be easy at the start but eventually, agribusiness pays off massively.”
Rwanda targets to reach agricultural exports of $1 billion, up from $465 million achieved in 2018/2019.
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