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African leaders say yes to more fertilizer for farmers

June 14, 2006 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Trade reforms aim to revive the region's flagging agriculture.

African leaders have approved wide-ranging measures to improve farmers' access to fertilizer, in a bid to kick-start a 'green revolution' and revive the continent's ailing agriculture.

Government representatives from more than 40 African nations agreed to remove taxes on the fertilizer trade between countries on the continent, in order to improve distribution in the region. They also pledged to promote the use of 'microdosing' — an intensive technique of fertilizing individual plants rather than blanket spraying, which should help to ensure maximum yield from scant resources and minimize damaging environmental effects.

The tax breaks were agreed at the Africa Fertilizer Summit, a meeting this week in Abuja, Nigeria, aimed at boosting African agriculture. The Nigerian government has promised US$10 million to establish a fund to allow farmers easier access to crop-boosting chemicals.

Environmental concerns

You can go into a shop and get a Coke straight away - we need to provide the same for fertilizers.
Amit Roy
International Centre for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development
Delegates at the summit agreed that the lack of access to fertilizers has stunted the African agricultural industry. Most African farmers are too poor to afford the excessive fertilizer use that has made run-offs from farmland an environmental issue in the developed world. Poor distribution infrastructure means that African fertilizer prices are typically three or four times those in richer countries.

At the same time particular problems in the African environment, such as droughts, make low-input farming very difficult. An estimated 185 million hectares of African soils — almost 90% of Africa's farmland and an area nearly the size of Mexico — are low in nutrients, causing them to produce low yields and to become exhausted more rapidly. Farmers then 'slash and burn' wider areas of forest to develop fertile soil than would be destroyed if the farms were better fertilized and more productive.

Delegates at the meeting aim to increase the average per-hectare fertilizer use on farmland in sub-Saharan Africa to at least 50 kilograms by 2015. The overall average currently stands at just 8 kilograms per hectare, although regions that have achieved recent growth in agricultural productivity have done so by boosting per-hectare fertilizer use to more than 100 kilograms.

Giving tax breaks to fertilizer distributors will help, the delegates hope. Under the agreement, African countries will promote the development of networks of small private businesses called agrodealers, who will collect and distribute fertilizer to local farmers in rural areas.

The idea is to provide farmers with a quick, cheap way to get their hands on the fertilizer they need to maximize production in rainy periods, says Amit Roy, head of the International Centre for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, one of the summit's organizers. "You can go into a shop and get a Coke straight away — we need to provide the same for fertilizers," says Roy.

Microsolutions for a megaproblem

Farmers can also get the most out of their fertilizer by adopting the technique of microdosing, say crop experts. By giving each plant a thimbleful of fertilizer in its own patch of soil, they can ensure that the nutrients promote crop growth, rather than encouraging weeds as well. "It's about trying to minimize losses by applying fertilizer where it's really needed," says Roy.

The $10 million pledged by Nigeria will go towards establishing a fund for promoting distribution of fertilizer, as well as access to quality seed and irrigation facilities, and tips for more efficient farming. The fund will be administered by the African Development Bank.

But more money will be needed to really tackle the problem, says Roy. He is hoping that other countries and development organizations will follow Nigeria's lead and pledge loans and other funds. "We are hoping for much bigger amounts," he says. "By the time this gets up to full scale, we're looking at a couple of billion dollars."

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