After toiling to prepare the land and planting their crops, every farmer’s dream is a bountiful harvest that can feed his family and support their other needs.
Yet this is rarely the case for many Sub-Saharan African (SSA) farmers who cultivate on small lands, apply little fertiliser and depend mostly on rain to grow their crops. As a result, farmers here usually harvest much lower yields than their counterparts in other parts of the world who apply more fertilisers and have access to non-rainwater irrigation sources.
According to the World Bank, cereal yield in Sub Saharan Africa is less than half of the global average. One of the reasons for this low yield is low fertiliser usage. The figure for Nigeria is particularly low. Fertiliser use was around 6kg per hectare in 2016, compared with a global average of 140kg, despite the Abuja Declaration of 2006 which sought to increase fertiliser use to an average of 50kg per hectare in African countries.
Government Interventions in the Agriculture Sector
Fertilisers increase farmers’ productivity. It helps increase production and improve food security, which is especially important since Nigeria is expected to have the third-largest population by 2050. Additionally, an improvement in productivity can increase farmers’ incomes and reduce rural poverty. This will be a great boost for the agriculture sector which is responsible for 60% of Nigeria's workforce.
Nigerian governments have realised this potential and have tried to boost the sector in many ways, including through fertiliser subsidies, to reduce the financial burden on farmers. The high costs of fertilisers have been a major blockade for farmers.
Enacted in 1976, the National Fertiliser Policy was the Federal Government's first foray into providing fertiliser subsidies. Prior to that, state governments provided subsidies ranging from 25 to 50% of the total cost. These programmes were phased out across Africa during the Structural Adjustment era of the late 80s but resurfaced in the 2000s following the Abuja Declaration on fertiliser use.
Nigeria has transitioned from one subsidy regime to another since then, spending billions annually: ₦873 billion was spent between 1980 and 2010. Unfortunately, this has not translated to significant improvements in the sector. According to a former Minister of Agriculture, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, 90% of the money spent on fertiliser subsidies during the 30-year period was lost to corruption and fertiliser racketeering. Moreover, despite throwing billions of naira at the problem, fertiliser use only increased by 2kg, from 4kg in 2002 to 6kg in 2016. Some have argued that fixing infrastructure such as roads would be a better investment.
On the back of this, the Buhari government abolished fertiliser subsidy programs and replaced it with the Presidential Fertiliser Initiative (PFI). Under the initiative, the government supplies discounted fertiliser inputs from Morocco and Europe, through the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority fertiliser fund vehicle. The inputs are then blended with locally sourced urea and distributed to farmers at ₦5,000 per bag, a significant cost saving when compared to imported fertilisers which can cost as high ₦9,000. After recovering their costs and deducting their margins, the blending companies then remit the revenues to the government for re-investment into the next phase of production.
While improving fertiliser use will go a long way to improving agricultural productivity, it is not the only missing piece. Three other factors are considered here.
The first is soil fertility testing. Think of the soil as a patient requiring medical attention. Without first visiting a doctor to get a diagnosis, any other steps taken may not help matters or may just make them worse; that is how important soil testing is to soil health. Before farmers are recommended a kind of fertiliser, it is important for them to first know what exactly is limiting in their soil.
It is not advisable to apply fertiliser using blanket recommendations. Particular elements that are missing from the soil may not be accounted for in the added fertiliser and this will limit any expected increase in yield. To solve this issue, there are several innovative approaches that are currently being used across Africa. One of such is the Africa Soil Information Systems that collects soil nutrient information as maps and use this to make tailored fertiliser recommendations to farmers, increasing productivity. As Nigeria gets into the business of increasing fertiliser use, we should ensure that these fertilisers are the types that our soils need.
The second important factor is using Synergetic Inputs. The Green Revolution of the 1960s that fed about a billion people did not depend only on agrochemicals like fertilisers and pesticides, it was a combination of these plus others like improved seeds, irrigation and mechanisation which are all important in improving crop yield. In a system that is highly susceptible to climate change and droughts, only 1% of croplands are currently irrigated in Nigeria. In this kind of condition, no amount of fertiliser applied would translate to high-grade yield if water remains missing in the farming equation.
Finally, agricultural extension agents. These are the individuals who work with farmers to overcome their challenges by adopting new technology. They are vital in teaching farmers how and when to use the fertilisers suitable for their crop/land. Nigeria currently has only 7,000 extension agents for its sixteen million farms – an obvious gap. Contrast this with Ethiopia, which has agents that reach 70% of its farm households.
The government’s recent announcement of training 50,000 more extension agents is coming at the right time. Efforts must be made however to connect extension workers with research institutions to ease technology transfer to farmers.
As with all government policies and programmes, monitoring and implementation are important. The PFI is a good starting point to boost fertiliser use and transform Nigeria’s agriculture. However, this is not the only leg in the race. Tailored fertilisers use, irrigation, extension and technology adoption are equally important for the sector to reach its full potential.