Fertilizer makes things grow, and a major reason why farmers in Africa don’t grow enough food is because we don’t use enough fertilizer.
Numbers tell the story.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the average fertilizer application rate is 22.5 kg per hectare, according to the World Bank. In my home of Nigeria, the average is even less, at 19.6 kg per hectare. Meanwhile, the global average is 146.4 kg per hectare—or more than seven times what my fellow Nigerians and I apply.
Different types of soil and crops require different kinds and amounts of fertilizer, so some variability is normal. Farmers in arid Kuwait use more than 1,000 kg of fertilizer per hectare. In the United States, the rate is 126.2 kg. In India and China—the world’s most populous countries—it’s 209.4 kg and 383.3 kg, respectively.
Yet the World Bank’s data also show that the biggest differences are a matter of money. Farmers in high-income countries use 140.7 kg per hectare and in middle-income countries they use 167.9 kg per hectare. The rate for low-income countries is just 14.4 kg per hectare.
Many Africans simply can’t afford to purchase fertilizer. In some places, a 50 kg bag can cost as much as a farmer’s monthly wages.
Is it any wonder that Africa is home to about one-sixth of the planet’s people, but it produces only a tiny fraction of the world’s food?
Strengthening the world’s food security means improving the ability of farmers to access fertilizer—and most especially in Africa, which among the continents has the best prospects for agricultural progress. Better access to fertilizers will mean higher yields for African farmers translating to less hunger, higher income, reduced price for food, and improved livelihoods.
With respect to fertilizer, things have gotten worse. The cost of this essential input roughly has tripled. First came the stresses of the pandemic and the disruption of supply chains everywhere. Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which virtually eliminated two major exporters of fertilizer from global markets.
We experienced a classic conundrum of supply and demand: As supplies shrank and demand grew, prices went up, up, up.
We’ve seen positive break-throughs in agriculture, too. New technologies continue to promise more vibrant seeds, better crop protection, and more. We’ve also gained a new appreciation for our interconnectedness—and the need for farmers to exchange ideas and information across borders, in peer-to-peer knowledge transfer that is just as important as any trade agreement or tariff reduction.
If a consensus emerged from the meeting in Rome, it was the simple recognition that we’re all in this together, and that we’re all a part of the solution to the challenge as hundreds of millions of people continue to live with food insecurity.
It may sound like a platitude, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
It also suggests practical next-steps—among them, making it easier for African farmers like me to afford fertilizer.
I use synthetic fertilizers to grow bananas, cowpea seeds, and more. While my farm is doing well, the price increases have hurt. And many farmers throughout Africa have suffered much worse. There is also a need to look beyond synthetic fertilizers alone for Africa’s farmers. Genesis-edited biological solutions that enable cereals like corn, sorghum, and rice to fix nitrogen are revolutionary and could offer a cost-effective path to ensure higher yields for African farmers.
We’re not looking for charity or subsidies. We want markets to work, allowing more fertilizer to make its way to the part of the world that has the greatest potential to boost its food production. This means robust trade networks as well as healthy financial services. It also calls for political stability—and not the coup d’état chaos we’ve seen recently in Niger, which borders my nation to the north. And we have our own troubles in Nigeria, where bandits have overrun some of our best agricultural land.
A few trends appear to point in the right direction, suggesting that fertilizer prices may start to drop as supply chains return to the pre-pandemic efficiency and general inflation comes under control. The war between Russia and Ukraine grinds on, but if peace returns to the region, it will help fertilizer markets. One can always hope. Finally, there is the excellent news of a major phosphate discovery in Norway, which promises in time to boost the global supply of synthetic fertilizer.
Let’s make sure some of it gets to Africa. The more we fertilize, the more we’ll grow—and make everyone better off.