The agricultural sector, which accounts for about 30 percent of GDP, at least 40 percent of export value and between 70 and 80 percent of employment in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), has received inadequate attention. Over the last 30 years, SSA’s population has been growing at 3.1 percent per annum compared with food production growth of 2.1 percent per annum. The challenges facing agriculture in West Africa are immense, given its size and diversity. Its current population of 290 million is expected to reach 430 million within the next 15 years, and as much as 60 percent of that population is expected to live in urban areas by 2020 (OECD, 2006). The agricultural sector is characterised by small family farms, dependence on rain-fed agriculture, traditional methods of soil fertility maintenance and low market participation.
The large increase in population over the past several decades has increased pressure on land, and farmers can no longer fallow their fields to regain fertility. Therefore agricultural intensification is widely seen as a necessary condition for enhanced food security and as a major driver for overall economic growth in SSA. To this end, the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), the African Union/NEPAD initiative in Africa, strives to revitalise agriculture as the engine of economic growth to improve food security and reduce poverty across the continent.
The use of fertiliser in Africa remains well below recommended levels; it currently is estimated at only 8 kilograms/hectare (kg/ha) – less than 10 percent of the world average. The low use of fertiliser is a key reason for low productivity, poverty and hunger. Therefore, any strategy to reduce poverty must be centred on the efficient and sustainable use of fertiliser. The late Dr. Norman Borlaug referred to fertiliser as “the fuel that powers the Green Revolution” and there is evidence that no country in the world has been able to reduce poverty and achieve food security without significantly and efficiently increasing agricultural productivity through the effective use of fertilisers.
Several reasons account for the low use of fertiliser in Africa. They include limited purchasing power, poor access to credit among smallholder farmers, unavailability or irregular supply of quality fertilisers, high risk and a perceived lack of profitability.
Synthetic fertilisers have dramatically increased food production worldwide. But the unintended costs to the environment and human health have been substantial. Nitrogen runoff from farms has contaminated surface and groundwater and helped create massive "dead zones" in coastal areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico. And ammonia from fertilised cropland has become a major source of air pollution, while emissions of nitrous oxide form a potent greenhouse gas.
These and other negative environmental impacts have led some researchers and policy-makers to call for reductions in the use of synthetic fertilisers. But in a report published in the June 19 issue of the journal Science, an international team of ecologists and agricultural experts warns against a "one-size- fits-all" approach to managing global food production.
"Most agricultural systems follow a trajectory from too little in the way of added nutrients to too much, and both extremes have substantial human and environmental costs," said lead author Peter Vitousek, a professor of biology at Stanford University and senior fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.
"Some parts of the world, including much of China, use far too much fertiliser," Vitousek said. "But in sub-Saharan Africa, where 250 million people remain chronically malnourished, nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrient inputs are inadequate to maintain soil fertility.
Norway's Yara International expects fertiliser prices to increase in 2010 as the global agriculture sector rebounds, the chief executive of its South African unit said on Monday. The economic crisis has dampened global consumption of agricultural goods and fertiliser, but increased demand and investment in the farming sector in Africa, could help see fertiliser demand rise.
"I don't think we will see a spike like in 2008 when you saw the oil price rise. If demand will grow faster than supply then prices will come up," Willem Sloot said on the sidelines of an African agriculture conference. "I think actually that the agricultural industry and activity will improve as from July this year and demand for fertilisers will come back," he said.
Sloot said a global goal to increase food production in Africa, the world's poorest continent, would mean more use of fertilisers, where the average usage of fertiliser was 10 kg per hectare -- 50 kg in South Africa and more than 100 kg in Europe.
"It (demand) could easily triple or multiply by five," Sloot said.
Yara recently paid $225 million for a 50 percent stake in a joint venture with the Libyan government and private investors. The plants produce over 600,000 tonnes of ammonia and close to 1 million tonnes of urea, two of the main fertiliser ingredients. "We (also) plan to invest in two ports in Dar es Salaam and Beira (Mozambique) with around $30 million each to set up large bulk terminal facilities to handle imports for fertiliser which would reduce costs," he said. "We hope to start up the Beira project in the first quarter of 2011 and Dar es Salaam later in 2011," he said.
The Government made available GH¢37 million to support fertiliser subsidy in 2009 in a drive to make the prices affordable and to enable small-scale food crop farmers to procure the product to improve yields.
Minister of Agriculture, Mr Kwesi Ahwoi, who announced the package at a press conference to launch fertiliser coupons, said the government’s decision was to reduce the price of fertiliser at the retail level by absorbing all costs in excess of the 2008 prices.
The price of 50 kg NPK fertiliser in December 2008 was GH¢26.00 but since January this year without the government subsidy, the price had increased to GH¢52.00 by April 2009.
The Minister said with the current price level of fertiliser on the market, fertiliser use by the small-scale sector was estimated to drop by more than 70 per cent of previous levels and was likely to lead to a decline in cereal production by 20 %.Ghana produces about 1.2 million tons of maize annually and a 20 per cent decline would imply a production shortfall of about 250,000 tons, which would cost government about US$62.5 million to import.
“Absorbing the difference in cost will imply an implicit subsidy of 50 per cent,” the Minister said, adding that with the subsidy, fertiliser would be sold at a uniform price in all district capitals across the country.
This means that with the subsidy, a 50kg bag of NPK 15:15:15 will now sell at GH¢26; NPK 23:10:05 will go for GH¢24; Sulphate of Ammonia will sell at GH¢18 and Urea for GH¢26.
Mr Ahwoi said total funds made available were based on estimation that the small-scale sector would demand about 80,000 tons of fertiliser in 2009 for food crop production.
The Ghana Cocoa Board plans to as much as double the amount of land under fertiliser use as it targets production of 1 million metric tons of the beans by 2012-13.
Last year, 200,000 of the estimated 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of cocoa plantations in Ghana used fertiliser, Yaw Adu-Ampomah, deputy chief executive of the state-run board, said in a phone interview yesterday. The board wants to increase that to between 300,000 and 400,000 hectares this year.
“If you want to get there, fertilising of existing farms” is important, Adu-Ampomah said of the production target. “If it’s not addressed, it’s going to be a very serious issue.”
Ghana is the world’s second-biggest cocoa producer, accounting for 19 percent of global supplies of the chocolate ingredient. Exhausted soils in West Africa, where two-thirds of the world’s beans are grown, is keeping production levels at less than half potential output, according to the Cocoa Producers’ Alliance.
The smallholder farmers that produce the crop in the region average yields of 300-500 kilograms (661-1,102 pounds) per hectare, below the potential of 1 metric ton per hectare, Sona Ebai, secretary general of the Lagos-based industry group, said in an interview on March 16th.
Joseph Amoako, a 79-year-old farmer at Atwima Takoradi in south-western Ghana, said he doubled the crop yield this year after applying fertiliser to his three-and-a-half acre farm. Spending about 110 cedis ($77.30) on fertiliser and labor costs, Amoako said in an interview that the expense was worth the increased production to around 30 bags of cocoa.
In Ghana’s Western region, where nearly half of the country’s crop is grown, farmer Alex Kyeremateng, 35, saw the benefits of fertiliser on a friend’s farm and decided to try it on one-third of his farm, as much as he could afford.
“Where I’ve used fertiliser, I’ll get more pods,” he said on his 32-acre plantation at Dominibo No. 1 on March 17th.
The Ghana Cocoa Board subsidises 40 percent of the cost of a bag of fertiliser and uses licensed buying companies to distribute the chemicals to farmers, Adu-Ampomah said.
For some farmers, the expense of using fertiliser, which also includes hiring workers, is too much.
Ghana exported $1.9 billion worth of cocoa last year, according to the Bank of Ghana.