Smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are, on average, using fertilisers at well-below recommended rates in their crop production. This was according to the results of a study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois (UoI) in the US, largely because these farmers perceived their locally available fertiliser products to be of sub-standard quality.
One of the researchers, Anna Fairbairn of the UoI’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES), found that many of the hundreds of fertiliser samples that she collected from sellers in eastern Tanzania’s Morogoro area were visually unappealing.
These particular samples often looked dirty or contained clumps of fertiliser, sticks and small amounts of other impurities. This was largely due to inadequate fertiliser handling processes in the local value chain.
However, according to Prof Hope Michelson of the UoI’s ACES college, laboratory analyses of these samples showed that “just a small percentage” were “marginally out of compliance with industry standards”, and that there was no evidence of widespread fraudulent adulteration of the fertilisers being sold to smallholder farmers in Tanzania and elsewhere.
“We found evidence that [Africa’s smallholder] farmers worry about the quality of the fertiliser in the marketplace, and [this] impacts their willingness to pay for it. This can affect the amount of fertiliser they’re buying, and whether or not they purchase fertiliser at all. These farmers are operating in contexts with weak regulatory systems and [they] may be broadly suspicious,” Michelson said.
The study found that largely due to this distrust, Tanzania’s and Kenya’s smallholder farmers were applying, on average, [just] 13kg of fertiliser per hectare compared to the average 165kg/ha to 175kg/ha applied by smallholder farmers in India and Brazil.
Tanzania’s and Kenya’s smallholder farmers were yielding an average of 1,2t/ha to 1,7t/ha of cereals compared to the average 4t/ha to 4,5t/ha of cereals being harvested by India’s and Brazil’s smallholders.
Michelson said that the distrust of their fertiliser quality by Africa’s smallholder farmers could be exacerbated by their difficulties in being able to observe the direct correlation between applied fertiliser volumes on final crop yields.
“[They] could be applying [fertilisers] at the wrong time, or not applying enough. Weather is also a factor driving crop yields. [They] can’t always tell if the fertiliser is doing anything because of the rainfall variability factor. Farmers could blame these things on the fertiliser not being good quality [whereas it actually is of good quality],” she said.
According to a statement by the AfricaFertilizer.org Initiative, lower than optimal fertiliser consumption by many of the continent’s farmers was one of the key impediments to ending food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition.
“More investments, improved knowledge and information, better availability of fertilisers and balanced plant nutrition, enhanced agronomic advice and co-operation with farmers, are [all] needed, as well as a holistic and joint intervention of the public and private sectors, to lead a cost-effective African Green Revolution,” the statement said.