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    NewsAfricaThe lack of Russian fertilizers suffocates African crops. Five keys to self-sufficiency

    The lack of Russian fertilizers suffocates African crops. Five keys to self-sufficiency

    For sub-Saharan Africa, dependency is costing it dearly. The region imports around 90% of its fertilizers and until a year ago, countries such as Ghana, Mauritania and the Ivory Coast bought between 20 and 50% of their fertilizers from Russia, the world’s leading exporter of agricultural nutrients. Then war broke out in the Ukraine and a domino effect was unleashed that is bringing millions of African families to the brink of famine. Russia set export quotas for fertilizers to guarantee the supply of its internal market; markets more attractive than the African one were made with a good part of the stocks; the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Russian trade.

    Prices shot up influenced by inflation and the rise in the cost of natural gas, which is used to produce nitrogenous fertilizers. The fewer fertilizers there are, the more expensive they are sold and the smaller the harvests and the greater the probability that the prices of basic foodstuffs in Africa, which in 2050 will feed a quarter of the world’s population, will continue to rise this year. In Ethiopia, for example, fertilizer prices rose by more than 164 percent last year and the African Development Bank estimates that the continent’s agricultural production could fall by 20%.

    Nigeria has the industrial capacity to produce at least three-fifths of its urea, a nitrogen-based fertilizer, for global markets. But it is easier, and much more profitable, to sell this subscription to global markets. In 2021, Nigeria sold 87% of its urea to Brazil, and in 2022 it shipped cargoes to countries including India, Mexico and the United States, while its neighbor Mali was only able to get hold of half the fertilizer it needed that year, according to Africa. Fertilizer, a leading provider of data and information on the issue.

    Experts warn about the effects of subsidies, especially if they are badly designed: in the Global North, they are promoting the excessive use of fertilizers, and in the Global South, they can distort a market that is struggling to get up.

    Future Planet has spoken to African and international experts on rural development, international trade and soil health. The specialists provide five keys to understanding how this point has been reached and what steps must be taken for sub-Saharan Africa to achieve self-sufficiency in terms of fertilizers and, ultimately, food:

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    1. The world requires less synthetic fertilizers. Africa needs more

    The planet is facing a massive loss of biodiversity and rampant changes in climate, and the excessive use of mineral fertilizers in places like Europe, China and India is contributing to both problems. Paradoxically, Africa needs more mineral fertilizers, not just to produce more, but to do so more sustainably.

    “In sub-Saharan Africa, most food has been produced by depleting soil nutrients and expanding the agricultural frontier to new lands,” explains World Bank expert Chakib Jenane, head of agricultural and food practices for Africa. Western and Central. “This is degrading the natural environment and increasing the fragility [de las comunidades]”. Where there are forests, the expansion of crops is done at their expense.

    A boy from the Mundari tribe collects dried cow dung to make a fire that repels mosquitoes and flies, in Central Equatoria, Terekeka, South Sudan, in 2020.ERIC LAFFORGUE (Corbis via Getty Images)

    Up to 65% of African productive land is degraded by overuse, erosion and increasingly erratic rainfall due to climate change. And the more uncertain the harvests and the worse the connections with local markets, the less likely it is that small farmers will risk investing in fertilizers, fueling the vicious cycle of poverty. Sub-Saharan Africa is the area that uses the least fertilizer in the world —some 17 kilograms per hectare, compared to the global average of 135— and obtains the lowest cereal yields.

    In June, the African Union will hold a summit on fertilizers and soil health to set the road map for the next decade.

    2. In Africa it is cheaper to import fertilizer from Europe

    Africa has natural resources to produce part of its own fertilizers. Nigeria, Mozambique and Algeria have natural gas reserves, which are used to manufacture nitrogen-based fertilizers; Morocco, Tanzania, and South Africa have significant deposits of phosphate rocks, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has potassium. However, few countries have the industrial and financial capacity to transform these raw materials into fertilizer. And even if they do, as is the case with the Dangote and Indorama companies in Nigeria, there are too many tariff, regulatory and transportation barriers to make it profitable to sell most of the production on the same continent.

    “It may sound ridiculous, but for East African countries, it is cheaper to import urea from the Baltic Sea. [Rusia, Bielorrusia] than from Nigeria,” says Sebastian Nduva, head of the Africa Fertilizer database at the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC), from Kenya. Even for a country like Ghana, it is much more profitable to import urea from Europe than from neighboring Nigeria, notes his colleague Fred Gyasi from West Africa.

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    For example, in 2021, Spain was the fourth exporter of fertilizers to the Ivory Coast and the fifth to Ghana, rankings headed by Morocco and Russia, respectively, according to data provided to this newspaper by Africa Fertilizer. Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole imported around half of its potash-based fertilizers and almost a quarter of its phosphates from Russia and, to a lesser extent, from Belarus, the World Bank estimates. In May 2021, the Continental Free Trade Area agreement entered into force, but barriers to trade within African countries remain in place.

    3. The continent is big; its market, small and fragmented

    Africa only accounts for 3.5% of global fertilizer consumption, making it a very unattractive market. “When there are fertilizer shortages, as is the case now, big consumers like Brazil and India have the upper hand,” says Charlotte Hebebrand, spokesperson for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and former director general of the International Food Policy Association. Fertilizer Industry.

    If, in addition to being a small market, it is fragmented, and to this are added opaque public purchasing processes, non-payments, and conflicting policies, the result is dependence on producing countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, and on global geopolitical ups and downs.

    4. Africa needs healthy land and organic nutrients to feed a quarter of humanity by 2050

    Within 30 years and at the current rate, one in four people in the world will be African. To feed its population, Africa will need to adopt agricultural practices that improve productivity and, simultaneously, restore soil health, increase its capacity to sequester carbon, and provide farmers with a decent livelihood, the experts consulted agree.

    “Increase the use of fertilizers [minerales] it is by no means a panacea”, emphasizes from Kenya Rebbie Harawa, director for Eastern and Southern Africa of ICRISAT, a leading international research center on crops in the semi-arid tropics. “Combining them with organic nutrient sources is essential as part of a broader strategy to manage soil fertility.”

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    Manure, compost and leguminous plants, which fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, provide organic nutrients and increase the effectiveness of mineral fertilizers.

    5. The future: more efficiency and fewer subsidies

    A pending issue around the world is to use fertilizers more efficiently to reduce costs, but above all to avoid impacts on biodiversity and climate. Jenane, from the World Bank, offers a couple of facts: since the industrial revolution, the use of chemical fertilizers has increased the amount of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, by almost 20%. In fact, the amount of nitrogen that human activity has released into the natural environment —water, soil, air— exceeds that of carbon dioxide.

    Improving efficiency requires better techniques and policies. At the policy level, experts warn about the effects of subsidies, especially if they are badly designed: in the Global North, they are promoting the excessive use of fertilizers, and in the Global South, they can distort a market that is struggling to raise your head

    “In some cases, it is preferable to transfer the money to subsistence farmers and help them improve their practices,” says IFPRI’s Hebebrand. Research from this center in Malawi, for example, shows that giving money to struggling small farmers works better than subsidizing fertilizer for all farmers in the country.

    For East African countries, it is cheaper to import urea from the Baltic Sea [Rusia, Bielorrusia] who from nigeria

    Sebastian Nduva, Head of the Africa Fertilizer Database

    Other policies concern the Global North. If the world halved food loss and waste, there would be enough fruits and vegetables available to cover the recommended amount per person per day. Less fertilizer would also be needed, according to an FAO report on the global impact of the war in Ukraine.

    On a technical level, there are strategies such as microdosing, which consists of applying small amounts of fertilizer with the seeds or a month after germination, instead of spreading it blindly throughout the field. Done at the right time, it can increase agricultural yields by 43 to 120%, according to ICRISAT’s Harawa.

    In parallel, in South Africa a plant is being built to generate ‘green ammonia’, a component of nitrogen-based fertilizers that will be produced by fragmenting water molecules with renewable energy. The desalinated water will come from a table salt plant. As of 2026, production of what some already consider to be one of the fertilizers of the future is expected to begin.

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