Dr Rebbie Harawa is the head of soil and fertiliser systems at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra). She spoke to Leopold Obi on how farmers can improve fertility of their soils through effective use of fertilisers
Many soils in Africa are either infertile, too acidic or degraded. What practices can farmers adopt to boost fertility?
The best practice is to integrate inorganic fertilisers and organic manures from animal and crops and incorporating cereal and legume rotations.
Africa needs fertilisers to help regenerate the production of crop biomass that can be ploughed into the soil, which are too degraded to give sufficient biomass to raise fertility.
A new report by Agra titled ‘Feeding Africa’s Soils’ urges farmers to use fertilisers ‘in much greater quantities to boost crop production’, yet a number of studies have blamed increased use of the input for rising soil acidity. Where does the balance lie?
The report emphasises on the use of balanced fertilisers (area and crop-specific) guided by soil testing. Where soils are acidic, farmers are advised to apply agricultural lime and use the right type of fertiliser.
But again, increased use of fertiliser has to be integrated with organic manures that help to reduce the acidifying effect.
Many African countries including Kenya have used subsidy programmes to promote fertiliser use among smallholders. What should be done to make the programmes work efficiently?
We are advising governments to carry out “smart subsidies” to ensure that smallholders are benefiting. The reforms include:
•Better targeting through beneficiary selection and registration process to ensure that the fertiliser is benefiting those who really need it.
•Use of e-vouchers to create transparency, cost and time efficiency and track transactions.
•Use of private sector and agro-dealers to distribute because they have more selling outlets than public channels.
• Fast-track budget approval and announce the programme in real-time to avoid late delivery of vouchers, procurement and distribution of inputs.
•Promote soil testing so that fertiliser that is subsidised is balanced to address area and crop specific needs.
• Put in place fertiliser regulatory frameworks to ensure that farmers are accessing good quality fertiliser.
•Fertiliser subsidy should be promoted alongside improved seeds, good agronomic practices and better access to produce market. Linking fertiliser subsidy to better access to produce is key to long-term sustainability of subsidy.
The private sector has asked the government to do away with fertiliser subsidy programmes, noting they are driving them out of business. Are they justified?
Most of the subsidies in Sub-Saharan Africa are currently crowding out the private sector. However, if government carries out the reforms where private sector drives the implementation and government focuses on the policy and regulations, this will create a win-win situation.
Numerous efforts have been made to boost fertiliser use in Sub-Saharan Africa, what is the progress so far?
Fertiliser use has increased from an average of 8kg of nutrient per hectare in 2006 to 17kg of nutrient per hectare in 2018.
This is still far from the target of 50kg nutrient per ha, which was agreed upon by African Heads State at the Africa Fertiliser Summit in 2006.
How can a farmer tell that their soils are acidic?
They can use simple soil test kits right on their farm and get instant results, which show whether their soils are acidic or not.
Farmers can also get soils tested in public and private soil laboratories
Can farmers whose soils are already acidic still use inorganic fertilisers?
Yes, but they need to apply agricultural lime first which reduces the soil acidity. This should be followed by the application of balanced fertilisers that have a less acidifying effect.