At the World Food Bank, we work to address 12 key agricultural sectors, all of which are essential components of a thriving global food system. Throughout 2018, we will be highlighting one of these sectors each month in our newsletter in an effort to help our readers better understand all of the complex issues governing agricultural value chains. This month, we’re discussing fertlizer.

Festo Musoke has been farming in Uganda for 60 years. Early on in his career, he recognized something would have to be done to make his land more productive if he wanted to be able to support his family and provide education for his children. His land had been degraded by farming activities over time, and the soil on his property was lacking essential nutrients.

Kizito had been focusing his efforts on growing one main cash crop of coffee, and though he considered it to be somewhat risky, he began to invest some of his meager profits into fertilizer for his crops. Upon doing this, he immediately saw his yields-per-acre more than double.

Encouraged by this success, Kizito continued to invest in fertilizer, and he also began the practice of intercropping, or rotating the types of food he was growing, to increase nutrients in his soil. In addition to coffee, he began growing bananas, plantains, and pineapples. On top of these activities, he began dabbling in piggery and poultry rearing in order to produce more manure and compost pits to fertilize the soil.

By adopting these practices, which are currently not common among Ugandan farmers, Kizito grew his farm from 19 acres to 45 commercial acres. He has been able to afford schooling for all of his children, creating a legacy of support that continues on for his 22 grandchildren. The success that he has attained from his early adoption of fertilizer has made him a leader in his community and a model for other African farmers around him.

Kizito’s story illustrates the benefits that could be seen by other farmers in Uganda through access to better farming inputs, like fertilizer. Across the African continent, the use of fertilizer by local farmers is very low. Although Sub-Saharan Africa has 20 percent of the world’s arable land, it only consumes about 2 percent of the world’s fertilizer supply. This is primarily due to three factors: cost, access, and education.

Fertilizers can be cost-prohibitive to subsistence-based farmers who aren’t earning enough to make investments back into their farms. These farmers typically do not have access to financing or credit for fertilizer, and, if they do, often will not risk taking it because they can’t predict market prices for their crops. Those who can afford and access fertilizer also often purchase “bad” fertilizer or counterfeit product.

Fertilizers are often hard to access in rural areas of Africa where roadways and transportation systems are poor, and when they are available they are often very expensive, as transportation costs further increase price. And then there is the simple fact that many farmers have never received education on the benefits that fertilizers would provide to their crops or how to use them correctly.

In fact, some experts in farming in Uganda say that education is one of the biggest needs. Uganda in particular has a natural endowment of natural resources. It’s a very green country, with beautiful foliage and a healthy amount of rainfall. Farmers often take this endowment for granted and do not realize that soil is a living organism that needs to be fed the right nutrients in order to thrive.

As we stated in our earlier article on soil, it’s estimated that about 80 percent of arable land in Sub-Saharan Africa contains nutrient-depleted soil. Soil becomes depleted over time through regular farming and agricultural activities, like tilling and growing food. As plants use and absorb nutrients found in the soil when they grow, each crop leaves the soil a little less fertile than it was before. In order to ensure continued soil fertility and success of crops, nutrients and minerals need to be regularly replaced in the soil and farmers also need to practice crop rotation to build up diverse nutrients.

Fertilizers, both organic and synthetic, work to do just that so that crops grow faster and yields are increased. Some fertilizers provide added benefits of decreasing the amount of water and irrigation needed for crops by improving water retention in the soil.

In particular, fertilizers provide plants with essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. That said, it should also be noted that not all soils require the same nutrients. Another issue facing sub-Saharan African farmers is the lack of diversity in available fertilizer products, meaning that even if cost were not an issue, not all farmers are able to access the specific fertilizers that would be of benefit to them.

Where cost is an issue, many farmers could benefit greatly from access to credit, which is not widely available at the moment, and access to markets, as being able to sell their crops efficiently would be a motivating factor for farmers to increase output and invest back into their farms. Some African governments subsidize fertilizer products in an effort to make them more affordable to farmers, but these policies have not yet been shown to make a dramatic improvement. In Uganda, one of the countries where we work, the government’s National Fertilizer Policy “intends to support [farmers] by ensuring that the fertilizer industry is providing affordable and accessible fertilizers to farmers for increased and sustainable agriculture productivity and farm incomes.”

At the World Food Bank, we are working with partners in the fertilizer sector to provide farmers with better practical and financial access to fertilizers and to better educate them on how they can use fertilizers to enhance their yields. By connecting farmers in our East African network to the tools they need to build stronger soil profiles, we are helping them to increase their yields and, as a result, their incomes and their access to education, medical care, and other opportunities.