In the later half of the 20th century, increased use of nitrogen fertilizers have been a crucial component of the increased productivity of conventional food systems.
Management of soil fertility has been the preoccupation of farmers for thousands of years. The use of commercial fertilizers has increased steadily in the last 50 years, rising almost 20-fold to the current rate of 100 million tonnes of nitrogen per year. Without commercial fertilisers it is estimated that about one-third of the food produced now could not be produced.
The use of phosphate fertilisers has also increased from 9 million tonnes per year in 1960 to 40 million tonnes per year in 2000. Yara International is the world's largest producer of nitrogen-based fertilisers.
Fertilisers enhance the growth of plants. This goal is met in two ways, the traditional one being additives that provide nutrients. The second mode by which some fertilisers act is to enhance the effectiveness of the soil by modifying its water retention and aeration. For decades, fertilisers were too expensive for African farmers. They had to be imported, and transportation into the continent was expensive.
Now, though, Africa is turning a corner toward producing more of it locally. A Moroccan company has signed a nearly $4 billion deal to build a fertiliser plant in Ethiopia. A Danish company is helping the Democratic Republic of Congo build a $2.5 billion fertiliser plant. The African Development Bank Group helped fund a new fertiliser plant in Nigeria that’s already boosting farmers’ yields.
And this August in Ghana, the vice president stood proudly before the largest fertiliser plant ever built in the country. Mahamudu Bawumia said the factory was the solution Ghana’s farmers had been demanding.
African countries have some of the lowest rates of fertiliser use in the world, but efforts to change this come with some serious dilemmas. Some nutrients farmers add to the soil both nourish crops and contribute to the climate change that’s already damaging food production in Africa. The wide acceptance and government support for fertiliser in Africa has been a long time coming.
As African governments turn toward encouraging farmers to use fertilisers and building plants that produce it, farmers will still face challenges, because, especially in the beginning, fertilisers need to be applied generously and consistently to eventually make soil productive. That’s a big initial expense that many African farmers with small plots can’t afford.
While governments are trying to address that problem with subsidies, another problem has cropped up: As fertilizer production in Africa has increased, so have reports of it being stolen and smuggled.
So, while public-private partnerships have built fertilizer plants across Africa. The private sector has to play a key role. And they have to play a key role in ensuring that fertiliser gets to the farmer, at the right time, in the right moment. African governments have made great strides with the public-private partnerships that have allowed them to build fertilizer plants.