Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

The Hour of African Agriculture: How Do We Make the Vision a Reality?

Richard MkandawireThis post was written by Dr. Richard Mkandawire, the Vice President of the African Fertilizer and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP). He previously helped lead the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), an innovative framework for agricultural development established by African nations and leaders. He is a member of the Malawi Presidential Advisory Committee on the Economy, as well as the National Development Council of Malawi.

When President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria called for an African Fertilizer Summit in 2006 (held in Abuja), global agricultural activists, such as Jeffery Sachs and the late Norman Borlaug, joined many African leaders, researchers and academics in calling for “the hour of African agriculture.” It was a momentous occasion. We could hear the passion in the chorus of voices as they discussed how to increase adoption and responsible usage of fertilizer in Africa, which could help catalyse agricultural growth and strengthen food security across the continent.  

That was 9 years ago. Today, fertilizer use in sub-Saharan Africa has been increasing steadily; recent studies show that smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) use an average of 12 kilograms per hectare of fertilizer. This is still a far cry from what the Abuja Fertilizer Summit committed to, but this movement towards increased use of fertilizer provides hope. Challenges remain in getting fertilizer, along with other inputs, to smallholder farmers. However, new approaches and successful models for reaching smallholder farmers are emerging (note: stay tuned for our next post for more on this), and these need to achieve scale throughout the continent to have a broader impact. 

Access to finance for inputs is a continued hindrance to increasing fertilizer adoption rates, particularly among smallholder farmers. While the public sector has made many contributions towards alleviating hunger and poverty, lessons learned show that the private sector’s contributions will be invaluable in strengthening the agriculture sector and ensuring that smallholder farmers reap the full benefits of agricultural innovations.

This is why the African Fertilizer and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP) entered the field—as a conduit between public- and private-sector efforts to strengthening the fertilizer industry. AFAP believes that by uniting the dedication and expertise of the public and private sectors, we can strengthen the marketplace and encourage more consistent and responsible fertilizer use amongst smallholder farmers. The mechanism that allows AFAP to do this is the Agribusiness Partnership Contract (APC), which was devised by AFAP leadership. The APC is an agreement that allows AFAP’s assistance to eligible international, regional and local agribusinesses as they make inroads into emerging African smallholder markets. The contracts help to accelerate smallholder input adoption, reduce poverty and enhance the spirit of entrepreneurship in rural communities.

The AFAP approach builds on Africa’s entrepreneurial strengths and agricultural resources, while addressing the challenges that have held back private-sector investment and know-how from markets serving smallholder farmers. AFAP’s experience has showed that APC partnerships have been particularly effective vehicles for directly engaging women and young entrepreneurs.

The APCs provide assistance directly to the private sector to further public-sector goals of increased crop production and rural economic development. AFAP also works with farming communities and local entrepreneurs to shape development support. We’ve found this to be a much more effective approach than the traditional top-down model, where development partners set the agenda without consulting local recipients who are expected to accept all of the outcomes.

AFAP gives explicit attention not just to the fertilizer industry and its supply chain, but to how smallholders benefit as customers, farmers and entrepreneurs through: 

  • Greater access to affordable fertilizer;
  • Increased crop yield; and
  • Better access to output markets.

There currently is a strong demand for APC assistance from a wide range of agribusinesses in many sub-Saharan African countries. This demand is particularly strong in the challenging post-conflict/post-crisis countries, including Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Mali and Sierra Leone.  AFAP has also noted the need to expose farmers to a broader set of productivity-enhancing technologies that will complement, and enhance the benefits of, the increased use of chemical fertilizers.

If fertilizer is expected to reach smallholder farmers in the remote corners of Africa, institutional policy reforms need to be made to help create the right enabling environment. Policies need to address a number of areas, including improvements to rural infrastructure, commitment to investing in soil health research and soil mapping. The private sector will also need to open and own their space in the development agenda, especially taking the lead in the procurement and distribution of fertilizer to smallholder farmers. 

The time for African governments to double their investments in agriculture, grow fertilizer value chains and pay attention to agricultural public goods is long overdue. More than 60 percent of Africa is arable land, but hunger and poverty still persist. This paradox of the agrarian experience demands urgent attention as we work on developing and then reaching the Sustainable Development Goals.