The East African: We cannot deny African farmers access to technologies that increase yields
Aggie Konde, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa Deputy Vice-President for Programme Delivery and Innovation, spoke with The EastAfrican on its impact on agriculture in Africa.
Agra has been criticised for taking a high input approach to farming, raising concerns that your methods are unaffordable to small holder farmers. What is your response?
Agra has one simple brief: that Africa farmers however small, deserve the same shot at productive farming as the rest of the farmers in the world. We look at affordability from kitchen and egg situation and what comes first – where a farmer with poor yields will never be able to afford inputs that are critical to raising yields and incomes and therefore condemned to perpetual poverty. We work with local MSMEs and SMEs to ensure African farmers have choices of seeds and fertilisers available as near as possible in their village shops.
There have also been concerns that you promote unsustainable agricultural methodologies and inputs on farmers.
What is not sustainable is for anybody to think that African farmers will continue to depend on using more land, more forests, more wetlands to produce food. Extensification still accounts for 30 percent of increase in food production across many countries in Africa. Use of inputs to increase yields is still very low by all standards and the bigger threat is encroachment and degradation of habitats due to poor productivity now being made worse by climate change shocks. Given the adverse impacts of low yielding subsistence agriculture on hunger, poverty and environment, can we afford to deny African farmers access to methods/technologies that increase yields?
Agra is a strong promoter of the use of chemical fertiliser. Why?
Agra recognises the need to build the resilience of people and environment and the need to avoid mistakes made in the past on fertiliser overuse. However, many studies have shown alarming nutrient losses in sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that in the past 30 years alone, across approximately 200 million hectares of cultivated land in 37 African countries, Africa’s soil fertility depletion averaged 660kg nitrogen, 75kg phosphorous, and 450 kg potassium on a hectare basis. Removal of nutrients without replacing them is a guaranteed route to poor yields, environmental degradation and ultimately, poverty.
Crop residues contain only up to 4.2 percent of the six primary and secondary nutrients (most of the rest is carbon, hydrogen and oxygen). Poultry manure, the richest type of manure, has only up to 15 percent nutrients. Compare that to the concentration of nutrients in a bag of urea, triple superphosphate (TSP) or diammonium phosphate (DAP) which contain between 46 percent and 64 percent pure nutrient.
But the real issue is not why use of fertilisers. The issue is how much? Africa’s fertiliser use rate, even with all the efforts put in, has moved from 4kgs to 14kg/per hectare in the past 20 years. Compare this to an average fertiliser use of 320kg in China, 120kg in the US and 200kg in Europe. Judging by these numbers, you might argue that Agra and African countries are not doing enough. AGRA is not interested in making any environmental mistakes, we will use the late comer’s advantage instead to focus on learning from others’ mistakes as we support African countries.
What is the best way to help farmers get investment?
Farmers prefer to bank (mainly keep savings) with their local financial institutions like savings and credit cooperatives, which are often owned by farmers with services at affordable costs. Agra supports those local rural financial institutions in digitisation, which helps to improve the speed of service delivery, reduce fraud and cost of services delivery and helps data build up that allows farmers to strengthen their viability for credit. We also assist these institutions to access funding (from national development finance institutions like the Kenyan Agricultural Finance Corporation, the Tanzanian SELF, the Uganda UDB and impact investors like ABC fund where Agra is a shareholder).
We have supported product development with agricultural finance products that are affordable and adapted to the farmers’ cash flow cycles and repayment capacity. Examples are the income smoothening product offered by Mucoba Community Bank in Tanzania. We also facilitated access to insurance. The biggest deterrent to investment comes from a high but sometimes overrated risk associated with the agriculture sector. In the past we have designed risk sharing facilities for governments that allow farmers access to funding.
How do you engage with the private sector?
Agra supports governments to optimise the SME policy and operation environment while at the same time investing in better SME capacity to grow by providing technical support, creating platforms, coalitions and convening that improve the business environment and create opportunities for investments. Every year at the AGRF Forum, there is a Deal room that show cases investment opportunities across SMEs.