About this series
This story is part of a series by the Center for Public Integrity, Grist and The World about how our overuse of fertilizer harms the climate and endangers the public.
The ultramodern facility in the coastal town of Tema, Ghana, cost nearly $5 million to build — and is wholly owned by Ghanaians. It’s the first in a national plan to build fertilizer plants in every district of the country.
“We therefore don’t have any reason to be furthermore importing more and more fertilizer and wasting our foreign exchange,” Bawumia said.
The wide acceptance and government support for fertilizer in Africa has been a long time coming.
“You had efforts to get fertilizer adopted in the ’60s, the ’70s, but it didn’t become a success because the cost benefit were not favorable at all,” said Henk Breman, who was Africa director for IFDC, the International Fertilizer Development Center.
🡅 Listen to the radio piece on this topic from The World.
He said there was also resistance to fertilizer from some in Africa who — remembering the colonialism that dominated the continent — didn’t want to be dependent on foreign corporations. Or they preferred more natural farming because fertilizers contribute to climate change, which is already damaging some food production in Africa. But Breman said natural “biological” methods won’t produce enough food.
“That will not feed the African population at present,” he said, adding, “Nevertheless, those who believe in biological agriculture hate me.”
As African governments turn toward encouraging farmers to use fertilizer and building plants that produce it, Breman said farmers will still face challenges, because, especially in the beginning, fertilizer needs 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.
“Usually [the government agriculture department] supplies us with fertilizer,” said 80-year-old Okyeame Ampadu, a farmer in the interior Volta Region of Ghana, but he said he hasn’t received fertilizer from the government for two years.
Ampadu raises citrus fruit and coconuts, and now he’s trying his hand with avocados because he hasn’t had much luck with any crops. In a dark shed, he keeps one last burlap bag of fertilizer, leaning up against a wall, stamped with the letters N, P, K, for Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. The bag’s still mostly full; Ampadu said he’s saving it for when he really needs it.
So, while public-private partnerships have built fertilizer plants across Africa — like the one that just opened in Ghana — fertilizer isn’t getting into the hands of small and medium farmers in remote areas. Marie Claire Kalihangabo, who finances fertilizer projects for the African Development Bank Group, said the continent’s governments need to consider new options.
“We have seen some achievement,” she acknowledged at a fertilizer conference last year. “But [the] private sector has to play a key role. And they have to play a key role in ensuring that fertilizer 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. Kalihangabo said it make take similar partnerships to solve this last, stubborn problem of actually getting fertilizer in the hands of farmers.
“We all know that agriculture is the key in the development of the continent,” she said. And, the key to successful agriculture in Africa is more fertilizer.
This article is a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity, Grist — a nonprofit media organization covering climate, justice and sustainability for a national audience — and The World, a radio program that crosses borders and time zones to bring home the stories that matter.