The Fertilizer Industry and Partners Focus on Supporting Africa’s Food Systems

The 2021 IFA Strategic Forum explored how the fertilizer industry and its partners can help support farmers and strengthen food systems to unlock Africa’s huge potential to sustainably feed itself and others amid climate change and COVID-19 challenges.

Held in Dubai, the event welcomed 170 fertilizer industry leaders from 69 companies and 35 countries, who assembled to listen to and exchange views with leading stakeholders; gain a deeper understanding of agriculture in Africa and its high-growth potential; learn about the regional yield gap, soil health, food security and global nutrition update; and explore new partnerships and projects to help improve the productivity, efficiency and resilience of Africa’s farming systems.

Setting the scene, three distinguished speakers shared their visions for the future of Africa’s food systems.

His Excellency Hailemariam Dessalegn, Former Prime Minister of Ethiopia and Chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, highlighted the need for increased access to fertilizers to improve soil health: “African soils are becoming extremely degraded. Well managed soils offer resilience to climate change and adaptation. Fertilizer use in Africa is currently too low to counter nutrient mining.”

Beth Bechdol, Deputy Director General of the FAO, also stressed the importance of improving plant nutrition. “In Africa, climate change, infertile soils and a lack of nutrient supply are challenges to closing the yield gap. Plant nutrition plays a crucial role in creating more sustainable systems,” said Bechdol, who noted the key role of the fertilizer sector for providing nutrients as well as advice for their use and recycling.

Martin Fregene, Director of the Department of Agriculture and Agro-Industry at the African Development Bank, meanwhile, envisaged a more commercial future for African agriculture. "It’s time to make farming in Africa not just a means to survive but a business. We need to invest in infrastructure to help increase crop yields, create markets and encourage farmers to invest in technology,” Fregene said.

Following the keynote speakers, a CEO roundtable explored some of the many projects already under way by IFA members in Africa and what more the private sector can do to support Africa’s agriculture.

Improving fertilizer access on the continent was the focus of Session 1, which looked ahead to the crucial second Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit planned for 2023. Participants highlighted the low levels of fertilizer use on the continent, which accounted for 3½ percent of global use in 2019. Challenges that were noted included the high cost of logistics, poor access to finance, farmers not knowing how to use fertilizers properly and distribution channels being under threat due to pandemic-related issues.

Despite these obstacles, the session emphasized the crucial role of fertilizers for improving productivity and allowing smallholder farmers to grow-to-sell and export while protecting the environment. “Africa could double its cereal production by achieving higher yields rather than increasing its production land," said Her Excellency Josefa Sacko, Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture at the African Union Commission.

The continent’s considerable yield potential was explored in detail during Session 2. Participants observed that rice showed a huge potential for increased nutrient responses and that applying the principles of 4R nutrient stewardship (using the right nutrient source at the right rate, at the right time, in the right place) more than doubled yields for many grain crops in field trials. Closing the yield gap on the continent could help meet the projected 280% increase in demand for cereal in sub-Saharan Africa between 2015 and 2050 and make some countries self-sufficient.

The need to improve soil health in Africa was a recurring theme throughout the forum and the focus of Session 3, where many speakers reiterated the need to build up soil organic matter, restore soil health and increase productivity using fertilizers combined with available organic inputs. Participants called for the need to empower farmers to adopt practices that enhance soil organic matter and improve overall soil health, with low-cost soil testing offering a means to support this.

Amid a consensus that farming in Africa needs to move beyond self-sufficiency the last session explored the role of innovation and startups for making farming more efficient and profitable. Speakers cited a growing range of agtech startups offering financial access, agronomic advisory, market linkages, supply chain management and agri-sector intelligence services, alongside a growth in investment, though noted more investments were needed.

With insufficient capacity for supporting smallholders in Africa, and a lack of advice tailored to them, digital agtech services such as soil testing and advisory services were seen to offer significant potential, for example by helping farmers to assess the cost-benefit of different investments, access credit for inputs and know when and where to sell their produce to maximize their return.

The forum highlighted both the huge opportunities for and significant challenges to African agriculture, as well the importance of partnerships.

As IFA Director General Alzbeta Klein summed up at the end of the meeting: "Investment is needed to create the right conditions. Solutions need to be farmer centric and profitable, and we need a carbon-centered approach. We need to act now. Working together we can help to transform Africa’s food systems."

Event sponsors: OCP, Sabic, Quest Group, Ma’aden, Uralchem, Uralkali, GPIC, IRM, Yara and ETG.