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Analysis: Farmers brace for worse as fertilizer prices rise, planting season approaches

Photo: Amhara Media Corporation

By Getahun Tsegaye @GetahunTsegay12 & Mahlet Fasil @MahletFasil 

Addis Abeba – The soaring price of fertilizers has posed a great challenge for farmers in Ethiopia. Reports have shown that fertilizer prices increased by more than 150% this year compared to last year. Local farmers that Addis Standard spoke to complained of not being able to buy fertilizers on a loan like they used to.  

Lemma Abebe is a local farmer in Agere Mariam woreda in the North Showa zone of the   Amhara Region.  “My farmland is located at a lowland that usually needs 5 to 7 quintals of fertilizers for one harvest,” Lemma said, “unless I use fertilizer, the harvest will be very minimal and it has become mandatory to use it to earn good results. Previously, we used to take fertilizers on a loan and repay them back once we earn money after selling our products but this trend has now stopped since we’re not allowed to take credit anymore.”

The 38-year-old father of four explained that he has been supporting his family on a very small plot of land that he inherited from his parents when he got married. “My kids are not old enough to plow yet but they support me by looking after the cattle,” he said, adding,” The challenges I am facing as a farmer may not be easily understandable for regular people. Only farmers understand a farmer’s problem.”    

But Lemma’s frustration is not just about affordable access to fertilizer, he is dismayed about the misconception some urban dwellers have. “Residents in cities sometimes have wrong assumptions that farmers may have a comfortable life. Though we farm, we are hungry and are destitute to the extent that we cannot afford to buy some goods. What makes our situation worse is the current alarming price of fertilizers,” Lemma complained. 

Woinshet Alemu is another farmer from Agere Mariam. She told Addis Standard that following her husband’s death, she and her children’s life has been greatly dependent on renting farmland. This trend, however, seems to have been unreliable means of living for them. “I have two kids, four and two years old. Since the death of my husband last year, I have been supporting my children by renting the plot of land to my neighbor,” Woinshet said, “The tenant [her neighbor] and I agreed that I will take 60% of the harvest while he takes the remaining 40%; we also agreed that we will equally share the cost of seeds and fertilizers.” 

“The challenges I am facing as a farmer may not be easily understandable for regular people. Only farmers understand a farmer’s problem.”

Lemma Abebe, local farmer

According to Woinshet expenses are not as affordable today as they used to be in recent past. The soaring cost of fertilizers has made life unbearable. “What will my kids and I eat if we buy the fertilizer with all the money we earn from the small farmland?” she asks in amusement.

BBC Amharic has recently reported that a quintal of fertilizer had a price tag of 1,700 ETB last year which now cost more than double, 4,500 ETB per quintal. Farmers fear their land could go without being ploughed this farming season due to the soaring price of fertilizers. Rising inflation is what the farmers said would have a major impact on their products. ”My plan was to spend up to 25,000 ETB on fertilizer this year; but now it has more than doubled and costs over 50,000 ETB. So how do I sow?” farmer Gete asks, “I have not bought any fertilizer yet. I am also worried about how to repay the debt I borrowed to sow for the summer irrigation.”

Another farmer, Shumet, shares Gete’s worries. ”Our village has been discussing the fertilizers issue for days now,” Shemet said. The farmers said they needed at least eight quintals of NPS and four quintals of Urea fertilizers to cover their land with crops. They asserted that because they could not afford to buy the fertilizers, they would not be able to produce anymore unless a better solution was given.   

“I am a poor farmer. I can’t afford to buy it at the current price.I may plant a little corn so that my children would not miss the harvest. It has become unattainable to harvest other than this,” the farmers expressed their despair. The soaring prices is now forcing the two farmers to consider planting crops that do not require fertilizer and are less profitable as the last resort.

The report said Ethiopia purchased 12.8 million quintals of fertilizers in the last week March this year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Sophia Kassa (PhD), State Minister for Investment and Input sector at he ministry, said work was underway to distribute the fertilizers to different regions.

What triggered the price hike?

Sophia reiterates the price of fertilizer increased by more than 150% this year compared to last year, and says that the price could have soared a lot more had the government not finalized the purchase deals earlier. “As a country, we have already won the bid and secured the deal. That’s why we still get a better price,” she claimed. 

She said that major fertilizer-producing countries had already reduced fertilizers production due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The price of natural gas, which, according to her, is specifically used for the production of urea fertilizer, has also risen, forcing countries that produce the fertilizer out of production. She also stated that China and Russia had reduced their fertilizer exports, contributing to the current price increase.  Procurement delays also occurred due to repeated issuance of bids, the state minister added. 

According to the global agriculture data brief, “in 2018, urea import for Ethiopia was 491,137 tonnes. Though Ethiopia urea import fluctuated substantially in recent years, it tended to increase through 2004 – 2018 period ending at 491,137 tonnes in 2018.”

Taking into account the ongoing import of fertilizers, efforts are underway to identify areas that should see crop planting earlier, and that regions were working to deliver it properly, Sophia said, adding that regional states were also working hard to enable the farmers not only to use artificial fertilizers but also natural fertilizers. 

In a report Sophia submitted to the Agricultural Affairs Standing Committee of the Ethiopia Parliament on 13 April, she said that the government has made US$1 billion worth fertilizer procurement deal for 12.8 million quintals of fertilizers. Of this, 4.95 million quintals was already distributed to farmers, 3.5 million quintals of which was distributed through regions. The remaining 4.3 million quintals has already arrived at Djibouti Port.

The State Minister told the BBC Amharic that that Ethiopia bought 17 million quintals of fertilizers last year, compared to the 5 million quintals fewer purchases. “Of the total demand, only 70 % of purchases were made. Additional purchases will be made in the fall,” she added.

“as the long rains planting season approaches, prospects of higher-than-average fertilizer prices could reduce fertilizer demand”

UN

Although there is no available data on the direct impact on Ethiopia’s import, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its outcome on the global supply of fertilizer is already a cause of concern worldwide. In In March, Gro-Intelligence already warned that “Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of fertilizers, but its war with Ukraine has disrupted shipping and driven up prices for natural gas, a key ingredient for fertilizer manufacturing. Western sanctions, including against Russian banks, could further curtail exports by constraining financing. Futures prices for urea fertilizer have jumped 32% since the invasion began on 24 Feb. while diammonium phosphate, or DAP, futures are up 13%.”

Similarly, the U.N. warned that Eastern African countries are “fully dependent on fertilizer imports and the rising fertilizer costs are expected to have severe implications of food availability and prices.” Although, particular countries of concern are Kenya and Uganda (importing 15 and 16 percent of the total value of fertilizers from Russia and Ukraine), according to the UN, “as the long rains planting season approaches, prospects of higher-than-average fertilizer prices could reduce fertilizer demand, which, coupled with anticipated below-average rains is likely to impact crop production, availability of staple crops on markets and, eventually, push cereal prices up.”

Organic fertilizer

As of late, officials from the federal government and regional states are recently advising farmers to increase the use of organic fertilizer as one way to alleviate the pressure. The farmers, however, say that they rarely use organic fertilizers due to the frequent exposure of their land by imported fertilizers.

Furthermore, the effective use of organic fertilizer is dependent on multiple variables. According to a study published in February this year, for example, which was aimed at identifying “the determinants of the utilization of organic fertilizers among smallholder farmers in the South Gondar Zone, Amhara National Regional State (ANRS), Northwest Ethiopia,” revealed that of the total 420 smallholder farmers surveyed in the study, “223 (53.10%) of the smallholder farmers used organic fertilizer and 197 (46.90%) of smallholder farmers did not use organic fertilizer.”

“The study showed that the age of the head of the household, the marital status, the educational status, the number of laborers, the farming experience, the farm size, the number of livestock, the access to information on organic fertilizer, access to extension service, cost of a laborer, household income, soil fertility, and farm to home distance significantly influenced the use of organic fertilizer.”

Overall, less than 40% of farmers in Ethiopia use fertilizer, according to a research study, and “those who do, apply rates significantly below those recommended. This low fertilizer use is primarily due to prices being two to three times higher than prices on the world markets.”

“As a country, we have already won the bid and secured the deal. That’s why we still get a better price.”

Sophia Kassa (PhD), State Minister for Investment and Infrastructure

On 23 March Addis Standard reported that farmers in the East Gojjam Zone of the Amhara regional state had filed complaints with zonal authorities on 22 March regarding the lack of supply and the rising cost of fertilizers ahead of the coming main crop planting season.

Representatives of the farmers who were drawn from various localities in the zone told zonal authorities that one of the main reasons for their harvest declines was the lack of timely supply of fertilizer and rising costs, contributing to their inability to buy and use the fertilizer timely.

The farmers’ representatives further cautioned that failure to provide adequate fertilizer for the next farming season could lead to a reduction in production and cause further damage to the lives of the farmers. They concluded their discussion by calling on the zonal leadership to facilitate a speedy solution and also formed a committee from each Woreda in the zone.

Recently, authorities are attempting to help farmer in East Gojam make use of organic fertilizer. Farmers in Machakel Woreda of East Gojjam Zone told state media on 04 April that they were working to increase their agricultural productivity by preparing and using natural/organic fertilizers widely. AS

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