NATHAN WERE: Why Ugandan farmers must urgently embrace fertilizer and irrigation

Nathan Were works for IFC, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

KAMPALA — On June 23rd, 2023, the International Finance Corporation [IFC], a private sector arm of the World Bank, held its inaugural Agri-Business Investment Forum in Kampala that brought together over 100 top Agricultural Companies in Uganda, to learn about IFC’s investment and technical assistance offerings.

The event also marked the end of a successful technical assistance project supporting close to 2,600 smallholder farmers in Kween, Kikuube, Mityana, and Amuru to improve the production and productivity of Barley, Coffee, Maize, Beans, and Coffee for Grainpulse Uganda Limited.

The last two years have seen prolonged droughts that have significantly affected crop yields, livestock, and milk production. It is evident that the effects of climate change are slowly setting in, and smallholder farmers have started to notice due to year on year drop in productivity. Fertilizer use also remains low. According to figures from the World Bank, Uganda remains the least fertilizer user in the region at only 2.4 kilograms per hectare of arable land – compared to Tanzania at 16.4 kgs, Rwanda at 25.9 kgs, and Kenya at 65.2 kgs. With the continued decline in soil health, smallholder farmers will need to urgently adopt fertilizer use to keep up with production and meet the food requirements of the country’s growing population.

Efforts to transition smallholder farmers to adopt and use fertilizer must tackle the cost, application, and importance of fertilizer. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, fertilizer prices have almost doubled, and many smallholder farmers have been locked out. Although subsidy schemes such as those being promoted by the African Fertilizer and Agri-Business Partnership [AFAP] have pushed prices down, many farmers remain without access.

Secondly, knowledge on fertilizer application needs to improve for those with access. Low knowledge of application means farmers need to be trained on how to use fertilizer to improve yields otherwise, some are overusing it, which could have far-reaching effects on the quality of the soil while some are applying less than required resulting into zero effect on yield. Thirdly, several farmers need help understanding the value of using fertilizer and the impact it can have on yields. It is, therefore, important that efforts to transition farmers to the adoption and use of fertilizer tackle the cost, application, and importance of using fertilizer.

The prolonged drought periods mean that crops and animals are dying. This is frustrating farmers’ efforts and severely impacting food availability, forcing prices to rise. The International Food Policy Research Institute – only 6 percent of the land under cultivation in Sub-Saharan Africa is currently under irrigation.

The urgency to move smallholder farmers to supplementary irrigation is greater now than ever before, considering that they contribute 80 percent of the food we eat. There’s enormous potential in rainwater harvesting for irrigating farms during the dry spell to reduce crop failure and animal mortality. Over the years, microfinance institutions have been stepping up financing for water equipment such as plastic tanks and underground reservoirs.

The efforts by microfinance institutions should be scaled up to aid smallholders in acquiring water storage tools. There has also been an emergency of the pay-as-you model for solar-powered irrigation. These models must be scaled up, especially in tight value chains where off take is guaranteed. Solar-powered irrigation systems are preferred compared to diesel due to their low operational costs, especially in rural areas where the price of diesel is high, and access could be challenging for many farmers.

Supporting smallholder farmers requires an eco-systems approach – tackling extension to improve yields, access to high-quality inputs, access to finance, and linkage to markets. IFC’s funding strategy of accompanying technical assistance with investment transactions addresses some of these problems as the technical support helps unlock supply chain constraints for off-takers while delivering value to smallholder farmers.

The writer, Nathan Were works for IFC, based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Views expressed in this article are for the author and not the institution.


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