For decades, fertilizer usage in Africa lagged behind the rest of the world. Efforts were made immediately following independence in the 1960s and 70s to secure fertilizer access. But the costs were too great for it to be viable, despite the fact that most sub-Saharan African economies were and still are dependent on agriculture for economic growth. In more recent years, several African countries have found success in producing fertilizer locally. Ethiopia is building a $4 billion fertilizer plant with the aid of a Moroccan company, and a Danish enterprise is helping the Democratic Republic of the Congo open up a $2.5 billion plant of its own. In August 2019, Ghana opened the largest fertilizer plant in the country’s history. While these steps are worth celebrating, fertilizer usage in Africa still faces a myriad of challenges.
Fertilizer runoff contaminates groundwater, costing millions to manage and remedy. Initial usage of fertilizer requires frequent and large application, accelerating its contribution to climate change by altering the chemical composition of soil nutrients and potentially damaging other aspects of African agriculture. The large financial costs of introducing fertilizer to crops are a barrier that few small-scale farmers can afford, creating inequalities in its application and usage.
Governments are attempting to offset this imbalance through subsidies, but the increasing presence of fertilizer is also causing greater instances of fertilizer theft. Of those who don’t lose their fertilizer to thieves, they must wait years before their respective governments deliver to them new shipments. While public-private partnerships have succeeded in building industrial plants for large-scale agriculture, getting fertilizer into the hands of ordinary farmers presents a continuing challenge that needs to be considered along with the impacts that greater fertilizer use may have on Africa’s climate.