Three fertilizer alternatives to arrest soil degradation in Africa

Healthy soil is critical for global food security and also supports climate and environmental outcomes, including sequestering carbon. The recent paper from CASA explores alternative fertilizer strategies to support long-term soil health. Without approaches to sustainable intensification, cultivated areas will be expanded, damaging ecosystems, and releasing significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The report focuses on three fertilizer technologies. If combined with more efficient fertilizer use, these technologies have the potential to support sustainable intensification. They are:

  • green ammonia
  • organic fertilizers, and
  • biological products

Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine disrupted fertilizer production and distribution. However, even before these challenges, mineral fertilizer application in Sub-Saharan Africa only averaged around 22.5kg per hectare.

Traditional mineral fertilizers have driven agricultural productivity over the past century. Their inefficient use has released a range of potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Under application in Africa has contributed to soil degradation, which is predicted to worsen over time.

The report considers several emerging technologies that are consistent with an integrated approach to managing long-term soil health. These approaches are designed to make fertilizers support specific soil structures and soil health. These are:

  • portable soil health analysis
  • remote sensing to support tailored advice, and
  • integrated soil health advisory services

There are bottlenecks restricting the scaling up of these approaches. These include the need for long-term, hands-on support to get maximum benefit from technology-based solutions. 

Mat Hague, CASA’s Lead Researcher, said: ‘In response to the soil fertility challenge, CASA commissioned research to identify technologies that have shown the potential to improve yields and mitigate against climate and environmental damage.

The challenge is scaling up solutions in commercially viable ways, such that we can impact on smallholder farmers. We need investors to pilot new business models, to bring these technologies to the fore. This can deliver sustainable intensification of smallholder farmers’ systems that mitigates against climate and environmental impacts – whilst improving food security and farmers’ livelihoods.’

Long-term soil health, not immediate challenges, should drive fertilizer strategies, that carefully consider the specific needs and opportunities of smallholder farmers and focus on efficient use of fertilizer  

Businesses looking to make an impact on food security support need to develop a business model to smallholder farmers with alternative fertilizers, understanding they need substantial ‘hands on’ support is required over the medium- to long-term 

Three fertilizer technologies

Image from one-page summary of the report.

Opportunities to address key challenges

1. Influencing longstanding farming practices

The business case for smallholder farmers to improve long-term soil health is not always compelling. Soil testing kits and remote sensing provide information on soil conditions, which supports an integrated approach. But smallholder farmers need active promotion of biofertilizers in conjunction with ongoing training. This is including how to interpret test results, as the information and instructions related to this are complex.

2. Promoting higher quality alternative products

The quality of biological products and organic fertilizers significantly influences their effectiveness. The quality of biological products require suitable microbial strains, appropriate carrier materials, proper sterilization (which can be challenging in Africa and Asia), and an adequate supply of nutrients for microbial growth. Materials are compromised by temperature extremes, moisture levels, and poor storage conditions – which makes distribution challenging. The quality of organic fertilizers requires organic matter and an effective composting process. Once produced, organic products are robust. Negative experiences of inferior quality products can discourage repeated use.

3. Investing in local green ammonia production

The form of green ammonia must be useable by smallholder farmers. But, local, modular production of green ammonia presents lowers entry barriers for developers and offers more consistent, affordable ammonia supply via shortened supply chains. In addition, there are lower logistical costs, and reduced transport emissions. Production infrastructure is required and production requires access to affordable and reliable renewable energy.

4. Building the business case for serving the smallholder segment

Soil testing technologies provide site-specific information to support tailored fertilizer strategies for smallholders. However, the added costs of ‘wraparound’ supporting services – for example training and after-sales support – can increase per-user costs significantly.

Promoting appropriate alternative fertilizer solutions to smallholder customers requires smaller pack sizes, alternative distribution partnerships and hands-on technical support. The business and investment case for organic fertilizers can be challenging. Scale is limited by the bulky, low-value nature of these products and the need for long-term application. Longer supply chains translate into higher unit costs which undermine financial viability, as well as increasing transport-based emissions. On-farm composting creates lower emission from logistics, but isn’t scalable.

Complexity and risk often push the unit costs of the technology beyond what smallholders’ can afford. Local ‘scale agents’, likely to be extension services and commercial farms running outgrower schemes, can help overcome this challenge. Products must be no more expensive than traditional alternatives – many of which are too expensive for smallholders.

5. Supporting links between R&D and investment

Access to external financial and non-financial support was particularly challenging when shifting from initial product development to early commercialization. Developers also struggled to make a persuasive argument for products that had not yet achieved commercial viability. The founding team’s skills are often more focused on technical than commercial.

The report suggests investors perceived that the development of these biological fertilizer products sometimes lacked proper field testing. However, soil testing technologies are more likely to attract external investors as they have clearer pathway to scale. 

6. Governments should develop supportive policies and regulations

For alternative fertilizers, replacing blanket fertilizer recommendations with integrated soil fertility management practices which embraces the adoption of fertilizer alternatives. Streamlining the registration of new biological products or the release of non-indigenous microbial species strains and treating manure as a resource, not a health risk, is also required.

Recommendations of the report

Capital providers

To help create an enabling environment and support climate-smart agricultural technology and investment, should: invest in localized green ammonia production support commercialization of promising research and development of alternative fertilizer technologies.  

To help create an enabling environment and support climate-smart agricultural technology and investment, should: develop policies and regulations that support the widespread use of alternative fertilizer products facilitate local production of green ammonia close to the main agricultural production areas ensure that regulations are imposed to improve the quality and consistency of alternative fertilizer products.

To support moves towards greater nutritional and food security and more resilient food systems  should: encourage the uptake of alternative fertilizer products at smallholder farmer levels by ensuring that extension services are trained in the benefits of the products and can support their introduction into farming systems in the most effective manner over the long term facilitate local production of green ammonia close to the main agricultural production areas.  

Further information

Access the full report: Exploring fertilizer alternatives and opportunities for improving use efficiency in Africa and South Asia

Download a one-pager summary of the report.

Feature photo credit: Antony Trivet

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