Fertilizer: The Art Of Distribution

Over the next five years the global population will increase by at least 400 million. Commodity and energy prices may continue their upward spiral as well. Therefore, increased efficiency and effectiveness in the use of land, agriculture inputs, water and labor will be needed as offsets. In the long term, increased efficiency and effectiveness will be of even greater importance.

In 1597 Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Knowledge is power.” As more of the world’s population has access to information, Bacon’s maxim increases in relevance. Improving farmers’ knowledge increases their ability to control their economic conditions. The International Fertilizer and Development Center (IFDC) is committed to improving the agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers by further spreading information and technology.

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For example, training is the most effective means of agricultural technology transfer and capacity development. IFDC conducts three types of training: international training and workshop programs; specialized programs at the request of other organizations involved in agricultural productivity activities; and programs within its field projects (using on-site field training, demonstration plots, farmer field days, training of trainers, etc.).

Training in the technical use of agricultural inputs and agribusiness skills builds farmers’ capacity. In 2009-10 IFDC and its partners trained more than 1 million farmers. IFDC makes a special effort to reach women, who often do not have the opportunity for training in agricultural technologies, even though they often are critical to the success of smallholder farming. The number of women enrolled in training programs more than tripled last year compared to 2009, increasing to 325,450 — more than 32 percent of the total farmers trained.

Across Africa, IFDC is accelerating value chain development by training more than 2,000 representatives of value chain-facilitating structures. They are trained on subjects such as integrated soil fertility management, inventory credit/warehouse receipts systems, crop profitability, credit access, post-harvest strategies and cooperative/organizational management.

Moreover almost 70 associations and cooperatives, a total of 30,000 members, were trained in the establishment, management and rules governing cooperatives. In addition, training was provided to more than 1,000 agro-dealers (approximately 25 percent were women), creating the conditions to improve input market development.

• Chart: Fertilizer Prices

While information on agricultural inputs is available worldwide, it remains largely inaccessible to smallholder farmers and agro-dealers in sub-Saharan Africa. In March 2010, IFDC launched www.africafertilizer.org, a global forum to exchange information on fertilizers, soil fertility and the critical agricultural issues that face Africa. The web portal features interactive maps, numerous downloadable publications, a data center of market information and statistics, and a directory of African fertilizer producers and traders.

Improving farmers’ access to agricultural inputs and market information was recommended in the Abuja Declaration on Fertilizer for an African Green Revolution, written at the Africa Fertilizer Summit in 2006. Fertilizer use in Sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest in the world — averaging only 8.0 kilograms per hectare annually. Even more startling, African farmers must pay two to four times the average world market price for fertilizers.

AfricaFertilizer.org contributes to efforts to increase fertilizer use on the continent by offering a unique combination of information and data on fertilizer and soil fertility issues in Africa. It does this by sourcing, aggregating, filtering and sharing information on fertilizer from and to regional, national and international players in the sector. Information sources include the FAO, the International Fertilizer Industry Association, as well as national ministries of agriculture, bureaus of statistics and local agri-input trade associations.

The free, public information available on the website serves several major international and regional bodies and initiatives. These include the African Union, New Partnership for Africa’s Development Planning and Coordinating Agency, the Economic Community of West African States, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. It also feeds many specialized market information systems (MIS) such as the Regional Agricultural Input Market Information and Transparency System (AMITSA) in eastern Africa (www.amitsa.org), local and regional agro-dealer associations and numerous market development projects in sub-Saharan Africa.

AfricaFertilizer.org also engages small, local fertilizer dealers and agricultural extension workers who are the “last mile” link with smallholder farmers. There is an ongoing demand from agro-dealers for information on international fertilizer prices and for contact information of producers or importers that can supply the dealers with quality fertilizers at a fair price.

While Internet access is problematic in some areas of the continent, access will continue to improve, and the Internet will grow in importance across Africa in coming years. Currently, more than 60 percent of the continent’s population has mobile telephone coverage. Therefore, IFDC and various partners have worked to establish MIS platforms to post and receive real-time information on commodity and crop prices via text messages on cell phones. Farmers, agro-dealers, traders and others use these systems in various nations across Africa, stimulating business and commerce. This trend is particularly useful in marketing perishable crops. Improved access to price information reduces marketing costs and increases farm-gate prices, increasing productive efficiency. Mobile telephone coverage will grow over the next five years, and as fourth and even fifth generation technology use expands, cellular telephones will be even more useful in Africa.

In 2008, the late Dr. Norman Borlaug — 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and father of the Green Revolution — wrote to me, “The work of the Green Revolution is not yet finished and I believe it will take a new round of technological advancement, political commitment, commercial development and a lot of hard work to complete the job.”

He provided a road map for extending the Green Revolution. “We need to develop new products that will deliver just the nutrients that the growing plants require and to diminish environmental externalities. We need to invest in this sort of advanced fertilizer research and we need to coordinate it with advanced plant genetic research so that we can achieve synergy between more efficient use of available nutrients by plants and more efficient delivery of nutrients by fertilizer products. And we need to develop systems that can make these products cheaper and more accessible to farmers. We need to cut the cost of food production so that developing country farmers can produce affordable food to feed their growing urban populations.”

IFDC accepted Dr. Borlaug’s challenge and, in 2010, created the Virtual Fertilizer Research Center (VFRC), a global research initiative focused on the creation of the next generation of fertilizers and production technologies. New and improved fertilizers are critical to help feed the world’s growing population and ultimately provide food security, while protecting the environment and ensuring the sustainable use of Earth’s non-renewable resources. The IFDC Board of Directors believes the VFRC is the most rapid and economical way to tap the world’s intellectual capacity to generate this critically needed fertilizer research.

The VFRC will partner with universities, public and private research laboratories, and the global fertilizer and agribusiness industries. It will bring together the best scientific, business and government minds to create a research system producing more nutritious food with fewer wasted resources and a reduced environmental impact.

Unlike the efforts of the NFDC, which took place on a single campus in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the VFRC will link researchers together virtually. With the Internet and other communication technologies, scientists worldwide can collaborate on innovative fundamental and applied research. Virtual collaboration will also allow for fast-tracking of this urgent work.

The VFRC has developed a “Proof of Concept” for the need and role of the Center. It is conducting further review and supplementary laboratory testing before launching a coordinated long-term research program. The VFRC will focus where the need for increasing efficiency is greatest: nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers. Later, work on micronutrients, including collaboration with plant breeders to ensure effective uptake, will be launched.

The VFRC Board of Advisors is emphasizing the consideration of new, non-traditional paradigms and truly innovative ways to improve efficiencies in fertilizer production/use. A research agenda will be developed by all partners in consultation with donors. Specific research will be defined with clear targets and timelines, and some projects may be awarded through competitive grants. This approach will maximize the benefits of synergies and the overall impact of research. Impact and efficiency will be further increased through close coordination, resulting in minimized redundancy.

The VFRC will direct and coordinate a long-term international fertilizer research program, emphasizing increased production of nutritious crops, environmental protection and improvements in the lives of farm families in developing countries.

IFDC’s mission is to increase sustainable agricultural productivity through the development and transfer of effective and environmentally sound plant nutrient technology and agricultural marketing expertise. Its staff has worked with millions of smallholder farmers around the world to improve their agricultural productivity and build their economic self-sufficiency. In 2011, IFDC has rededicated itself to programs and projects that will assist additional smallholder farmers increase their agricultural productivity, reduce hunger and poverty, help build strong and effective agricultural value chains and improve the environment.