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To improve food security, make all fertiliser affordable

by biasharadigest
GILBERT ARAP BOR

By GILBERT ARAP BOR
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It is common knowledge that without fertiliser, crops will not do well. Farmers in Kenya use four main types of fertiliser: DAP, CAN, Urea and NPK.

Just as children need healthy diets to flourish, plants require special nutrients to produce high yields. Kenya is in the middle of buying fertiliser for the next season.

Though maize is the primary crop in Kenya, farmers’ demand for fertiliser is not comparable to that of plantation crop owners – coffee, tea, sugarcane.

This is because maize farmers are largely smallholder and tend to use a much lower proportion of the recommended fertiliser quantities. Demand for fertiliser by maize farmers is also influenced by the timing of the planting season.

A majority of farmers will buy the input just before or on the onset of the rains. Unfortunately, that is the period it is very expensive.

Consequently, they do not use enough fertiliser, with many hardly using any. Expensive fertiliser leads to lower use of the manure.

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Because of this, many of the country’s farms don’t produce as much food as they should. So, farm incomes are low as consumer prices remain high.

President Uhuru Kenyatta wants to make sure Kenyans have the food they need by the end of his term in 2022.

The Cabinet approval of commercial growing of Bt cotton on December 19 is important as it signals Mr Kenyatta’s keenness in putting money in farmers’ pockets. Yet no single approach will end all our food security problems.

We must have a robust approach to agriculture that involves access to technology and an improved infrastructure, more financing opportunities and a lot more fertiliser.

I have always used fertiliser on my farm. This includes chemical fertiliser to stimulate my maize and farmyard manure to grow pasture for my dairy animals as well as raise my vegetables. Too many farmers, however, can’t afford fertiliser.

Prices soar for a number of reasons that have little to do with the input itself, such as costly transport, fluctuating exchange rates, and delays at Mombasa port.

We also suffer from significant markups in the domestic market – almost certainly the result of anti-competitive collusion by a small number of dominant suppliers.

Add it all up and adequate fertiliser is beyond the reach of many an ordinary farmer. The challenges of raising fertiliser use to levels that push up food production are huge, with difficult options.

The government has attempted to end this problem with subsidies. Smallholder farmers have benefited from this programme since 2009.

While this treats the symptoms of the problem rather than their source, at least it offers some help. One positive step would be to loosen the restrictions the government places on the cadmium levels in fertiliser.

Cadmium is an element that occurs in phosphate manure. Too much of it can be harmful to the environment. Kenya’s cadmium standards are insensible. They are among the most rigorous on the planet.

Scientific evidence should be used to set appropriate limits that will protect food safety and still allow the farmers to meet the needs of our growing population.

Keeping them low may be good for the environment, but it limits fertiliser sources, driving the price way above what many farmers can afford. One last call to the government is to speed up procurement and deliveries of fertiliser to farmers.

Dr Bor grows maize, vegetables and keeps dairy cows on a 25-acre farm in Kapseret. He teaches marketing and management at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Kenya Fish Marketing Authority and the National Council for Nomadic Education in Kenya.

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