By Dr. Gilbert Arap Bor: Kapseret, Kenya
It is common knowledge among Kenyan farmers that without fertilizer, crops won’t grow.
Just as children need healthy diets to flourish, plants need special nutrients to produce a proper yield.
Here in Kenya, we’re in the middle of procuring fertilizer for our next season—and so fertilizer is on our minds.
Fertilizer is one of the major agricultural production inputs, but unfortunately, it’s just too expensive for many. Lots of farmers find themselves priced out of the market. They don’t use enough and sometimes they hardly use any at all.
Expensive fertilizer leads to low fertilizer use by farmers. Because of this, many of Kenya’s farms don’t grow as much food as they should. So farm incomes stay low. Consumer prices remain high. And a key item in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four Agenda is at risk.
I’m talking about food security. President Kenyatta’s bold ambition is to make sure Kenyans have the food they need by 2022. This is a worthy goal and his government has taken several important steps in the right direction.
On December 19, for example, it approved the commercial farming of Bt cotton. This is not a food crop, obviously, and therefore won’t contribute directly to food security—but it does signal an acceptance of the kinds of technology that will allow farmers to thrive. At long last, my country has embraced 21st-century agriculture, adopting a tool that farmers have used for years in the United States, India, South Africa, and elsewhere.
Coming soon, I hope, is the commercial farming of Bt maize and other staple crops. We can’t have enough biotechnology in our fields. Kenya won’t enjoy anything that even approaches food security until farmers can take advantage of what science can offer.
Yet no single approach to food security will solve all of our problems. We must have a robust approach to agriculture that involves not only access to technology but also an improved infrastructure, more financing opportunities—and a lot more fertilizer.
This is the only way farmers will gain the resources they need to produce the food our country demands.
I’ve always used fertilizer on my farm. This includes chemical fertilizer 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 fertilizer. Prices soar for a series of reasons that have little to do with the fertilizer itself, such as costly transportation, fluctuating exchange rates, and delays at the port of importation. 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 fertilizer is beyond the reach of many ordinary farmers.
The challenges of raising fertilizer use in Kenya to levels that push up agricultural food production are huge, with difficult options. The government has tried to fight this problem with subsidies. Smallholder farmers have benefitted from this program 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 now places on the cadmium levels in fertilizer (The Daily Nation 24 Nov 2019) Cadmium is a chemical element that occurs in phosphate fertilizer and too much of it can be harmful to the environment.
It requires sensible regulation—but Kenya’s cadmium standards are insensible. They are among the most rigorous in the world. Scientific evidence exists and 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. Lowering them would keep the environment healthy and also make fertilizer more affordable for farmers.
Gilbert arap Bor grows corn (maize), vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. Dr Bor is also a lecturer of marketing and management at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus, is a member of the Board of Directors of the Kenya Fish Marketing Authority and the National Council for Nomadic Education in Kenya (NACONEK) and volunteers for the Global Farmer Nework www.globalfarmernetwork.org.
This article was previously published in Kenya’s major newspaper, The Daily Nation January 18, 2020