‘We should have revised our fertilizer use advisory services long time ago!’

Agriculture is the foundation of Ethiopia’s economy, accounting for nearly half of the country’s GDP, 80Pct employment and export volumes. Yet, the sector has been challenged by periodic drought,  land degradation and low productivity. Even if there are attempts of using modern technologies in recent decades, they could not bring about big impact on agricultural growth. However, since 2011, the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and Regional Bureaus have been undertaking national soil fertility mapping, which is an inventory of landscape features, farming systems, general soil properties and soil fertility status for each agricultural woreda in the country. The end result will help to determine what mineral to include in the fertilizer to be used for each woreda. Instead of using Urea and Diamonium Phosphate (DAP), the two widely used fertilizers for decades, the Ministry plans to import seven different raw materials to blend according to specific needs of each woreda. Reports indicate that the new blended fertilizer helped boost production by about 80Pct in some demonstrations.  

In this interview with Tekalign Mamo (Professor), Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture and State Minister, Amanyehun R. Sisay talks about the progress of the soil fertility mapping project and other pertinent issues regarding Ethiopian agriculture. 

EBR: Previously, information about the country’s soil fertility status was not available and during those times, how were you deciding matters with regards to the use of agricultural inputs such as fertilizers? 

Tekalign: Chemical fertilizer use started in the late sixties when national fertilizer demonstrations were conducted in collaboration with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) through the Freedom from Hunger Campaign. Although at the time DAP [Diamonium Phosphate], urea and potash were tested, only the first two gave consistent results, and were thus recommended.  

This is roughly 45 years ago. With time, the country’s soil fertility status got depleted, and the effectiveness of these fertilizers, especially DAP, became low.  This is because the soil needed more nutrients than the two (nitrogen and phosphorus) that the fertilizer contained. With urea, it is still useful; perhaps what remains is to increase its use efficiency. We should have revised our fertilizer advisory service long time ago. It does not mean that agricultural research didn’t address soil fertility problems, but the efforts were fragmented and not nationally coordinated to generate information that would help revise the types of fertilizers to use; but this has changed now. 

Can you tell me about the progress of the soil fertility mapping?

We started the work by collecting landscape information from the whole country to know what the topography of  the country’s agricultural land looks like; what soil features exist; what farming systems prevail; what are the major cropping systems and what fertilizers are used and at what rate. This is the general information we generated through the grid sampling approach. Following that, we moved to Woreda based soil fertility mapping in order to capture the realities in detail. This was necessary since soil heterogeneity, especially in the highlands, is immense. So far, soil fertility survey has been conducted in 259 woredas in Tigray (completed), Amhara, Oromia, SNNPR and Benisgangul Gumuz. For Tigray region, the soil fertility atlas is being published. By next year, we anticipate completing 500 Woredas and at the same time finalizing soil fertility mapping in Amhara, SNNPR, Harari and Dire Dawa.

Let’s talk about the financing of the project.

The government allocated most of the funding from the Agricultural Growth Program (AGP).  Initially, close to USD4 million was allocated for the mapping work, but for the next phase of the work which we are already in, additional USD3 million is proposed. In addition, we have managed to solicit additional funding for the soil fertility mapping, new fertilizer demonstration, and establishment of fertilizer blending plant at Tulu Bolo from many external collaborators. 

How much collaboration do you have with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for this project?  

The Foundation doesn’t directly fund the project, but we have working relations with a project that the foundation sponsors- the African Soil Information Service (AfSIS). We followed their methodology for the landscape mapping but the Woreda mapping strategy is our own initiative—internationally accepted of course.  AfSIS assists us technically, mainly through training such as in geo-statistics—a tool we use to make correct nutrient status predictions based on the soil fertility results we obtain, legacy data, and satellite information. Since the Foundation supports the ATA which owns and houses this project as well as the establishment of fertilizer blending plants, we can also say we also benefit from the Foundation. 

There are arguments that the establishment of ATA outside of the structure of Ministry of Agriculture undermines the mandates of the Ministry. What is your take on this?

Perhaps this idea emanates from poor understanding of why the ATA was established and what its mandates are. It was following the in-depth study made by external collaborators based on the request made by H.E. the late PM that an institution was felt necessary that addresses systemic agricultural problems to transform agriculture in Ethiopia. The ATA is acting as a catalyst to strengthen nationally-prioritized agricultural priorities. 

Let me clarify. In 2010, we in the Ministry decided to address the soil nutrient survey in the country, introduce and validate new fertilizers, and go for fertilizer blending plants. This coincided with the establishment of the ATA, and we shared the idea to them. They appreciated and went for it. I doubt if the two projects would have been started so soon and went thus far without the ATA’s active and leading role. 

Let’s talk about the benefit of undertaking the Woreda soil fertility mapping work.

The soil fertility mapping work helps us in generating national soil resource information and establishing the database at a country level. In addition, we can use the information to re-visit our fertilizer advisory services to farmers. The information generated so far revealed that, in addition to nitrogen and phosphorus, our agricultural soils are deficient in key nutrients such as sulphur, potassium, zinc, boron, iron (the latter in Tigray region) and recently, also copper. The major reason for the deficiency of the nutrients is because our farming system has been highly exploitative; we haven’t been giving back to the soil the nutrients we extract through crop harvest (both seeds and dry matter), and what is lost through soil erosion and leaching. In general, we have been depriving the soil of its nutrients without making sure that the input-output balance is maintained. We will not apply fertilizers containing these nutrients directly but we will buy the ingredients and blend them together. 

Based on the information gathered, we have identified the types of blended or compound fertilizers to be recommended by woreda, and to realize this, we are establishing fertilizer blending plants at strategic locations. One major shift is also the fact that we need to replace DAP fertilizer with sulfur containing DAP-like fertilizer or [nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur]. Since it will be the major ingredient for our fertilizer blending plants; there are also areas where it can be applied directly.

But satisfying all Woredas with their varied fertilizer needs won’t be an easy task in a country where there are many obstacles even to deliver the common Urea and DAP on time.

You may be right but we have devised a strategy to deal with this issue.  We don’t need to apply all these fertilizers; we import the inputs and blend them locally.  So far, we have started establishing five fertilizer blending plants at strategic locations (Tulu Bolo, Nekemt, Worabe, Bahir Dar and Mekele), and they will distribute the fertilizers to their respective zones. We need to establish more blending plants to address large areas, and we are working towards that. Blended fertilizers should not be transported very long distances, especially on gravel road, and that is why we need more plants in strategic locations. 

How will this help the transformation of the subsistence agriculture in the country?

We are  working hard  to replace traditional agricultural practices with improved technologies such as row planting, improved drainage of waterlogged soils, use of lime to rehabilitate acid soils, deliver more improved seeds, improved cultural practices, etc. Farmers nowadays are developing the habits of using improved seeds and row planting. Already, they are demanding to get the new fertilizers. Therefore, there is big hope that we can reach higher productivity rates on majority of small holder farms, and this is no less than transformation. 

What will be the impact of this new system on the next year’s agricultural output?

It is forecasted that agricultural production will increase by 20Pct. All these efforts will force us to believe that we can even aim higher.

Agricultural growth statistics are usually exaggerated when they go up from Kebele to Woreda, then to zone, region and finally the federal level. How clean are your statistics from such errors?

You personally can doubt it but I don’t think so. Perhaps, our weakness might even be to underestimate or not fully report success stories. 

You have been working for a long time in an academic environment and moved to leadership responsibilities within the Ministry of Agriculture; what major roles have you performed so far? 

In 2004, as state minister of the natural resources sub-sector, we accomplished two major tasks--getting a revised rural land use and administration proclamation approved by the Council of Ministers, and launching a Community Based Participatory Watershed Development strategy in order to rehabilitate degraded lands. The proclamation emphasized, among others, ownership of rural land and equal rights of women, the need to conserve land, and the possibility of losing it in case of unattended land degradation. The community led watershed development has become a development agenda where rehabilitated watersheds have become means of livelihoods for the landless rural population. 

In 2006, as advisor to the then-Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture, I proposed an initiative to tackle soil acidity by using lime, a technology immediately adopted by farmers. We also focused on strengthening the improved Vertisol (clay soil) management technology—an activity that I have been engaged in since the mid-eighties. Vertisols get waterlogged when wet and farmers face problem of managing them. 

Thanks to the multi-stakeholder efforts, we have now reached a stage where farmers use a broad bed maker (Aybar BBM), plant early in the season, harvest during the end of September and plant a second legume crop on the same field using residual moisture, and grow vegetables, spices or fodder for their animals using the moisture drained from their fields and stored in ponds. 

Since 2011, I have been leading the two national projects—EthioSIS and the establishment of fertilizer blending plants. 

But there are arguments that much of Ethiopian agriculture is based on fragmented and small plots which make using technologies and agricultural input difficult.

You better ask this question to those who say so. But for me, it doesn’t. All the explanations I made so far refute the argument. There is big scope for increasing agricultural production and productivity; this has also been witnessed during the last decade and half. Unlike other governments in Africa, Ethiopia allocates comparatively higher budget for agriculture. We have more than 65,000 development agents (DAs) to upscale the technology dissemination efforts for our rural farmers. No country in the world has such number of DAs except China. In fact, we are becoming a model for Africa. It is worth sharing that many African countries are adopting the community-based participatory watershed development strategy; in addition, Ghana, Tanzania, and Nigeria have gained experience from our soil fertility mapping initiative and are in the process of launching similar initiatives. 

How about the need to engage in mechanization? 

We are also promoting mechanization, but let’s say we are in the initial stages.  Mind you, one of our major capitals being labor force; we have to prioritize areas where we need mechanization. We are beginning to introduce walking tractors and row planters. Such things are inevitable whether we like it or not. 

And what about that of commercial farming?

I would not say commercial farming is not useful but I do not believe in combining small farms and turning all into commercial farms. Commercial farming is practiced in areas where unutilized/unoccupied land exists. I believe we are attaining higher productivity even on small farms. Haven’t you heard of farmers who said ‘’we get 80 to 90 quintals per hectare of wheat’’? I have witnessed such instances with my own eyes, and we can promote both farming systems as appropriate. 

Policies to promote improved seed and fertilizer through national, regional, and state-run input supply and extension systems have generated some positive impacts in Ethiopia over the last two decades. But experience and studies conducted on the issue suggest that an increasing role of the state will not provide the intended growth stimulus in the agricultural sector. Do you have reflections on that?

I don’t buy this idea. For a country that has more than 80Pct of its population engaged in agriculture, if the government should not take care of farmers’ needs in terms of inputs, credits, capacity building and infrastructure, who should do it? Your question might work for developed countries with less number of people engaged in farming, but taking note of our conditions, it is not even the time to raise this question.


2nd Year . September 2014 . No.18


Amanyehun R. Sisay

EBR Staff Writter

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