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With the Finalisation of Soil Fertility Mapping, Ethiopia Anticipates Increased Agricultural Productivity

For years, policy makers have been keen to improve the performance of Ethiopia’s agricultural sector in an attempt to help feed the country’s population and create surpluses that can be used as raw materials for industries. Now, leaders are looking to fertilisers to help the shortfalls facing the sector. In particular, they are creating a comprehensive map of different soil types throughout the country in an effort to identify the essential nutrients that are lacking. This information will then be used to create an atlas that can help in improving the performance of soil and thus create better crop yields. Experts say this is a step in the right direction to help Ethiopia move forward. Others, however, argue that more needs to be done in order to deal with the larger structural problems that plague farmers in the country, so that the sector can realise its full potential. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale spoke with government representatives and agricultural experts about the nuances of this issue.

For more than four decades, farmers in Ethiopia have been utilising fertilisers to increase crop yields. Even though they’ve witnessed little agricultural productivity improvement, the blanket application of diammonium phosphate (DAP) and urea, a nitrogen fertiliser, has deteriorated the fertility of farm land, which led many to question the effectiveness of a strategy focused solely on two-soil nourishment.
Choosing the right fertiliser for a specific soil type and crop has been an ideal for Ethiopian farmers. To that end, in 2012, the government launched the Ethiopian Soil Information System (EthioSIS) Project, the first-of-its-kind in Africa, to analyse the specific nutrient needs of soils throughout the country. The EthioSIS Project uses remote sensing satellite technology and extensive soil sampling to provide high-resolution fertility soil mapping for each region.
Three years after it was launched, the government is now preparing to publish the results of the soil fertility atlas in the Amhara and Southern regions; not only that, but the work has already been finalised for the Tigray Region. What’s more, the soil fertility atlas and fertiliser recommendations will be ready for all other regions of the country by June 2016.
Along with the finalisation of the project, government officials are eager to see the changes the soil fertility mapping will bring to the agriculture sector, which they believe have the capacity to feed the population and produce surpluses that can be used as raw materials in the manufacturing sector.
“With the appropriate fertiliser for each soil type at the recommended rate, along with other agronomic practices, farmers in Ethiopia can increase their crop production by 40 to 50Pct on average,” argues Tekalign Mamo (Prof), a renowned soil scientist and State Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resource Development (MoANRD). “This will change the agricultural sector dramatically.”
With a strong push from the government, the use of fertiliser has increased throughout the country ever since it was introduced to farmers in the early 1970s. The growth in use of fertiliser has been rapid: from 43,200 tonnes in the 1980s to 1.2 million tonnes currently. This growth of fertiliser consumption, according to a study conducted by the International Agricultural Research and Training Centre, was more rapid than the sub-Saharan African average. It is almost double the average use per hectare for sub-Saharan Africa.
Although the state-led policy formulated to push fertiliser use has helped improve agricultural productivity in Ethiopia, the level of efficiency is still low when compared to other countries that run an intensified cereal production programme using different fertilisers.
For instance, countries like South Africa, which operates a successful programme, managed to increase cereal productivity to 4.83 tonnes per hectare in 2014, while Ethiopia’s cereal productivity stood at 2.22 tonnes per hectare, below the world average of 2.97 tonnes.
“This is about to change,” said Wondirad Mandefro, State Minister for Agriculture and Natural Resource Development, during the launching ceremony of the Agricultural Transformation Agency progress report on October 30, 2015. “We even expect more production than our forecast.”
According to the report, the MoANRD plans to increase cereals productivity to 3.09 tonnes per hectare by the end of the second phase of the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP II) from smallholder farms. “We cannot shift to commercialisation [that quickly],” said Wondirad. “Rather, we need to increase the productivity of small farmers initially by adopting technologies to reach our goal.”
Experts also agree that small-scale farmers need to adopt advanced techniques and fertilisers in order to increase productivity. “Definitely using agricultural technologies like remote sensing satellite technology and extensive soil sampling will bring significant change to [the agriculture sector’s] productivity,” says Demese Chaniyalew (PhD), who specialises in agricultural economics and is currently general manager of DeMar Ethio-Afric Plc, a company engaged in agricultural policy and strategy advisory services.
However, data obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture reveals that currently there are only 4.4 million farmers using newly introduced technologies on 2.18 million hectares of land, out of the 14 million smallholder farmers in the country. Demese says that agricultural scientists in Ethiopia used the blanket approach towards fertiliser for a long time. “However, little action was taken before because of capacity limitations.”
Despite capacity limitations, the country is on the verge of owning its own soil fertility atlas, according to Khalid Bomba, CEO of the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), which is responsible for the EthioSIS Project. “EthioSIS will revolutionise the way fertiliser will be used in Ethiopia.”
Tekalign echoes Khalid’s sentiments: “Ethiopia is transforming its fertiliser advisory service to farmers more than any other developing country. We expect that farmers will benefit a lot from the yield gains and that will greatly contribute towards their income and the overall economy of the country.”
Heretofore, the ATA survey has covered more than 455 woredas in the Amhara, Oromia, Tigray and Southern regions. This accounts for 65Pct of the area known for agricultural production.
The EthioSIS study discovered that agricultural soils in Ethiopia lack at least one or more essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, sulphur, potassium, boron, zinc, iron and copper. The findings have also led to revisions of the fertiliser recommendations at the woreda and kebele levels and more 40,000 fertiliser demonstrations were carried out on farmer’s plots, according to the progress report.
In order to supply these missing nutrients, five fertiliser blending plants – one in the Amhara, Tigray, Southern regions and two in the Oromia region – were established with a 30,000 metric tonne annual production capacity each. Excluding the soluble fertiliser manufacturing factory, privately under construction in the city of Debre Birhan in the Amhara Region, each of the five blending plants were built ranging in cost from USD1.5 million to USD1.7 million.
There are also plans to build an additional seven blending plants in the next two years, according to Tekalign. “The government will not be directly involved in establishing additional plants. Rather, the approach will be through public-private partnerships,” he says.
However, experts still argue that since the Ethiopian agriculture sector is very complex, it needs deeper analysis to find solutions to its shortfalls. “Expecting to increase productivity dramatically by just solving the soil fertility problem is not realistic,” argues Demese. “The new initiative must be accompanied by improved seed supply, which must go hand-in-hand with the right agronomic practices. It does not work if one is absent.”
Tekalign agrees with Demese. “Solving the soil fertility issue alone might not boost productivity,” he concurs. “In addition, institutions that handle and regulate the adaptation of technologies must be established.”
Tekalign, however, says the government is working on the issue. Currently, a draft fertiliser policy document and fertiliser production and marketing proclamation is under preparation in order to scrutinise the use of technologies. “A draft proclamation is also being prepared by the government to establish an agency to regulate the fertiliser industry,” he adds.
The major changes that are expected to result from the new policy and proclamation concern fertiliser import, registration, the local production of fertilisers, export, strengthening the regulatory system and specific regulations regarding joint business ventures in the sector.
A national specialised soil resource institution will also be established before the completion of the soil fertility survey. “This will be necessary, since soil fertility is a dynamic process. What is deficient now might be in good supply in a few years, or vice versa,” says Tekalign.
Demese also says that the soil research must be conducted on a plot-by-plot basis in all regions, since even two plots near each other can be different in their soil content.
“We might have all the strategy, policy and programmes, but if it is not executed properly, everything will be meaningless,” said Khalid, stressing the capacity limitations during implementation.
In fact, capacity limitation is one of the three main issues contributing to the delay of 47Pct of 84 agriculture transformation agenda deliverables, which were prepared in 16 distinct programme areas, during the first phase of GTP, according to Khalid.
Of the eight deliverables on soil fertility, 25Pct are delayed, according to the report, while the biggest delay, 80Pct, occurred in the input and output market.
During the GTP II, the ATA plans to work on 31 programmes in the areas of productivity, commercial orientation, environmental sustainability and increasing decisional capacity, according to Khalid.
Experts agree that the new soil fertility atlas is a step in the right direction for the Ethiopian agricultural sector. They note that the atlas will be especially useful if the price of the recommended fertilisers is affordable for the farmer, the supply is reliable and packaged with other accessories like seeds and the right agronomic practices. EBR

4th Year • November 16 – December 15 2015 • No. 33

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