The Kenyan village of Sauri, near Lake Victoria, is lucky. As the first so-called Millennium Village, it will benefit from roughly $110 per capita in aid annually through at least 2014. That aid is intended to help with problems ranging from disease to a lack of schooling, but it is in the area of agriculture that the village has already seen the most dramatic gains. Working with local farmers, researchers have boosted yields of maize from 1.6 to 4.9 tons per hectare--or 100 bushels of edible maize for every acre cultivated.
Soil scientist Pedro Sanchez, director of tropical agriculture at the Earth Institute and co-leader of the Millennium Village Project's agricultural team, achieved these remarkable gains by investing in the health of the soil, replenishing depleted levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium with fertilizers.
Over the last several decades, farmers across the continent have removed 22 kilograms of nitrogen, 2.5 kilograms of phosphorous and 15 kilograms of potassium from every cultivated hectare every year, according to Sanchez's research. "This annual loss is the equivalent of $4 billion in fertilizer," he wrote in an article in The Lancet in January of 2005. Partly as a result of this loss, roughly 180 million Africans do not get sufficient food despite spending three quarters of their income on it. Food production on a per capita basis is actually declining.
"To feed our people, we must feed the soil," noted Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo at the launch of an international effort to fertilize Africa's soils: the Africa Fertilizer Summit, which starts tomorrow in Abuja, Nigeria. "Agriculture is the most direct way to improve their well-being."
Nearly 500 million Africans rely on agriculture as their main or only source of income and sustenance. Yet the agricultural innovations of the past 30 years--the so-called Green Revolution that boosted grain yields in Asia by introducing better crop varieties and greater use of fertilizers--have largely passed Africa by; though adoption of crop varieties is broadly similar throughout the developing world, Asia and Latin America have seen yield increases of 70 to 90 percent, compared to only 28 percent in Africa.
The difference comes down to fertilizer, according to Sanchez and other experts. A recent study by the International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development, or IFDC, found that the average African farmer applies one fifth of the necessary amount of the various nutrients required to maintain soil fertility. "Without a green revolution, we remain in the logic of food aid, which will never provide food security," said Alpha Oumar Konar¿, chairman of the African Union, at the Summit launch.
And food aid is expensive. "In Malawi, we have found that it costs about $40 for a typical smallholder farmer to get good crop yields and get out of hunger," Sanchez says. "It cost $400 to feed that same family with food aid. So it's much better to invest at the front end of the food chain, starting with the soil, water and seeds, than the tail end."
It also undermines the farmers themselves. "It destroys incentives for farmers to work when food aid arrives," notes Parker Mitchell, co-CEO of Canada's Engineers Without Borders, an organization working to improve agricultural practices in African countries, among other efforts. "The prices of all of the successful farmers' products go down."
But fertilizer does not come cheaply. Because rural Africa lacks infrastructure and fertilizers can be bulky, they can cost up to six times the price they command in the developed world. In fact, it costs more to transport fertilizers 100 kilometers inland from a port anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa than it does to ship them to that same port from North America. "You need fertilizer to be distributed to the farmer at a price where it is profitable," notes Sarah Gavian, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). "The reason that the price is lower in America is because we have subsidized the roads and not the fertilizer."