Subsidizing fertilizers for African farmers has been tried before, of course, with some success--until the subsidies are taken away. And such subsidies have proven an efficient engine of corruption in the past. "Subsidies work more for powerful people than poor people," explains Ephraim Nkonya, another research fellow at IFPRI. "If you subsidize in one country and in another you don't, there's a big chance that it will be re-exported."
"Subsidized fertilizers failed miserably. Procurement was done by governments and it was diverted to cronies, very little of that fertilizer reached the farmers," the Earth Institute's Sanchez adds. "The government should not be involved in distribution."
Sanchez and others prefer to rely on an existing network of small-scale merchants, either itinerant or fixed, already present in rural areas. "If one can show that they can make money dealing fertilizer then the Coca-Cola dealer who is already there will sell it. The private sector dealers are there provided they see a way to get a profit out of it," says Amit Roy, president and CEO of IFDC. "The availability of fertilizer at the right time is as important if not more important than the price itself."
The availability of fertilizer at the right time--that is, before the rains but not too far in advance, points to another major issue: water. Most African agriculture relies on fickle rainstorms to ensure healthy crops rather than controlling moisture like farmers in much of the rest of the world. "There are dangers in using fertilizers with an unreliable rainfall because you can burn the crop," notes Robert Chambers, a research associate at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the U.K. And just as fertile soil washes to the sea as a result of land-clearing--one environmental problem a green revolution in Africa aims to remedy--fertilizers are just as likely to wash away if applied injudiciously.
African farmers also labor under a different set of impediments than green revolutionaries in Asia do. Whereas those Asian farmers benefited from largely closed markets in their home countries, any surplus produced by African agriculture will compete in world markets. "In Asia, the whole paradigm was self-sufficiency," Roy says. "In Africa, it's market driven."
Peter Hazell, a professor at Imperial College London's Centre for Environmental Policy sums it up this way: governments throughout Asia invested heavily in irrigation, roads, power and agricultural research and development. They also provided fertilizer, seed and credit subsidies, as well as ensuring profitable and, importantly, stable prices. Although those kinds of subsidies have proven difficult to phase out in Asia and throughout the world as the need for them has declined, they were key to boosting yields initially.
African leaders have pledged their support, vowing to allocate at least 10 percent of public budgets to agriculture in coming years. "That is an important figure," says Ian Scoones, a professorial fellow at ISD. "Whether it will be realized or not is a big question." And the Africa Fertilizer Summit begins tomorrow in Abuja, Nigeria. But extension programs that train farmers have been gutted over the past decade or so--in part due to World Bank mandates--and there may not be enough money to rebuild them. "These countries are in financial crisis. The extension systems have been de-funded. There's no one to carry out these techniques," IFPRI's Gavian notes. "If you were going to carry this out, you would need to rebuild the extension services."
"Who is supposed to bear the cost of that subsidy?" she asks. "And will they? And when they refuse to any longer, where are you if you haven't done other kinds of transformation as well?"
Some of that transformation begins far from Africa's impoverished soils. "What we've got to have is a revolution in subsidies in the U.S., Europe and Canada," ISD's Chambers says. "We're always directing our attention at them. It's our agricultural system that's a big part of the problem."