Policy options for African soils: learning lessons for future action

Everyone is agreed that one of the central components of achieving an ‘African Green Revolution’ is to tackle the widespread soil fertility constraints in African agriculture. To this end, AGRA – the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – launched a major ‘Soil Health’ programme aimed at 4.1 million farmers across Africa, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committing $198 million to the effort. The Abuja declaration, following on from the African Fertilizer Summit of 2006 set the scene for major investments in boosting fertilizer supplies. CAADP – the Comprehensive African Agricultural Developent Programme – has been active in supporting the follow up to the summit, particularly through it work on improving markets and trade. Other initiatives abound – the Millennium Villages programme, Sasakawa-Global 2000, the activities of the Association for Better Land Husbandry, among many others. All see soil fertility as central, although the suggested solutions and policy requirements are very different.

But what are the policy frameworks that really will increase soil fertility in ways that will boost production in sustainable ways; where the benefits of the interventions are widely distributed, meeting broader aims of equitable, broad-based development? Here there is much less precision and an urgent need for a concrete debate.

What would a framework for policy and implementation look like? This is much more contested. A variety of ‘models’ – often with rather implicit policy assumptions – are being, or have been, tested. These include (among many others, and different permutations):

A technology package approach: state led extension delivery– high input demonstration plots linked to a programme of extension and credit support to encourage uptake of a technically recommended package (usually associated with improved seeds). This has been standard fare of most agriculture departments for years, but with limited impact – as the evaluations of the World Bank’s Training and Visit system showed. SG-2000 developed a more focused approach in the 1990s, with variable success, in part because the input levels recommended were very high (and expensive – up to 150kg/ha), and so often inappropriate to agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances. Other ‘package approaches’ have focused on agroforestry, conservation tillage and other technologies, but up-take and wider impact has been patchy.

Universal subsidies, price control and state support for input supply – the state-led subsidy approach of the 1970s and 80s involved highly controlled fertiliser markets and price control/subsidy. These systems were largely overseen by large parastatal organisations which offered pan-territorial pricing and supply through distributed depot networks, often linked to credit schemes often with poor pay-back records. Subsidy programmes were initiated in response to major oil/gas price hikes in the 1970s and persisted at huge cost to the state until economic liberalisation policies were introduced from the 1980s. They have been widely criticised, although positive outcomes have been realised, such as in Malawi, but at great cost to the exchequer and with high risks of intensifying patronage.

‘Smart’ subsidies and voucher schemes: facilitating market mechanisms – this approach has been tested widely, resulting in substantial boosts in aggregate production of maize, particularly in the good rainy seasons. This resulted in decreased food prices, benefiting not only producers but also consumers (many of the rural poor), and hopefully triggering an upward spiral of investment and labour generation. Questions over long term financial sustainability have been raised, given the high costs of imported fertiliser, and the potentials for leakage and poor targeting in the voucher system.

Village level demonstration and extension: area based integrated development – this approach is at the heart of the Millennium Villages Programme, and has been a feature of integrated rural development programmes of different sorts for decades. The programme, for example, offers subsidised fertiliser and shows its effect through demonstration plots. This has resulted in significant increases in fertiliser use and substantial yield growth, claimed to be up to three times previous levels.

Bulk purchase, packaging and local manufacture: investments to deal with upstream supply constraints

Many of the preceding options are reliant on mineral fertilizers in some shape or form. With high production costs due to energy costs (for nitrogen – although declining oil prices should see a shift in this pattern) and limits to easily accessible supplies (for phosphorus), fertilizers are set remain expensive, even relative to higher crop commodity prices. Local packaging and supply has proven successful in areas of high demand, such as Western Kenya through public-private partnership arrangements (e.g. FIPS-Africa), this has meant more appropriate products in packs which are affordable are supplied. To reduce input costs further larger scale interventions are envisaged by some, including bulk purchase of fertiliser for Africa with negotiated price reductions (e.g. the African Development Bank initiative and IFDC’s MIR project). Others have even more ambitious plans for local manufacture of fertilizers in Africa to increase supply and reduce prices, through aid-subsidised investment in plant development. The overall policy frameworks for these initiatives remain unclear, but remain important if appropriate blends/supplies are to get to farmers across diverse Africa farming systems.

Improving agro-dealer networks: making markets work. Improving market access through the support of agro-dealer networks helps to reduce price of inputs and can result in improved information flows and technical advice to farmers. A distributed private sector response to input supply can, however, quickly be undermined by inappropriate subsidies or project intervention. Agro-dealers usually operate on small margins and fluctuations in supply, demand and price can affect their ability to stay in business. Umbrella organisations that support small dealer operations can offset some risks and provide back-up. However, inevitably, most commercially viable operations are in relatively high resource endowment agricultural areas, supplying relatively richer farmers. The reach and poverty impact of private sector based solutions remains hotly debated.

Scaling up local success: project support for local level innovation systems – over many years numerous projects have been initiated that have supported local innovation capacity and the participatory development of technologies. Many of these have focused on managing soil and water resources. Some have proven one-off events with limited uptake; but others have spread widely with major positive impacts on farming livelihoods. How can such successes be replicated, and mainstreamed as part of agricultural development, becoming less reliant on unreliable project based support?

These ‘models’ are familiar to more general approaches to rural development and policy in Africa and beyond. There has been much experience across Africa of each – from the technology packages and extension approaches of the colonial era, revived in the 1970s through Training and Visit to the integrated, area based approaches of the 1960s and 70s to the project mode of the 80s and the market-led approaches of the post-adjustment and economic reform era.

What is interesting today is that all are being proposed and experimented with often in the same place at the same time; yet often with remarkably little reflection on past experiences and lessons. A hardnosed assessment of such lessons is vital in advance of any new initiatives emerging from the International Year of Soils, asking what works where, when and why – and for what?

Does anyone remember the much heralded Soil Fertility Initiative of the early 2000s? What happened to that? New initiatives must not suffer the same fate. Today, there is a political momentum for action generated by a global concern about rising food prices and lagging production. There is a renewed focus on agricultural development as a source of economic growth and poverty reduction, particularly in Africa. And there have been a variety of documented successes across Africa, ranging from the Malawi fertilizer story to local agro-ecological change in the Sahel, from which to draw. Together, these factors combine to a positive context for debating appropriate policy frameworks for soils in Africa.

Some important questions are raised, pertinent to Zimbabwe as elsewhere:

  • How can a strategy that operates at scale take account of the diversity of agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances on the ground?
  •  Is inorganic fertilizer the best initial ‘entry point’ for an integrated soil fertility management approach? If so, what should a programme look like, bearing in mind past failures? If not, what should be done first?
  • How can efficient use of fertilizer use be ensured, avoiding the danger of benefits being captured more by fertilizer manufacturers and traders than small scale farmers?
  • Do subsidies have a role in ensuring input provision and, if so, what is meant by a ‘smart subsidy’? If not, what other incentives/investments make most sense?
  • What happens when there is no market – or when market mechanisms don’t reach certain places or people?
  • What is the role for the state – in managing, supporting, coordinating, regulating, financing – and which parts of the state need support to make this happen?
  • What type of policy processes are required to ensure pro-poor outcomes and avoid capture by elites, commercial interests and others?
  • What enabling conditions need to be in place (e.g. trade policy, infrastructure, investment)
  • How should ‘success’ and ‘impact’ defined?

Some of these are addressed in the final blog in this series, coming next week.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland

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