As far as financing pledges go, the just concluded Africa Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Nairobi easily stands out as having realised unparalleled success.
African leaders, development bodies, foundations, businesses pledged more than $30 billion (Sh3 trillion) to boost the continent’s agriculture for the next 10 years, making it the first ever single pooling of finances for investment in the sector.
The money is to be used to boost farm production and incomes and create employment for small holder farmers (SHFs) and agriculture-based businesses.
In some parts of Africa, an initial investment of just less than $200 (Sh20,000) per acre of land with right climatic conditions is helping some SHFs to be self-sustaining.
Doris Anjawa, one of about 1,500 delegates who attended the Forum knows well the significance of agricultural financing at the grassroots. Since 2011, Ms Anjawa, a field co-ordinator with Rural Outreach Africa (ROA), has actively worked with more than 5,000 SHFs, in four western Kenya counties (Vihiga, Kakamega, Bungoma and Busia), to scale up the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) funded Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) programme.
The programme aims to improve agricultural productivity, nutrition, and incomes by intercropping high value soybean legume, with the common staple, maize.
Ms Anjawa reckons that for an acre of land to produce optimum maize and soybean yields under the ISFM practices, it costs a SHF about Sh20,000 ($198).
This money goes to buying inputs like quality seeds, manure, and fertilisers. “To get that kind of money for a SHF to invest in their farm is a challenge due to high poverty levels,” she said.
But those who have the money can get five times their initial investment after the maize and soybean mature in four months. Poverty also restricts these SHFs from borrowing from formal financial institutions.
In fact, only six per cent of rural households in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) are borrowing from such institutions, according to Agra, 2016 African Agriculture Status Report (AASR).
Incorporating ISFM practices on his two acres of land since 2012 has paid off for 54-year old Benson Omwaka from Butere, Western Kenya. Initially, he predominantly grew sugar cane but got disillusioned due to food insecurity.
Following the extension advice from ROA and Agra soil scientists, Omwaka diversified to soybean, beans and maize crops. Today, he knows his soils are healthier because after harvests, he has enough food to last his family to the next season, and maize surpluses to sell.
“From the maize earnings, I have built a house, I’m paying university fees for my child, and I’m never going back to sugarcane farming,” said Mr Omwaka from the AGRF sidelines.
Mr Omwaka says initial capital for farming stops his village SHFs peers from farming properly, like him.
He feels if they are supported to start and implement ISFM, in successive seasons their farming can be self-sustaining.
Some costs of on farm costs passed to SHFs in Africa can be reduced if the agriculture value chain is streamlined.
According to Namanga Ngongi of African Fertiliser and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP), 40 to 50 per cent of fertiliser cost passed to farmers caters for logistics like transport. “Fix the logistics and you significantly reduce the cost to the farmer,” he said.
Such costs have made fertiliser application levels in Sub-Saharan Africa the lowest in the world. SHFs apply, on average, less than 10 kilogrammes of fertiliser per hectare.
That’s lower than the target set in June 2006 during the Abuja Declaration of 50 kilogrammes per hectare, by 2015. SHFs also lack knowledge on the right fertiliser to apply, which hurt crop yields.
The average annual cereal production in Ethiopia per hectare is 2.2 tonnes, but farmers applying the right fertilizer get nine tonnes per hectare. Initially many Ethiopian SHFs used diammonium phosphate (DAP), and urea fertilisers, which supplied only phosphorous and nitrogen nutrients to cereal crops, until 2013.
Since then, the government has embarked on a national digital soil fertility mapping in 490 districts, with 14 million SHFs.
According to Tekalign Mamo, the head of the initiative, the exercise is aiding in developing customised fertiliser for each district.
“With fertiliser, it’s not one size fits all, we customise fertiliser based on what the soil lacks, and what the crops need,” said Mamo.
By end of May 2015 five fertiliser blending plants had been built in Ethiopia.
Like Ethiopian SHFs, Mr Omwaka applied urea fertiliser as tradition for years, and it caused soil acidity which affected crop yields in his land. His lack of technical knowledge was similar to that of many SSA SHFs.
According to the AASR, report 65 per cent of the continent’s arable land is degraded. Soils, lack vital nutrients, and farmers lack inputs and technical knowledge on how to revive them.
Annually, this costs SSA farmers $68 million in lost incomes and affects 180 million people. Also when African farmers cultivate improved varieties of maize and other crops, on these soils, they get 28 per cent average yield increase, compared to Asian farmers who get 88 per cent, the report added.
Inspite of the challenges, the AASR reports that Africa, since 2005, has enjoyed sustained agricultural productivity growth.
Countries that adopted the 2003 Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) goals early, (2007-2009) whose key component was allocating 10 per cent of the national budget to agriculture, increased their productivity on farmlands by 5.9 to 6.7 per cent, on average, yearly.
For most SSA SHFs, market access remains the biggest motivation to invest in agricultural technologies, according to Martins Odendo, a principal economist with the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organisation.
Much of the market for SSA SHFs produce comes from urban consumers. It is estimated by 2030 the market could be worth $1 trillion and will generate significant incomes and employment opportunities for African farmers, and food processing companies.
Karuga is a freelance journalist