Farmers gamble as fertiliser crisis threatens yields

Prisca Keter, a farmer at Kabobo in Soy Constituency, Uasin Gishu County shows a farm ready for planting wheat on May 21, 2022. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG

The severe shortage of low-cost fertiliser has hit large-scale farmers hard, threatening Kenya’s food security and export volumes.

Wheat, maize, tea and flower growers who have been restricted to buy only 10 bags of subsidised fertiliser per farmer say have reduced acreage under certain crops, ditched fertiliser-thirsty crops, meaning that next harvest season, staple food volumes will be very low.

Dr Timothy Njagi, the principal researcher at the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy, Egerton University, says that the high cost and scarcity of the farm input, blamed on global uncertainties such as the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict, will result in a decline in production.

“Due to the rising costs of farm inputs such as fuel and fertiliser, a farmer who used to do 200 acres is likely to reduce the acreage to 100 acres. This reduction is expected to lower harvest and increase prices of foods,” he says.

Prisca Keter, a wheat farmer at Kabobo in Soy, Uasin Gishu County is one of the many who has reduced acreage under the crop. At her farm, she has tilled acres and acres of land but has no planted yet.

“My farm is ready for planting wheat but I have no fertiliser. I had applied to get the input from the National Cereals and Produce Board {NCPB} at Sh2,800, and I am waiting for it because traders are selling at Sh6,000,” she says.

Last year, she planted wheat on 40 acres of land but this year, like many farmers in the region, she has reduced acreage to 15 acres.

She has also been forced to use one bag of fertiliser instead of two bags, which she fears will lead to a decline in crop productivity.

From the local cooperative, she will get five bags of planting and top dressing fertilisers each, which is barely adequate for her farm. There have also been challenges in the distribution and access of the fertiliser, delaying the application period. Top dressing fertiliser works best when the timing is key.

Normally, Ms Keter harvests 30 bags but she anticipates a decline to 10 to 15 bags per acre.

“Besides struggling to get fertiliser, the cost of agro-chemicals, fuel, seeds, and other inputs have also gone up. If the government streamlines the distribution of the fertiliser and also sets the minimum prices of the farm produce, then we will be sure that we may recoup our investment,” says the farmer.

Coffee farmer

David Chombet, a farmer at Ziwa in Uasin Gishu stands at a section of his farm now under coffee.

The farmer says he has reduced acreage under maize from 10 acres to four acres and planted passion fruit, tomatoes and coffee on the remaining land. These crops, he says, require less fertiliser.

Years ago, coffee farming was uncommon in Uasin Gishu but years of high cost of maize production due to skyrocketing fertiliser prices have pushed Mr Chombet into coffee farming which, he says, can thrive with organic manure.

At his farm, he prepares manure from his cows and buys more from other livestock keepers to use on his coffee, instead of relying on the erratic and expensive inorganic fertiliser.

“The cost of fertiliser and other inputs has made agriculture unsustainable this year. I required two bags of inorganic fertiliser but I cannot afford it, so I have opted to use five kilos of compost manure,” says the farmer whose tomato crop is under a greenhouse and passion fruits under drip irrigation.

A 50 kilogramme bag of urea is retailing for between Sh7,000 and Sh7,500, pushing up the cost of farming.

In June, farmers usually require the Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN) fertiliser for their crops. At the moment, a bag of CAN is going for Sh5,000 per 50 kg bag while Di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) is going for Sh6, 000 in the retail market.

Micah Cheserem, the former chair of Commission on Revenue Allocation who grows flowers and avocados in Uasin Gishu, adds that the flower industry has also not been spared by the high-cost fertiliser. Production costs for flowers have jumped by 50 per cent.

“The high fertiliser and fuel prices have forced us to transport some of our produce by sea due to high freight costs,” says Mr Cheserem.

The former Central Bank of Kenya Governor notes that for avocados, he applies compost manure as opposed to synthetic fertiliser, to meet the requirement for the export market.

Dr Mary Nzomo, the county agriculture executive says Trans Nzoia’s crop yields are likely to reduce by 30 per cent. The annual county maize production stands between five and 5.3 million bags while in Uasin Gishu farmers produce five million bags of maize at its peak.

“Some farmers planted without fertiliser while others used manure which is a slow-releasing fertiliser {a kind of input that does not help flourish plants fast}. I want to urge farmers to use foliar feed to boost their crops,” said Dr Nzomo.

Over 2.2 m bags

The Ministry of Agriculture set aside Sh5.7 billion to subsidise over 2.2 million bags of 50kg bags for farmers growing food crops. These quantities is aimed at supporting the cultivation of 1.13 million acres.

The supply woes have been blamed on a shortage of ammonia; a key component in the fertiliser-making process because countries like Turkey and Ukraine, where the raw material is sourced, are not exporting.

Tight supplies by largest producers like China which announced the suspension of exports to cushion its domestic market is also to blame. China, the world’s top exporter of phosphate said it would temporarily suspend exports until June 2022.

According to World Bank’s fertiliser price index latest report, high energy costs coupled with soaring natural gas and coal prices have pushed up the cost of fertiliser.

Global environmental regulations have also contributed to the rising prices of raw materials such as sulphur and ammonia used to manufacture fertiliser. “The prices will remain volatile due to global market forces which might force some farmers to plant without the nutrients,” said Henry Ogola, an expert in the importation of farm inputs.

NCPB, appointed to distribute the farm input, has admitted logistical challenges due to acute shortages in the global market.

“We are facing insufficient supply of top dressing fertiliser but we have partnered with suppliers to offer an alternative to farmers,” said Joseph Kimote, the NCPB managing director.

The government-subsidised top dressing CAN is selling at Sh1,950 but it is lacking in NCPB stores, forcing farmers to dig deep into their pockets to buy the inputs at Sh7,200 in retail markets.

According to Mr Kimote, the NCPB targets to distribute 800,000 DAP planting fertiliser, 200,000 bags of urea, 600,000 bags of CAN and 600,000 bags of NPK.

But they have so far distributed over 100,000 bags of both planting and top dressing fertiliser. The country requires about 650,000 tonnes of fertiliser annually.

Experts argue that the NPK fertiliser is also superior hence the DAP shortage should not delay planting.

“There are other fertiliser like NPK 23; 23 which is suitable for planting of crops in the region unlike the DAP variety,” said Mr Kimote. The agency has partnered with Toyota Tshusho, Mavuno, Yara, Mijingo among other suppliers to hasten the distribution of the fertiliser to farmers.

Mr Kimote added that they have increased allocation to farmers who have met stipulated requirements from 20 to 40 bags.

“Farmers with certified documents are now allowed to purchase 40 bags up from the initial 20 both for planting and top dressing,” he said.

The scarcity of low-cost fertiliser has not spared small scale tea farmers who are staring at heavy losses.

Some tea farmers say they are buying top-dressing fertiliser from retailers at Sh6,800 per 50 kilogramme- bag at the retail market. This is expected to eat into their profit margins.

The Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) offers fertiliser to its members at about Sh1,990 per 50-kilogramme bag and delivers the commodity to buying centers, cutting transport costs but the programme has been hit hard by unsteady supply.

“The drop in world tea prices is a total blow considering that we have to incur extra costs of buying fertiliser at retail prices. The cash crop was also damaged by frost and hailstones in the last two seasons and it might take long before the prices pick up, subjecting us to heavy losses,” said Mathew Too, a tea grower in Chepkumia, Nandi County.

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.