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Fertiliser hopes and fears

By Ronald Musoke

Doubts remain as to whether Tororo phosphate factory will boost farm output and check environmental degradation

Barely ten days after President Yoweri Museveni launched the construction of a fertilizer factory at Sukuru in the eastern district of Tororo, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) released a report that should give policy makers some food for thought.

The report titled, “Seeking Fertile Ground for a Green Revolution in Africa,” notes that Ugandan scientists blame nutrient mining for poor banana yields of just five to 30 tonnes per hectare.

The report adds that while farmers in many parts of the world can harvest up to five tonnes of maize for every hectare, their counterparts in Africa harvest only one tonne on average. Experts blame the phenomenon of depleted soils, which they say is costing African farmers $ 4b (more than Shs 10.5 trillion) each year in lost productivity.  According to the report, African farmers use on average only about ten kg of nutrient (fertilizer) per hectare, compared with a global average of more than 130kg.

But, will the new factory being constructed by Guangzhou Dongsong Energy Group (U) Co. Ltd bring about the change Ugandans desperately need? Well, that is the question.    According to the Sukuru Comprehensive Industrial Development Project’s blueprint, the $620m plant will be a complex of factories that will ensure annual production capacity of 300,000 tonnes from a phosphates plant among other products.

Phosphates, which are a major raw material in the manufacture of fertilizers, were first discovered 60 years ago in the Tororo area and recent surveys show that the minerals in this area straddle an area of about 26.5 sq km, with deposits estimated to be as much as 200 million tonnes.

Ideally, the world-class phosphate deposits in Tororo should help Uganda forget about the importation of fertilizer. However, there are lingering fears that the Chinese could extract and process the precious resource and then export it to more lucrative markets at the expense of the Ugandan farmers. It has already happened to other resources, many of which are exported as raw materials and brought back as unaffordable finished products. There is no indication of what measures the government has put in place to ensure that this does not happen to fertilizers.

Victoria Sekitoleko, the former agriculture minister and technocrat at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told The Independent in a telephone interview on Aug.23 that although re-establishing the fertilizer factory in Tororo was “extremely important,” it will not be enough for the factory to be in Tororo producing thousands of tonnes of fertilizer.

“The government will need to make these fertilizers affordable to Ugandan farmers otherwise they will just cross the border,” she warned.

According to FAO figures, of the overall increase in demand for 3.5 million tonnes phosphate fertilisers between 2012 and 2016, 58% would be in Asia, 24% in America, 11% in Europe, 4% in Africa and 3% in Oceania. This implies that the fertilizer market is more lucrative abroad.

Yet, declining soil fertility has been cited in the 2010/11—2014/15 Agricultural Development Strategy and Investment Plan as one of the major challenges to increasing crop production in Uganda.

To reverse the degradation of African soils, AGRA says farmers need to start using quality soil supplements, including conventional mineral fertilizers and locally available inputs like lime, phosphate rock and manure.

Dennis Mutebi, a supplier of fertilizers in Kampala says there is no doubt that Ugandan farmers are realizing that their land has lost fertility and the only way to make it better is by using fertilizers.

However, Mutebi says, the soil enriching minerals are way too expensive for an average farmer.

He says, a kilogramme of DAP (Diammonium phosphate) goes for Shs 4,000, which many farmers cannot afford. “They would like to use the fertilizer but the price is still high for most of them,” says Mutebi.

Mutebi, who buys his supplies from Kenya, is optimistic about the factory in Uganda but only if it the investors make the prices more affordable for Ugandan farmers.

“If these fertilizers are brought nearer and the price lowered to suit the income of farmers, this will prove to be a good idea,” he says.

Official data shows that Uganda imports just 50,000 metric tonnes yet it needs one million tonnes for effective production to overturn the country’s agricultural productivity for better yields by 2019 according to the agricultural ministry’s national fertilizer policy.

Charles Ogang, the president of the Uganda National Farmers Federation, says the idea of putting up the phosphate factory in Tororo is important because fertilizer use in the country is the lowest in the region, yet farmers are being encouraged to go commercial.

Ogang told The Independent recently that the imported fertilizers are very expensive and inaccessible to most farmers.

He says at 1.4 kg per hectare, Uganda has the least use of fertilizers in the region. For instance, in comparison, Kenya’s fertilizer intake is about 35kg per hectare.

Sekitoleko stressed that fertilizer use will become very important in the coming years considering that pieces of land are becoming smaller every day as the population increases and people begin to value and hold onto those small plots they possess. Environment experts also say the reason for the disappearance of forests and wetlands is because farmers are opening up more virgin land because they believe these are the only remaining fertile areas in the country.

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