The West Needs to Come to Grips with African Fertilizer Needs

This blog post was first posted on the Breakthrough Institute Substack.

One of the many impacts of Russia’s war against Ukraine was a spike in global food prices. Although food prices are lower today than they were in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the impact of the war on global food prices remains the most important consequence for the world’s poor countries. For many African states, Russia and Ukraine are the largest suppliers of wheat, corn, and other staples. Disruptions in agricultural trade since February 2022 have not only increased food insecurity, but have also made African countries even more dependent on Russia, the world’s biggest exporter of fertilizer.

Food insecurity is a major reason so many African countries have been unwilling to fully condemn and boycott Russia for its invasion and war crimes. And while much of the world looks at whether or not food shipments make it out of the Black Sea, continued Russian deliveries of fertilizer are even more important for African agriculture.

That’s because at the core of African food insecurity are the continent’s notoriously low crop yields—the amount of produce farmers harvest relative to the area of land they farm.

And one of the main reasons for low yield compared to other regions is that African countries, on average, use far less fertilizer to boost their agricultural production than the rest of the world. In 2020, the continent’s use of synthetic fertilizer—containing the three essential plant nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—was only around 26 kilograms per hectare of cropland. This is barely one-fifth of the European Union (135 kilograms per hectare on average), around one-sixth of North and South America (150 kilograms per hectare), and a mere one-seventh of Asia (187 kilograms per hectare).

The low African number would be even lower were it not for a handful of outliers in the continent’s far north and south. Egypt used 401 kilograms per hectare, and South African farmers applied just over 60 kilograms per hectare in 2020. In many countries in between, crop production is largely based on non-industrial methods and uses substantially less synthetic fertilizer per hectare of cropland. In 2020, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Namibia, Niger, and Sudan all used under 10 kg of synthetic fertilizer, and had an average cereals yield—including rice, maize, barley, oat, rye, millet, sorghum and other grains—of 0.966 tons per hectare. In comparison, in the same year, the United States used just over 124 kg of synthetic fertilizer per hectare of cropland, and had a cereal yieldover 8 tons per hectare.

A recent assessment of global food insecurity performed by The Economist ranked Niger as the 97th (out of 113 countries) in food security, the Democratic Republic of Congo as the 104th, Sudan as the 105th, and Madagascar as 108th. Namibia was not even included. According to the World Food Programme, more than 40 million people are facing severe hunger in just the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

Any serious conversation about food security in the global south must therefore start with the state of African agriculture—its poor yields, lack of fertilizer and other inputs, and continued dominance of subsistence farming and other inefficient agriculture. Instead, many Western environmentalists, climate activists, and policy-makers—who often have little knowledge of how food is actually produced—ignore the extent to which global inequality in food security results from drastically uneven access to agricultural inputs, and, above all, fertilizer.

For these Westerners, the No. 1 concern about fertilizer is its carbon intensity. Much synthetic fertilizer is produced, at least for now, in fossil fuel facilities. What’s more, the use of synthetic fertilizer is associated with the adoption of industrial agriculture—large-scale monocultures and other highly efficient production systems that became widespread in the 20th century—and its detrimental effects, including pollution from fertilizer overuse. In this assessment, low fertilizer application is a win for both the climate and the environment.

Western NGOs, like Heinrich Böll Stiftung, La Via Campesina, the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy and even, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, have taken aim at synthetic fertilizer use in Africa, and instead have called for “agroecology,” a loosely defined set of agronomic principles that attempt to take a holistic approach to agriculture and food policy. But agroecology tends to glorify existing peasant practices, effectively calling for stagnation, and thus low agricultural yields and increased food insecurity.

Opposition to increasing fertilizer use in poor, low-productivity agricultural economies is a huge mistake. The use of fertilizer, modern crop varieties, irrigation, and mechanization has all but eliminated the scourge of famine. It is not a coincidence that most of the world’s food insecure countries practice non-industrial agriculture. Synthetic fertilizer ranks as one of humanity’s most beneficial technologies: About half the global human population—roughly 3.5 billion people—owe their sustenance to the increased yields of food crops made possible by synthetic fertilizer use.

Fertilizer use is not the only thing that drives crop yield, but it is one of the most important. Global data show a correlation between fertilizer use and cereal yields. Numerous studies of fertilizer subsidies in Sub-Saharan African countries have shown yield benefits for farmers who increase the use of fertilizer.

For countries with high food insecurity, low crop yields, and dependence on food imports—which describes many poor countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa—increasing the domestic food supply through higher crop yields is critical if they are to reduce hunger and malnutrition. And yet, opposition to increasing the supply of synthetic fertilizer for farmers in poor countries is common among green groups and policymakers in developed economies.

In June 2022, the European Commission blocked an initiative to provide financial support for the construction of new fertilizer production plants in Sub-Saharan Africa that depend on fertilizer imports, mainly from Russia. According to the commission, the initiative would run counter to the European Union’s climate and energy commitments. Later in the year, the European Commission offered 4.5 billion euros in grants to Africa for food aid—helpful charity that does nothing to enable Africa to grow its own food—and investments in next-generation fertilizers.

Next-generation fertilizers can mean multiple things—production of green ammonia, adoption of microbial fertilizers to fix nutrients in plants, or other efficiency-boosting technologies to be tied with synthetic fertilizers, all of which are valuable technologies for the future. None of these have short-term benefits for African agricultural producers, who can’t grow crops today with promises of the technologies of tomorrow or improve nutrient efficiency if they don’t already use enough nutrients.

Delaying any decision to help build urgently needed fertilizer plants, the EU has proposed a task force on fertilizer needs in Africa. That task force was formally announced at a conference of African Union-European Union agricultural ministers in July 2023. The short-term implications of the task force remain unclear, as does the implementation plan for the promised 4.5 billion euros.

Similarly, while the Biden administration frequently talks about global food security, it has not addressed the problem of low fertilizer use in poor countries. USAID’s Global Fertilizer Challengeraised $135 million in November 2022 to invest in fertilizer use efficiency—not very helpful for countries that don’t have much access to fertilizer to begin with—and soil health. Earlier in the year, USAID head Samantha Power said that the fertilizer price and supply crisis coming out of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was an opportunity for farmers to move toward “natural solutions like manure or compost” and thus “hasten transitions that would have been in the interest of farmers to make eventually anyway.”

Such a “let them eat organic” claim cheapens the lives of the millions of food insecure people through Sub-Saharan Africa, and fails to understand the depth of the problem. Using manure or other organic fertilizers—often other forms of waste byproducts from the animal agriculture industry—would require a vast expansion of animal agriculture, trading off the environmental and climate impacts of fertilizer production and use with those from animal production. This is made worse by the fact that crops require as much as twice the amount of manure to harness the same amount of nutrients as from synthetic fertilizer. This is not to mention the logistical difficulties associated with transporting and spreading manure—difficulties that often result in overapplication, and potentially even worse nutrient pollution than synthetic fertilizer use. One need not look further than Sri Lanka’s ill-fated decision to completely ban synthetic fertilizer imports to see the high-cost of organic alternatives to agricultural nutrients.

It is not clear that Western countries fully understand the devastating consequences of the lack of investment in fertilizer. Empty commitments to “next generation” fertilizers, and a focus on “use efficiency” do not make up for the massive gaps between fertilizer usage in rich versus poor countries and invariably just kick the can down the road when it comes to increasing food security in Africa. And while 4.5 billion euros sounds like a lot, the newest fertilizer plant on the African continent—built by Nigeria’s Dangote Group in partnership with the Nigerian government in 2022—alone cost $2.5 billion.

When rich countries with well-fed populations oppose greater use of synthetic fertilizer in Africa, it smacks of the same green colonialism that is putting a brake on other aspects of African development in the name of climate policy. And it is hypocrisy: European and American farmers use orders of magnitude more fertilizer than producers in Sub-Saharan Africa, letting them enjoy world-leading agricultural yields. But for Western policymakers and activists, African farmers using more than a smidgen of fertilizer would be a climate nightmare. One thing should be crystal clear: These people are asking millions of Africans to go hungry, risk famine, and—at best—be dependent on food charity from rich countries.

What’s more, limiting fertilizer use and maintaining low agricultural yields doesn’t even accomplish the climate and environmental goals rich Westerners purport to support. Feeding Africa’s burgeoning population without sharply higher yields means farmers need more land to produce food. That threatens biodiversity and increases forest loss, which in turn reduces nature’s ability to store carbon.

Western governments, development agencies, and green groups are putting Africa into an impossible squeeze. On the one hand, they are actively limiting the continent’s ability to raise crop yields and feed itself. On the other hand, they support cordoning off African land for conservation purposes and carbon credits because they don’t like the expansion of farmland, either.

If the West has any interest at all in improving the wellbeing of hundreds of millions of poor people—instead of leaving them food insecure and dependent on charity—it must overcome its unwillingness to make legitimate investments in agricultural development.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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