Linking fertilizer subsidies to sustainable farming with trees
A proposed new platform to link Southern Africa’s fertilizer subsidies to sustainable farming practices could be key to reversing the region’s land degradation crisis. The platform – which would be jointly sponsored by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the Secretariat of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) – would aim to help the region’s 19 countries link the scaling up of fertilizer tree technologies to their agricultural input subsidy programs.
“Southern Africa stands out as the area where the long-term trend is distinctly negative in terms of the biomass production on an annual basis over a whole quarter century,” Dennis Garrity, a senior fellow at ICRAF and a UN Drylands Ambassador, said during a presentation at the Beating Famine, Southern Africa Conference in Lilongwe on Thursday. Despite the severity of the crisis, Garrity added, the region has been “really neglected” in terms of international attention to bring the region’s land back to good health.
We already know how to fight land degradation: Farmers need to adopt sustainable, low-cost practices like conservation agriculture, agroforestry and farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR). But the real challenge is figuring out how to spread these proven strategies to the farmers who can benefit from them. A number of options have been discussed this week at the Beating Famine Conference. This one, Garrity says, has enormous potential.
And the idea has already garnered support from high levels of government. At a meeting in Lusaka in February of this year, COMESA’s agriculture ministers endorsed a proposal to create such a platform. Doing so, they agreed, would help them achieve the African Union’s 2014 Malabo Declaration, in which the continent’s heads of state pledged to spread sustainable farming techniques to every farming family in Africa’s drylands.
Fertilizer subsidies could be one of the best ways to do that, especially in Malawi, a country that has already developed a robust Farmer Input Subsidy Program (FISP).
Working with FISP, ICRAF’s Malawi office is running a pilot project to test the inclusion of fertilizer trees to the input subsidy programs. The project, which was described by Joyce Njoloma of ICRAF at a Beating Famine side event on Thursday, will reach 10,000 farmers during the 2014/15 growing season. The idea for the project emerged from previous research that revealed that combining inorganic fertilizers and fertilizer trees (trees that capture and fix nitrogen into the soil) can boost soil fertility and increase maize yields. The pilot marks the first time that agroforestry has specifically been included in the Malawi’s input subsidy program.
The results of the pilot are still to come, but there is already evidence that a system of fertilizer vouchers could work in other countries as well.
“People really prefer fertilizer over cash,” said Stefan Meyer, an Associate Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Addressing the same side event on Thursday, Meyer described a soon-to-be published IFPRI study that analyzed farmers’ responses to offers of cash payments versus vouchers for fertilizer. They found a strong preference for the vouchers, especially among non-marginalized households.
Fertilizer subsidies, particularly in Malawi, have been essential for protecting the food security of the vast majority of small-scale farmers. The challenge now is to solidify the link to sustainable farming practices, and spread the policies across the Southern Africa region.
Blog by Paige McClanahan
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