Food provision is going to become a challenge unless farmers begin to use yield-enhancing technologies such as quality seed of improved crop varieties and fertilisers.
The number of people at risk of becoming food-insecure is likely to increase since agricultural production is growing at a slow pace (estimated at about 1.2 per cent per annum) compared to the population growth rate of about three per cent per annum. Agriculture must sustainably grow at a minimum rate of six per cent per year if it is to play its rightful role in reducing poverty.
Currently, the agricultural sector is characterised by low productivity and yet majority of farmers do not use productivity-enhancing technologies. For example, according to the Uganda census of agriculture of 2008/09, some 92 per cent of farmers do not apply inorganic fertilisers on their crop farms, although most soils in Uganda have over the years been depleted of nutrients.
According to one report by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), at least 87 per cent of Uganda’s land suffers some degradation in terms of plant nutrient loss. Farmers, therefore, need to replenish the lost nutrients and thereafter sustainably maintain high levels of soil fertility.
At the global level, Uganda is among the least users of fertilisers at less than 2kg per hectare per year. This means that we are already lagging behind the Abuja Declaration of 2006 – for which Uganda is signatory – where we committed ourselves to increase fertiliser use to at least 50kg per hectare per year.
According to a recent study by the International Growth Centre (IGC), eight in ten farmers are not willing to adopt fertilisers because what is available on the market is perceived to be of low quality. So, farmers think it is risky to invest in use of fertilisers – the returns may not be able to offset the costs associated with use of fertilisers.
The same study notes that five out of every ten farmers would be willing to adopt fertilisers if agro-input dealers were selling authentic ones. This means that the potential to increase agricultural production through fertiliser use is high yet it is not exploited because of the uncertain quality of fertilisers available on the market.
Moreover, farmers’ fears that fertilisers on the market are of low quality are justified. The IGC collected and tested for quality samples of Urea – a nitrogen-supplying fertiliser – from container village in Kampala and from over 100 agro-input dealers in different parts of the country.
They found that the Urea on the market contained 33 per cent less nitrogen than the authentic one. It was also noted that both adulterated and authentic Urea cost on average the same amount of money per unit quantity. With such high levels of adulterations, you do not expect the returns to investing in fertilisers to be high enough to motivate farmers to embrace the practice of applying adequate amounts of fertiliser to their crops.
Therefore, in order to change this trend and ensure that the country is food-secure and farmers have high incomes, a conducive environment for adoption of yield-enhancing technologies should be created. On a positive note, the ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) has established fertiliser control regulations.
However, effective implementation remains a concern. The objective of these regulations is to control and regulate fertiliser manufacturing, storage, distribution and trade, use, and importation. This aims to ensure good-quality fertilisers for farmers and protect private sector investment against harmful practices in the market.
Thus, specifically regarding substandard fertilisers, MAAIF should strengthen the regulatory function of assuring the quality of agro-chemicals. Laboratories for testing the quality of agricultural chemicals should be equipped and chemical analysts and inspectors should be facilitated to perform their roles.
Also, traders dealing in fertilisers should be taught safe handling and storage to minimise adulteration emanating from poor storage. Fertilisers like Urea are volatile and if not properly stored, the quality deteriorates.
Unless farmers use inputs of good quality, they will not get the right results in terms of yields. With majority of Ugandans reliant on agriculture, failure to ensure adoption of improved technologies by farmers will inevitably have far-reaching implications for the country’s socio-economic development.
The author is a fellow at the Economic Policy Research Centre, Makerere University.