Of late, members of Admas Farmers’ Union do not have any idea of what the coming harvest season holds for them. Let alone how much of their harvest they’d be taking to the market, they’re not sure of meeting their household needs. With over 178,000 members, Admas, located in the Awi Zone of Amhara Regional State, had produced about 12 million quintals of crops last year, with corn taking over a third. For that, they had used over 760,000 quintals of fertilizers.
Not only that their farmland would not be productive without the use of fertilizers, the rugged terrain has left the land vulnerable to erosion. “Crop productivity would be small to none unless they use some fertilizers on the land,” said Meseret Workie, general manager of the union.
Even though the union asked for almost the same amount of fertilizer as that of the previous year, the government has so far promised them only a little over half of that amount. It is now too late for the farmers to prepare natural fertilizers in the form of compost as they had counted on the government to deliver. Had they known that they wouldn’t receive the supply this season, they would have looked for alternatives like compost starting from last year’s rainy season.
“Our hope now lies only on this promised 59 percent of our demand,” said Meseret. “There is no other alternative now.”
The provision of agricultural inputs like fertilizers has lately been affected by crises – both local and global. The conflict in northern Ethiopia has no doubt slowed down the Ethiopian economy while the Russo-Ukraine war has not only disrupted supply chains but has also resulted in the rise of prices.
The meager supply, coupled with the drastic increase in the price of fertilizer, which reached a whopping 5,000 Birr a quintal this year, over two folds from the price last year, farmers are losing interest in the use of fertilizers.
For sure, a host of factors caused the price hike. The cost of urea on the world market was 459 USD per quintal last year. It has now soared by some 180 percent. The war between the world’s largest exporters of fertilizer, Ukraine and Russia, is one among several reasons for the price increase.
With local demand for fertilizers growing by eight percent a year, the rise in prices has made matters worse, and government coffers would be procuring only 12.8 million quintals against a demand for 19.5 million quintals.
Meseret of Admas explains that there would be some plots of land that would remain unfarmed, while farmers will be too frugal on fertilizer use. About two quintals of urea used to be applied on a hectare of farmland, but farmers are now thinking in terms of using the same amount on two or three hectares of land.
For these reasons, the union forecasts a drop in productivity by at least 30 percent.
“The amount of crops up for sale will for sure drop as well since farmers will use their harvest for household consumption,” Meseret noted.
Adane Tuffa (PhD), an agricultural economist and lecturer at Addis Ababa University, believes that farmers should be making rational decisions since the powers that be are not willing to make the necessary changes to ensure the independence of the sector.
No matter how big the financial pressure the government is under, Adane believes that it was a must that the government should have subsidized fertilizer expenses than imposing the burden on the farmers.
“There is literally no other commodity than agricultural inputs that the government of any country should prioritize,” Adane said. “Especially farmers by any means shouldn’t have been stressed out like this.”
Kelemu Tiruneh from Dangila is one of the farmers under Admas Farmers’ Union. He complains of the shortage and high price of fertilizers. He used to cultivate two hectares of corn and get at least 40 quintals per hectare. He isn’t planning to cultivate both of his hectares this year. And his is not a unique case.
Farmers used to cultivate a portion of their land to grow food for their families. On the remaining land, they would plant either niger seed or animal feed.
“Most farmers in my circle are cutting down their production and planning to produce crops for house consumption only,” Kelemu said.
The cost of fertilizer, labor and other expenses now stands at 30,000 Birr a hectare. With a quintal of corn fetching a mere 2,000 Birr, the whole enterprise is not attractive.
Where Kelemu lives, a hectare of land would produce about 12 quintals of teff that sells about 4,200 Birr a quintal.
“I personally don’t get motivated to incur more expenses and cultivate more with all the unprofitable market in the future,” Kelemu said.
Direct awards by the government were given to suppliers this year, with a Moroccan state-owned company taking orders for the supply of 60 percent of the 12.8 million quintals.
The process to procure fertilizers this year was delayed after some companies, mainly Egyptian, kept dragging their feet during the bidding process, according to Dereje Asamnew, agricultural investment and input supply advisor to the state minister of agriculture.
This action, as Dereje explained, was politically-motivated, with the intended end result being that the farmers of Ethiopia would sabotage the economy.
Whatever the sector has been going through this year, one thing everyone in the sector agrees on is the possible drop in agriculture productivity next year. Agricultural output has already not been commensurate with population growth, as per the expert.
Both in Meher and Belg seasons, , total grain production by peasant and commercial farms last year was 370,708,842 quintals in Ethiopia, an increase of 6.3 percent from two years previously.
It is yet to be seen how much productivity will decrease this year due to the fertilizer crisis coupled with the war in northern Ethiopia.
About the issue of dependency on fertilizer, Adane the agricultural economist, believes the way out will be a hard one. Unless the country doubles down on local production and import substitution, he predicts that more pressure internationally would cripple the country’s biggest economy, agriculture.
“I’m more afraid for the future,” he said.
The only way out, according to Adane, is to give due attention to assisting farmers through subsidies technical know-how, including provision of more arable land.