EDITOR: | May 7th, 2014

Africa’s fertilizer challenge

| May 07, 2014 | No Comments

Allana_Potash_1As my colleague Alessandro Bruno rightly pointed out yesterday (in his post on Allana Potash’s new initiative in Ethiopia), “Africa is surely one the most important markets for mineral fertilizers. Africa has the potential to increase the value of its annual agricultural output of $280 billion in 2010 to $500 billion by 2020 according to the African Development Bank”.

The key word is “potential”. Then there is the term “uphill battle” ― which is the situation facing Africa and fertilizer.

Back in January I reported on InvestorIntel that sub-Saharan Africa consumes about 750,000 tonnes a year. With the proper infrastructure, make that 6 million tonnes. Say that quickly, and it sounds perfectly feasible. Ah, but we’re talking about Africa ― and how many grand plans and great hopes have been dashed since the British Crown colony of Gold Coast in 1957 became Ghana and started the decolonization ball rolling.

Just how big a task was spelled out in a paper last year presented to International Fertiliser Society (as it was a British occasion, we’ll respect their spelling of “fertilizer”). The paper at the IFS conference at Windsor got scant attention at the time but the subject is worth a closer look on at least two counts. One, is the fact that African is host to several potash mining projects. Two, the continent needs the potash ― and phosphate, too, for that matter. Actually, the two points together raise a third one: that the developments of potash and phosphate on the continent, together with Africa’s very real food production problems, is at least making for a real, emerging issue.

Some projects are looking elsewhere for markets. Australia’s Elemental Minerals with its Congo potash is expected target the Brazilian market, while South Boulder Mines in Eritrea has tended to be focused on selling into India. Really, it has been Allana Potash that has set the African-potash-for-Africa story running, so it worth going back to the IFS paper as it contains some very useful information. We should also note the work done by the authors, Maria Wanzala from South Africa-based New Partnership for Africa’s Development and Rob Groot of the International Fertiliser Development Centre in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

One fact alone is startling: over the past 50 years, cereal productivity for Sub-Saharan Africa (or SSA) has stagnated at 1 tonne per hectare compared to more than 4 tonnes/hectare in developed countries. Now about 27% of Africa’s population is chronically undernourished. The authors of the paper say the low agricultural productivity is “largely due” to the limited use of mineral fertilizers. Average fertilizer use on the continent is 8kg/hectare compared with the global average of 107kg/ha. And even within SSA there are vast disparities: Six countries (out of 44) account for up to 70% of SSA’s fertilizer consumption, those being Nigeria, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Kenya.

Nearly 40% of the fertilizer used goes to give nutrients to maize crops, followed by other cereals such as wheat barley. Fruits, vegetables and sugar cane take up 15% of the fertilizer used.

Between 1961 and 2011 productivity per hectare increased 2.9 times but in SSA the figure was 1.65 times.

It’s not that Africa is short of the raw materials. North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt) has substantial resources of phosphate rock. Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia account for 88% of Africa’s fertilizer production, most of which is exported.Yet in all of Africa there is as yet no potash production.

Wanzala and Groot see the Republic of Congo and Ethiopia as the only SSA countries with commercially viable potash deposits (although Eritrea might quibble with that). For phosphate, the main SSA contenders are Tanzania, Togo and Senegal, although there are hopeful signs for Mozambique and offshore Namibia.

SSA farmers face cost problems. Freight rates to most SSA ports are high, while limited port capacity dictates the use of small vessels, typically ones of about 15,000 tonnes. Ports are congested, waits of up to 10 days for berthing are common, and port bagging equipment is inefficient and often inaccurate.


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