Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Malawi Fertilizer Myth?

I participate in many international events where food security is discussed. Again and again the proponents of an African Green Revolution are promoting subsidised chemical fertilizers as a panacea. And they bring the Malawi success story to the table. Well, even if I don't believe the story, it is hard to argue against when there is no reliable data or proper analysis. There is really very little data that supports the story either, but when "big names" say it again and again it kind of becomes a truth. Just the other day Jeffrey Sachs wrote in the IHT "African leaders, such as President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi, also broke old donor-led shibboleths by establishing new government programs to get fertilizer and high-yield seeds to impoverished peasant farmers who could not afford these inputs. Farm yields soared once nitrogen got back into the depleted soils."

Many African leaders are also very keen on subsidies to chemical fertilizers - when paid by foreign donors - as it is a cheap way of to keep people in the countryside a bit happy, buying votes to express it a bit cynically.

But the policies of subsidising fertilizers were tried decades before and it always failed. African farmers are not stupid. When they don't use chemical fertilizers it is because it is not profitable and because it is risky: If there is a draught it certainly doesn't help anything that you have used fertilizers, the only thing you have left is the debt for buying them......

Finally I have at least found one report that debunks some of the myths about the "success" of fertilizers in Malawi. "The myth of Malawi’s food self-sufficiency ― enough food for everyone?
Implication of policy and food entitlement in household food security of rural Malawi"
by Sachi Yamada. The report gives a much more nuanced picture of what are the important issues for food security in Malawi. It clarifies that most of the food deficient households, being farmers or non-farmers are constrained by low cash income, and that even those that have land are forced to seek casual employement to get income, and that such employment is mostly available at the same time as they need to work their own lands, i.e. at sowing and harvest. In addition, when they do have a surpluse, they need to sell it at harvest to get cash, which means they have to buy again in the lean period before next harvest - when prices are higher. The report doesn't say that subsidies of fertilizers are bad, but it also shows how limited the success is.

Another study of use of fertilizers in Malawi, Zambia and Kenya concludes that:
As a tool for increasing overall agricultural productivity, especially for small, poor farmers, fertilizer subsidies have a questionable record. Long experience with input subsidy programs in Africa is not encouraging on several points: (a) there is very little evidence from Africa that fertilizer subsidies have been a sustainable or cost-effective way to achieve agricultural productivity gains compared to other investments, (b) there are no examples of subsidy programs where the benefits were not disproportionately captured by larger and relatively better-off farmers, even when efforts were made to target subsidies to the poorand (c) there is little evidence that subsidies or other intensive fertilizer promotion programs have “kick-started” productivity growth among poor farmers in Africa enough to sustain high levels of input use once the programs end.

Poverty is and remains the cause of hunger. And ultimately poverty is a question about power, because power relationships determine who has and who has not. In the short term, it seems more reasonable to give food insecure household cash instead of fertilizers. Then they don't have to sell their maize at lowest price and then they could even invest in their production and make their own choice if they want to invest in a treddle pump, a new hoe, in chemical fertilizers or organic fertilizers.


  1. There is a good blog post on this by Maggie McMillan at

    While it is not AGAINST fertilizers it shows that they are not by themselves a path for development.

  2. Subsidies in any form help the poor but not 100%. Since no public expenditure is 100% perfect, subsidies are a legitimate way to spend government budget.