The quality of Malawi’s top-soil, a critical asset to food production, has left the country with reduced quantity and quality of its agricultural output because of the sweeping use of synthetic fertilisers over the years.
However, a local company Mtalimanja Holdings plans to establish a large-scale organic fertiliser manufacturing business concern that will produce bio-fertiliser from a variety of agricultural and livestock waste in order to replenish top-soils and reduce the fertiliser import bill.
Agriculture is the single most important sector in the Malawi’s economy, contributing about 38 percent of value added GDP. It employs about 85 percent of the country’s workforce and contributes 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings.
At household level, agriculture, dominated by smallholder farmers, is the major source of food and income. But following many years after many farming families switched from low cost, sustainable traditional agriculture to intensive industrial farming with heavy use of chemical fertilizers, production has diminished due to declining soil fertility caused by climate change, human activity and overreliance on chemical fertilizers.
A study titled “Malawi Fertiliser Assessment” commissioned and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the Feed the Future (FtF) initiative, observed that “a key tenet to raising productivity and production to achieve the agricultural growth rates of the A-SWAp is the adoption of improved technologies such as integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) and modern cropping practices”.
The study estimated that for the country to meet its agriculture sector growth targets, it must annually double its fertilizer consumption from 297,000 in 2013 metric tons (mt) to 600,000 mt in 2016.
The recommended average rate of fertilizer application across all crops, regardless of fertiliser type, is around 160 kg/ha. On average, however, the nutrient use per hectare of fertiliser is only around 43 kg.
Malawi government records indicate that the agriculture sector has a potential to consume 500,000 metric tonnes of fertiliser per year. “Low fertilizer up take is one of the leading causes for low productivity, a major obstacle to improvement in the livelihood among households,” says government in its National Fertiliser Strategy.
Meanwhile, Professor David Kamchacha of Mtalimanja Holdings says currently the country consumes over 360, 000 mt but has the potential to use over 800, 000 mt.
“Bio fertilisers can fill up the gap between actual total annual demand of fertilisers and fertilisers available currently,” he says pointing out that “the cost of bio fertilisers and organic inputs will be approximately USD 48 per hectare for a 4 to 6 month cycle crop and the cost can be significantly reduced if the bio fertilisers are manufactured in the country.”
The national strategy attributes the country’s low fertiliser use to low levels of fertiliser sales triggered by low demand which is further anchored on high purchasing prices in a country where about 8.5 million people survive on an income below the poverty line, with rural poverty estimated at 56 percent. Approximately 86 percent of the population lives in rural areas and are primarily engaged in smallholder subsistence farming.
The strategy notes that per-capita food supply is falling in Malawi because the population is growing at a high rate than the growth rate of food production with agricultural estimate figures showing that production of maize, the country’s staple food, being static and staggering at between 1.3 and 1.8 million metric tonnes for the past 15 years.
“It can, therefore, be inferred from this, that food production might be growing at less than 1percent,” says the strategy report suggesting that a number of factors including inadequate investment, over reliance on rain fed agriculture, low levels of irrigation development, poor crop varieties, declining soil fertility and most importantly inadequate access to agro-inputs and fertiliser in particular, are at play.
It further adds; “Access to fertilizer price has also been compounded by low produce prices caused by poor market structures, weak market linkages coupled with poor government pricing policies and deepening poverty”.
Kamchacha believes that it is high time the country turned to cheaper options like the bio fertilizers. “These should be encouraged and popularized,” he says adding that bio-fertilisers are more affordable to the largely rural, and poor, farmers of Malawi. Inspite of the lower cost, there is better yield in terms of quality and quantity in agriculture output.
“Other benefits are that they do not deteriorate soil quality, do not contaminate water beds, do not contaminate farm outputs and that they are environmentally friendly,” he says.
Agriculture expert, Zilani Chirwa says bio-fertilisers harnesses atmospheric nitrogen and makes it available directly to the plants and that it increases phosphorus uptake by releasing unavailable phosphorus.
These soils enhance root proliferation and improves soil properties and sustain soil fertility, he says.
Kamchacha is of the view that bio fertilisers can be applied to more hectares of land compared to chemical fertilisers if the prevailing cost and level of (chemical) fertiliser uptake was to be pitted against bio fertliser.
“This will definitely give better financial gains to the farmers. Also important is that bio fertilisers come into the category of organic farm inputs hence the resultant farm outputs can fetch a better price in the market as organic products,” he says.
According to the agriculture ministry, constraints in the supply of chemical fertilizers include the unfavourable macro-economic environment which has seen the depreciation of the Malawi Kwacha as a negative influence on input supply and use as traders are unable to import sufficient quantities of fertiliser and farmers are unable to buy the fertiliser.
But Kamchacha opines that it is important for government to facilitate a conducive environment for investors wishing to venture in bio-fertliser manufacturing in the country because “for every devaluation in MK against the USD, the fertilisers becomes expensive and the volume of import decreases and the agriculture land to which it can be applied will go on decreasing”.
He further suggests that the Fertiliser Input Subsidy Program should also be extended to bio-fertiliser companies as is the case with chemical fertilizer companies.
Another obstacle to access to fertilizers is found in the procurement, transport costs and distribution systems where fertiliser imported into Malawi is usually in small parcels, which drives up product prices and freight costs. Handling and transportation of small quantities is always expensive because of diseconomies of scale.
“These expenses are borne by farmers who are forced to purchase the product at very high prices,” says the National Fertiliser Strategy observing that “Haulage companies and truckers are sometimes reluctant to penetrate into the remote areas with poor roads and freight rates are abnormally high in Malawi compared to the rest of the region due to the high cost of fuel and spare parts”.
On business enterprises’ participation in the distribution and marketing of fertilisers in Malawi, Kamchacha notes that this is a positive development because it will eventually contribute to “job creation while local manufacturing by small entrepreneurs can fill the huge gap in demand and supply of fertilisers and also prevent valuable foreign exchange from going out of the country”.