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Analysis: Farmers brace for the worst as fertilizer prices rise

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Photo: Amhara Media Corporation

By Getahun Tsegaye @GetahunTsegay12 & Mahlet Fasil @MahletFasil 

Addis Abeba – The soaring price of fertilizers has posed a great challenge for farmers in Ethiopia. Reports have shown that fertilizer prices have increased by more than 150 percent this year compared to last year. Local farmers that Addis Standard spoke to complained of not being able to buy fertilizers on a loan like they used to.  

Lemma Abebe is a local farmer in Agere Mariam woreda in the North Showa zone of the   Amhara Region.  He said, “My farmland is located at a lowland that usually needs 5 to 7 quintals of fertilizers for one harvest. Unless I use fertilizer, the harvest will be very minimal and it has become mandatory to use it to earn good results. Previously, we used to take fertilizers on a loan and repay them back once we earn money after selling our products but this trend has now stopped since we’re not allowed to take credit anymore.”

Lemma, a 38-year-old father of four explained that he has been supporting his family on a very small plot of land that he inherited from his parents when he got married. “My kids are not old enough to plow yet but they support me by looking after the cattle,” adding,” The challenges I am facing as a farmer may not be easily understandable for regular people. Only farmers understand a farmer’s problem,” Lemma stated.   

He further went on to express his dismay regarding the misconception some city dwellers had. “Residents in cities sometimes have wrong assumptions that farmers may have a comfortable life. Though we farm, we are hungry and are destitute to the extent that we cannot afford to buy some goods. What makes our situation worse is the current alarming price of fertilizers,” Lemma complained. 

Another farmer from Agere Mariam is Woinshet Alemu who told Addis Standard that following her husband’s death, she and her children’s life has greatly been dependent on renting farmland. This trend, however, seems to have been unreliable means of living for them, she said. “I have two kids, four and two years old. Since the death of my husband last year, I have been supporting my children by renting the plot of land to my neighbor,” adding,” I and the tenant [her neighbor] agreed that I will take 60 percent of the harvest while he takes the rest 40 percent and we also consented that we will equally share  the cost of  seeds and  fertilizers.” 

“The challenges I am facing as a farmer may not be easily understandable for regular people. Only farmers understand a farmer’s problem.”

Lemma Abebe, local farmer

Woinshet told Addis Standard that things were not as affordable as they used to be. She said the soaring fertilizers prices became very challenging for her to afford. “What will I and my kids eat if we buy the fertilizer with all the money we earn from the small farmland?” she asked in amusement.

BBC Amharic has recently reported that a quintal of fertilizer had a price tag of 1,700 ETB last year which now cost more than double, 4,500 ETB per quintal. “Our land could be harvested without any crops,” farmers told the news outlet. They said the price of fertilizers is soaring. Expressing their concerns about inflation, the farmers said that it would have a major impact on their products. ”My plan was to spend up to 25,000 ETB on fertilizer this year. But now it has more than doubled and costs over 50,000 ETB. So how do I sow?” farmer Gete asked.

According to the report, inflation has also forced the farmers to consider sowing seeds that are unprofitable and don’t need fertilizers.  Gete says, “I have not bought any fertilizer yet. I am also worried about how to repay the debt I borrowed to sow for the summer irrigation.”

Another farmer, Shumet, shares Gete’s worries. ”Our village has been discussing the fertilizers issue for days now,” Shemet said. The farmers said they needed at least eight quintals of NPS and four quintals of Urea fertilizers to cover their land with crops. They asserted that because they could not afford to buy the fertilizers, they would not be able to produce anymore unless a better solution was given.   

“I am a poor farmer. I can’t afford to buy it at the current price.I may plant a little corn so that my children would not miss the harvest. It has become unattainable to harvest other than this,” the farmers expressed their despair.  

Ethiopia purchased 12.8 million quintals of fertilizers last week, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. State Minister for Investment and Infrastructure, Sophia Kassa (PhD), told BBC Amharic that work was underway in distributing the fertilizers to different regions.

What triggered the price increase?

The State Minister, Sophia reiterates that the price of fertilizer has increased by more than 150 percent compared to last year. She underlined that the price could have soared a lot more had the purchase deal not been sealed earlier. 

The State Minister affiliated the current soaring price to the concurrent price increment at a global level. “As a country, we have already won the bid and secured the deal. That’s why we still get a better price,” she claimed. 

According to her, the shortage occurred because major fertilizer-producing countries had reduced fertilizers production due to COVID-19. The State Minister noted that the price of natural gas which, according to her, is specifically useful for the production of urea fertilizer, has risen and due to this the producing countries of the said gas are out of production. 

She also stated that China and Russia had reduced their exports and said this was a contributing factor to the current price increase.  The State Minister added that the delay in procurement was due to repeated bidding. 

She said that፣ taking into account the ongoing import of fertilizers,  efforts are underway to identify areas that should be sown earlier. She added, that regions were working to deliver it properly.  She also said that the states were working hard to enable the farmers not only to use artificial fertilizers but also natural fertilizers. 

The farmers, however, stated that they rarely use natural fertilizers and their land had frequently been exposed to artificial fertilizers. They asked the government to extend projects that subsidize affordable fertilizers so that they could buy them at a lower price. “We will notify what the government will do next. The government is now focusing on supply,” the State Minister answered when BBC Amharic asked about the farmers’ concerns. 

“As a country, we have already won the bid and secured the deal. That’s why we still get a better price.”

Sophia Kassa (PhD), State Minister for Investment and Infrastructure

The State Minister said that Ethiopia bought 17 million quintals of fertilizers last year compared to this year’s purchase of fewer than 5 million quintals. “Of the total demand, only 70 percent of purchases were made. Additional purchases will be made in the fall,” she added. 

It can be recalled that Addis Standard previously reported that farmers in the East Gojjam Zone of the Amhara regional state had filed complaints with zonal authorities on March 22 regarding the current lack of supply and the rising cost of fertilizers ahead of the coming main crop planting season.

According to East Gojjam Police Bureau, representatives of the farmers who were drawn from various localities in the zone told zonal authorities that one of the main reasons for their harvest declines was the lack of timely supply of fertilizer and rising costs, contributing to their inability to buy and use the fertilizer timely.

The farmers’ representatives further cautioned that failure to provide adequate fertilizer for the next farming season could lead to a reduction in production and cause further damage to the lives of the farmers. They concluded their discussion by calling on the zonal leadership to facilitate a speedy solution and also formed a committee from each Woreda in the zone.

The farmers’ complaint comes amidst growing fears that the global supply of fertilizer was facing unprecedented disruption following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to data from The Fertilizer Institute, Russia is the world’s largest exporter of fertilizers, accounting for 23% of ammonia exports, 14% of urea exports, 10% of processed phosphate exports, and 21% of potash exports. TFI warned that the war “will add additional pressure on a market that has already experienced many challenges over the last 18 months.”

PM Abiy repeatedly spoke of replacing “wheat imports through enhanced local production”. Accordingly, he said various regions have been maximizing efforts accordingly and specifically noting that the “Oromia Region has thus far cultivated wheat on 355 hectares.” 

Less than 40% of farmers in Ethiopia use fertilizer, according to a research study, and “those who do, apply rates significantly below those recommended. This low fertilizer use is primarily due to prices being two to three times higher than prices on the world markets.” AS

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