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Analysis: Fertilizer shortage amidst widespread illicit trade cripples farmers, threatens productivity

UREA Fertilizer (Photo: Ethiopian Agricultural Business Corporation/Facebook)

By Getahun Legesse @Birmaduu2

Addis Abeba – According to the Ethiopian Agricultural Business Corporation, Ethiopia has bought over 12.8 million quintals of fertilizer this year out of which more than 8.5 million quintals have arrived at the Djibouti port as of 24 June, 2023. The corporation was expecting an additional 1.1 million quintals of fertilizer to arrive at the port by 01 July having more than 7 million quintals already shipped from the port to the country.

Regardless of this, farmers across the country whose livelihood is dependent on subsistence farming are crippled by severe lack of fertilizer with fears of missing the planting season.

The Amhara regional state has witnessed multiple protests by the peasantry who demanded access to and timely delivery of fertilizer over the past months. On 30 May, hundreds of protesting farmers took to the streets of Bahir Dar chanting slogans that they have been “waiting with hope” but have run out of patience now; “Give us fertilizer”, “Solve the fertilizer problem!” were some of the banners on display.

Farmers in other regions such as Oromia and Sidama are equally desperate about lack of supply, delays in distribution, and the widespread illicit fertilizer trade. Aliyi Mamade, a farmer in Harar, West Hararghe zone in Oromia regional state, told Addis Standard that lack of fertilizer has “become a challenge” to farmers in his area, adding that they are traveling to nearby districts such as Kombolcha in frantic search of fertilizer. The crops planted in the area require excessive fertilizer and planting without fertilizer will significantly reduce the yield, he said.

Likewise, shortage of fertilizer supply has become a bottleneck to farmers in Borana zone, who are returning to farming after a severe drought that lasted throughout five consecutive farming seasons. According to Liban Garbicha, head of agriculture office in Arero district of the zone, the amount of fertilizer supplied to the district is less than 25% of what is required. He added that even the little fertilizer that is supplied to the district is NPSB fertilizer whereas there is huge demand for UREA.

“Planting the crops without fertilizer is a loss; as the yield would be reduced by more than a half.”

Gebreyohannes Murts, a farmer

Farmers in the Sidama region also raised similar complaints when the agriculture standing committee at the House of Peoples’ Representatives visited the region to observe the fertilizer distribution process in Bilate, Boricha and Badale districts in June. As of 09 June, with only one week remaining before the end maize planting period, the region didn’t receive 21,000 quitals of UREA fertilizer it required.  

In the war torn Tigray region,  farmers like Gebreyohannes Murts are forced to continue planting crops without fertilizer for three consecutive years, as there has been a lack of supply to the region since 2020, whereas other farmers use traditional methods to cope with the lack of fertilizer supply.

“Planting the crops without fertilizer is a loss; as the yield would be reduced by more than a half,” Gebreyohannes told Addis Standard, adding that, “it would be nice even if it reached us after planting so that we pour it into the growing sprouts”.

Illicit Fertilizer Trade

Despite little or no regular distribution of fertilizer through Farmers Cooperative Unions, Aliyi, the farmer from West Hararghe in Oromia region said that fertilizer is being illicitly sold on the market with a price that is unattainable for farmers. Addis Standard has learned from multiple sources that a quintal of UREA costs over 10,000 birr on black market in different cities and towns in Oromia regional state.

Whereas in Tigray region, a quintal of UREA fertilizer is being sold for 16,000 to 17,000 birr while the NPSB fertilizer costs 11,000 birr according to a farmer who recently bought the fertilizer from merchants in Aksum.

NPSP Fertilizer (Photo: Ethiopian Agricultural Business Corporation/Facebook)

“Our farmland is not productive without fertilizer, I had no choice but to buy two quintals of NPSB fertilizer for 11,000 birr each,” said a farmer who asked for his name not to be mentioned. He noted that the fertilizer is being sold in an open market in Aksum.

In June, following an investigation into the shortage of fertilizer which led to protests by farmers in the Amhara region, members of the Standing Committee on Agricultural Affairs of the House of People’s Representatives (HoPR) called for stringent measures against the illicit fertilizer trade that has plagued the region.

The Committee seized 4,165 quintals of undistributed fertilizer stockpiled in local warehouses in the Degoy and Wetet Abay Farmers Cooperative Unions, located in the West Gojjam Zone, South and North Mecha districts. Local authorities cited insufficient quantities to meet the needs of all farmers as the rationale behind their decision to withhold distribution until more supplies arrived, adding a layer to the problem, the house committee stated.

The widespread illicit trade of fertilizer is caused by the shortage of supply which in turn is caused by the country’s insufficient foreign currency stock, argues economist Gutu Tesso (PhD), adding that the government’s inability to properly regulate distribution of the available fertilizer has enabled the illegal market.

He further shared his concerns that the current shortage of fertilizer supply may result in reduced production, exposing the struggling economy to further damages. “This is an indication of where the country’s economy is heading”.

Addressing lawmakers during a parliament session on Thursday, PM Abiy Ahmed said the fertilizer crisis Ethiopia is currently facing is a global phenomenon which is mainly caused as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war. He admitted that problems with regard to properly distributing fertilizer existing in warehouses have worsened the situation.

With the government’s special subsidy, a sufficient amount of fertilizer has been purchased and is being transported to the country according to the premier, who hinted at his government’s intention to build fertilizer factories despite its huge investment needs. AS

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