Fertiliser delays at the port reversing major gains for agriculture

When the government and other players in the agriculture sector introduced the input market reforms in the 1990s to liberalise fertiliser distribution and encourage uptake, the results were impressive and transformative.

Between 1997 and 2010, the World Bank estimates that prices declined by up to 27 per cent, attributed to falling marketing margins owing to the reforms.

The distance farmers had to travel to access this all-important input was also nearly halved, leading to a 36 per cent nitrogen use on maize fertiliser and ultimately a nine per cent increase in maize production.

The reforms have since placed Kenya among frontrunners in Sub-Saharan Africa in fertiliser use in a region where application rate is 13 kilogrammes per hectare compared to developed countries that averages 94 kilogrammes on the same area.

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These reforms have further been credited with opening up the industry to more investments and expanding area under cultivation, which has translated into a land of plenty and economic growth.

But the last few months have seen the reversal of these hard-won gains with new policies now causing ripple effects across the entire value chain which could hurt us for years to come.

A new directive to have imported fertiliser re-inspected at the Port of Mombasa as a way of taming illicit fertiliser has seen importers and growers teetering on the brink of total shutdown as delays and accrued charges take a toll on businesses.

Punitive costs

To reiterate the voices of the various players in the industry, the renewed vigour by government in the fight against counterfeits is welcome, especially in the agriculture sector that has for long borne the brunt of fakes.

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But the snail-paced approach in clearance at the port has been punitive and is clearly spiraling out of control.

Clearing that traditionally used to take days is now going on for up to two months with importers having to shoulder daily charges which have at times gone up to Sh2 million daily as part of the newly introduced 20 per cent demurrage charges.

As expected, importers are passing on these charges to the end users. This will not only discourage uptake of fertiliser among farmers but also fan the hunger cycle as yields dip. Already, fertiliser prices have gone up by 22 per cent occasioned by biting shortage.

Horticulture, the second foreign exchange earner for the country, has been the hardest hit.

The industry has already predicted a dip in flower, vegetables and fruits exports this year attributing it to the port delays and the concomitant price spikes.

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This, they say, will ultimately make Kenyan flowers uncompetitive in the global markets, further eroding the sector’s achievements that it has built over the decades. Already, flower farms have reported plans to shed jobs.

The impact is equally being felt by smallholder farmers who have now shunned uptake as price spikes continue to be felt.

This, despite numerous studies pointing to fertiliser as a key component in food production that increases yields by up to 75 per cent. And with farming accounting for a third of the country’s yearly economic output, the high prices are set to hurt output.

Yet this shouldn’t be the case. Ordinary food producers have in recent past been struggling with emerging threats that have made farming an expensive affair. Climate change continues to take a toll on farms as barren lands now become commonplace.

Latest pests and diseases to have hit the sector including fall armyworm, Tuta Absoluta and False codling moth have made it increasingly tough for food producers to harvest. This, despite a ballooning population that expects to be fed.

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The last thing farmers need is punitive costs of inputs. Not now. There are innovative ways that the government can apply to handle counterfeits without punishing farmers who the country relies on for economic and general being of its people.

We should focus on more ways to incentivize farmers to produce enough to export while creating a more profitable and robust agricultural sector that comfortably feeds its people, give them jobs and earns the country more money rather than continuously making it painful to produce food that we all need.

-The writer is the communications manager at Elgon Kenya

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World BankAgricultureEconomy