As the planting season sets in, debate on quality of fertiliser remains the elephant in the room as farmers grapple with increasingly depleted soils that have led to dwindling production.
A government report last year indicated that Kenyan soil in active agricultural areas was becoming acidic and, unless there was intervention, it would continue wearing out.
A study done in 164 sub-counties indicated that most soils were deficient in major nutrients needed in crop production such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
The results further revealed that of the soils sampled, 67 per cent were low in the micro-nutrient zinc and 89 per cent in organic matter. Forty-three per cent had pHs outside the optimum maize growing range of 5.0 to 8.0, making them unsuitable for maize production.
Farmers in Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia, Nandi, Nakuru, Bungoma and Narok counties have been forced to increase the use of fertiliser to make their production commercially profitable.
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According to Kenya Farmers Association Director Kipkorir Menjo, from using just 20 kilos of fertiliser for an acre of maize or wheat, farmers now have to use up to 100 to 150 kilos and sometimes have to also add top dressing to increase the yields.
He said this has increased soil acidity. Farmers have been forced to use any fertiliser without consideration of its components, thus not only compromising production but also endangering their soils.
But firms are now taking a new initiative to partner with farmers on improved fertiliser that is improving the yields significantly.
Last week, a report submitted to Water and Irrigation Chief Administrative Secretary Andrew Tuimur showed how a combination of soil testing and production of fertiliser rich in major nutrients was improving rice farming at Mwea Irrigation Scheme in Kirinyaga County.
In the report, a global fertiliser manufacturer indicated that one year of collaborative work with government agencies and rice farmers had led to a big jump in the number of bags produced per acre compared with farmers who used other fertiliser.
The customised fertiliser improved production of rice by an extra 600 kilogrammes from an average of 2.5 tonnes to 3.1 tonnes.
Yara East Africa Kenya Country Manager William Ngeno said the right fertiliser would help boost the yields for specific crops grown in various regions in addition to adoption of farm input technologies that give huge benefits to farmers.
“If farmers use quality fertiliser, they will get good returns. This has been tried and tested, but the secret is to have soil tested,” he said.
Using fertiliser without soil sampling and testing, Mr Ngeno said, had significantly affected the production of food in the country.
Kenya consumes an average of 600,000 tonnes of rice annually, compared to Tanzania’s over two million tonnes and Uganda at 225,000.
Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya last month said the government would not import fertiliser but only provide a good infrastructure for firms to import the input.
Ngeno said would ensure farmers get a good price and the right quality of fertiliser at the right time “because when the seasons start, we do not want the farmers to walk far and wide in search of fertiliser”.
But to ensure improved crop nutrition, Yara East Africa is encouraging farmers to wean off the traditional fertilisers such as DAP, Urea and Sulphate of Ammonia that only provide a maximum of two nutrients and instead go for the granular compound fertilisers that provide more nutrients.
“In our factories, we have calibrated what the soils of Kenya need because of various deficiencies. We sell compounds that are not acidifying. If you continue to invest in the old fertilisers, then you will need to invest in lime because you need to net back the acidifying effect,” Ngeno said.
Yara has set up a warehouse in Eldoret to ensure that the retailers and farmers have access to quality fertilisers.
Mr Tuimur said the Yara report had indicated that it was possible to not only improve production but also cure the soil.
“Our concern is the improvement of production. We can emulate the Yara fertiliser concept of customising fertiliser for each region, rather than in the past where farmers used just any fertiliser,” he said.
Tuimur said the government was committed to food security under President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four plan and welcomed any positive effort including that of better fertiliser.