Policy Note 19: The Challenge of Africa’s Nitrogen Drought: some indicators from the Malawian Experience

photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann

photo credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann

This MaSSP Policy Note by Stephen Carr describes how years of continuous cultivation with little or no use of external inputs to restore soil nutrients has resulted in a situation in which crop production in a number of African countries is now limited by nutrient deficiencies – nitrogen, in particular, which is crucial to healthy plant growth. This widespread problem has been described as a “nitrogen drought”. Attempts to remedy this situation using only organic inputs have largely failed to keep up with the rate of nutrient loss. This policy note uses Malawi as an example of a country facing these conditions and in which the level of household food production is largely determined by the availability of nitrogen in the soil. Years of efforts to ameliorate this situation with organic soil fertility replenishment technologies have elicited little farmer support because of their lack of impact. Elsewhere in the world, these deficiencies in nutrients are made good with inorganic fertilizers, and in Malawi small-scale farmers have seen the benefits of these and are anxious to obtain them. However, with limited opportunities for generating income either on or off the farm, the majority of farmers cannot afford to purchase fertilizer at commercial prices. This policy note describes unsuccessful efforts to address this situation. Finally, a year of severe hunger led the government to initiate a fertilizer subsidy program. Both the successes and challenges of this strategy and its current parlous situation are described. Despite its weaknesses, the subsidy has led to improved food availability for millions of people. Its withdrawal would result in serious hunger and hardship, as crop yields would decline in the face of major nutrient deficiencies. At present, the country faces a clear option between importing and subsidizing inorganic fertilizer or importing and subsidizing higher cost grain.

By Stephen Carr, 2014

Click here to read and download the full note.