A Recipe for Success: Introducing fertilizer blends to farmers in Ethiopia

Moving bags of fertilizer at the new blending facility in Becho-Woliso. Photo Credit: Ethiopian ATA

Moving bags of fertilizer at the new blending facility. Photo Credit: Ethiopian ATA

On June 1, 2014, the first fertilizer blending facility in Ethiopia was inaugurated in the Oromia region at the Becho-Woliso Farmers’ Cooperative Union. The facility, along with four more under construction, will play a leading role in supplying farmers with fertilizer blends that target missing nutrients in their soil. The years leading up to the inauguration included many actors to make the concept of a blending facility into a reality.

It started with a simple observation. The soil types in Ethiopia vary considerably throughout the country. It is evident when driving through the countryside where variations in the soils’ color and texture are visible to the naked eye. But traditionally, all soil has been treated the same. Farmers typically apply two types of fertilizer and disperse the same amounts, regardless of the crop or soil needs.

Back to basics

In 2009, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) conducted a soil diagnostic study in Ethiopia. Key recommendations included creating a tailored soil fertility plan that attends to local soil conditions and a national soil information infrastructure. When the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) was formed in 2011, soil became a priority for the agency. There was added momentum because within the Ministry of Agriculture, Professor Tekalign Mamo, State Minister of Agriculture, who is also a soil scientist, was very interested in pushing the agenda forward and had been for some time.

“There are a number of studies showing that farmers in Africa are harvesting more nutrients from the soil than they are putting in. As a result, there is a depletion in nutrition, which will be reflected in [the] food and in human health,” says Shahidur Rashid, IFPRI Senior Research Fellow and Project leader of the IFPRI-led Research for Ethiopia’s Agriculture Policy (REAP) project.

Fertilizer blends—a novel concept in Ethiopia

“Ethiopia has not really changed its fertilizer policy, probably in 30 years, and was just importing and distributing DAP and Urea,” says Vanessa Adams, Project Director of the USAID Agribusiness Market Development Project that is funding the bulk of the new facility. Making the switch to blended fertilizers is a big change from the norm in both “operations and types of fertilizers.”

Creating fertilizer blends means that farmers will now have the right mix of ingredients to replenish missing nutrients in the soil. “Blending fertilizer enables the country to introduce specific nutrients that the soil is lacking, and the crops need in order to grow,” said Tim Durgan, Project Coordinator for the Blending Facility Initiative at the ATA. “In combination with the soil mapping and the soil testing that the ATA has done, we now know what nutrients are deficient, and we know what nutrients the crops need to achieve maximum yields.”

Choosing the Becho-Woliso Cooperative Union as the site for the first blending facility was a strategic decision. “The area is highly productive,” says Dejene Hirpa, General Manager of the cooperative union that will run the blending facility. He explained that during the planting season, the demand for fertilizer in the area is high. Additionally, management at the union is top-notch – Becho-Woliso is “one of the top five cooperatives in the country,” according to Adams. Lastly, the location of the facility is “optimal,” according to Adams, as it is close to Addis Ababa and not far from Adama, a transportation hub in Oromia. This location makes it ideal for distribution.

Jeff Ivan, VP from Yargus Manufacturing, has been working with the ATA and International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) for two years to design a fertilizer blending system for the first facility. During a field visit in May, Ivan was on-site to inspect crates full of state-of-the-art equipment that would be installed by the company later that week. Ivan explained the easy-to-use automated blending system where “operators can simply enter in each nutrient that is required, and the kilograms of each product,” which will be blended with “a high-level of accuracy.” At full operational capacity, the facility will crank out 50 to 60 thousand tons of fertilizer each year. Another design feature is that as business grows, blending capacity can be stepped up.

According to Durgan, Ethiopia will need at least 18-20 blending facilities to address the nutrient deficiencies throughout the entire country. “The success of the first facilities will determine how soon the others will get up and running,” he says.

Already, the private sector is eager to get involved, and encouraging private sector investment will increase the strength and resilience of the country’s economy. But Adams points out, “In order for the private sector to come in and invest more in a country like Ethiopia, they have to see facilities that are working. So really, this fertilizer blending factory should be one of many to come.” When discussing private sector investment and looking at model facilities, such as the Woliso blending unit, Adams continued, “It’s important because...already people [in the private sector] are coming in and saying, I want to do this too.”

This article originally appeared in Volume 2 of REAP's project Newsletter. Read the full newsletter here. Download a PDF of Volume 2

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Related Content 

Read IFPRI’s soil diagnostic study of Ethiopia, Fertilizer and Soil Fertility Potential in Ethiopia.