The Right Stuff

Farmers will now have access to fertilizer blends that are tailored to their soil's needs. Photo credit: Flickr/Stevie Mann

Farmers will now have access to fertilizer blends that are tailored to their soil's needs. Photo credit: Flickr/Stevie Mann

Ethiopian farmers have long relied on just two kinds of fertilizer to boost nutrients in their depleted soils. Now, they are finally getting more choices.

You wouldn’t use the same ingredients to bake bread as you would to make soup. The ingredients vary depending on your recipe. It’s no different for soil. Different crops grown in different soils require different nutrients. In Ethiopia, though, farmers have had access to only two types of fertilizer—regardless of what crop they cultivate or what kind of soil they till. So why should farmers continue to use the same ingredients if the recipe differs throughout the country?

In a 2010 report called “Fertilizer and Soil Fertility Potential in Ethiopia,” IFPRI researchers made two suggestions to remedy this situation: First, update the soil information for Ethiopia, given that fertilizer recommendations were based on surveys from the 1980s or even earlier. Second, tailor land-management practices to site-specific soil needs.

Deficient Soils

In 2011, Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) launched the Ethiopian Soil Information System (EthioSIS). EthioSIS is conducting two types of soil sampling, says Sam Gameda, IFPRI senior research fellow who served as the director of EthioSIS: it provides updated information on Ethiopia’s soil properties to identify the soils best suited to farming, and it examines soil samples in Ethiopia’s farm belt to show which nutrients are depleted. “Already, our samples are telling us that Ethiopia’s soil is deficient in as many as six essential nutrients,” says Gameda.

Armed with updated information, soil scientists working with the ATA have created six fertilizer formulas for wheat, teff, and maize. The custom blends can be adjusted for different regions and crops.

“Ethiopia has not really changed its fertilizer policy, probably in 30 years, and was just importing and distributing DAP [di-ammonium phosphate] and urea,” says Vanessa Adams, director of the USAID Agribusiness Market Development Project, which funds the bulk of the new fertilizer-blending facility. Making the switch to blended fertilizers represents a big change in both operations and fertilizer recommendations.

Why is it important to get the fertilizer right? IFPRI Senior Research Fellow Shahidur Rashid says it’s connected to human health: “Humans get nutrition from food. Food gets nutrition from soil. That linkage is critically important for food security and sustaining the global food system.”

Will Profits Follow?

The Becho-Woliso Cooperative Union in Oromia boasts the first of five planned fertilizer-blending plants in Ethiopia. The site was chosen for several reasons. “The area is highly productive,” says Dejene Hirpa, general manager of the cooperative union. Demand for fertilizer in the area is high, he says, and the facility is close to both Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital, and Adama, a transportation hub in Oromia, making distribution easier.

The next step is to build additional plants, and this is where public-private partnerships could come into play. “Farmers have to adopt it, and public investment has to be worthwhile,” says Rashid. “So that’s the next challenge: to demonstrate at the pilot level that this is profitable both economically and socially, and then to scale it up.”

This article was  written by Sarah McMullan from IFPRI’s Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division  and was originally published in IFPRI Insights Magazine.

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