On June 23, 2016, after his re-election, President Museveni delivered his inaugural speech to the new Cabinet in which he gave strategic guidelines and directives for the term 2016-2021.
Among the many things that he addressed was to increase agricultural production and the use of fertilisers to boost soil fertility and spur agricultural production.
“The low use of fertilisers must be rectified. In Uganda, we use an average of 2.5 kgs per hectare. In the USA, they use 132.kgs per hectare. The fertiliser projects at Osukuru Hills and Mwitanzigye (Lake Albert) must be expedited,” he directed.
Mr Museveni directed the ministries of Industry and Agriculture to follow up the projects vigorously.
The Ministry of Agriculture enacted the National Fertiliser Policy in August 2016, which on paper, amalgamated all regulations related to the use of fertilisers that had previously been passed into a single policy framework.
The policy enactment is the latest in a series of attempts by government to regulate the use of fertilizers.
Between 1960 and 1990, government was directly responsible for the importation and distribution of fertilisers across the country.
However, the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s compelled government to enact the Agricultural Chemicals Control Act of 2006, which regulates the manufacture, storage, distribution, trade, use, importation and exportation of agricultural chemicals and for other related matters.
However, it was so broad that it was necessary to create a policy which would guide stakeholders in increasing the availability and sustainable use of fertilisers.
The policy is also in line with the national aspirations captured in Vision 2040 and the second National Development Plan.
Both recognise agriculture as one of the vehicles through which economic growth and poverty will be achieved and poverty reduced.
In order for government to realise those goals, it had to operationalise the national policy objectives on agriculture it formulated and operationalised both the National Agriculture Policy (NAP) and the Agricultural Sector Strategic Plan (ASSP 2015/16-2019/20).
The two documents emphasised the need for investment in the manufacturing and addressing the factors that were making it impossible for farming communities to readily access fertilisers.
In the two documents, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture argue that availability of fertilisers would increase productivity of labour in the agriculture sector, ensure food and nutritional security and improve household income.
However, in 2012, five years before Mr Museveni made his speech and the ministry acted on it, Guangzhou Dongsong Energy Group Company Limited had carried out a geological exploration of the Osukuru hills and established substantial amounts of iron ore and about 100 million tonnes of phosphates and other rare minerals such as niobium.
In 2013, the company beat the Canadian-Ugandan registered firm, Frontier Exploration, and was awarded a 50-year licence to operate in the area covering about 265 square kilometres.
Government and the firm signed a mineral development agreement that provided for a plant that would facilitate the production of fertilisers from phosphates and a steel plant to tap into the reserves of iron ore believed to be within the region of about 213 million tonnes.
Government committed to provide Dongsong with assistance whenever necessary during the implementation of the project.
This partly explains why Frontier Exploration, which cried foul claiming that the process had been skewed in favour of the Chinese, was given less attention.
Acquisition of the land from residents and the National Agriculture Research Organisation began late in 2013 and part of 2014 before construction work on the $620m (Shs2.2 trillion) investment, which also comprises the expansive Uganda-China (Guangzhou) free zone of International Industrial Cooperation. Besides the fertilisers’ plant, the Osukuru Industrial Complex also has a brick baking plant, a steel and glass manufacturing plant and a maintenance centre, which will provide spares for all the plants and manufacture agriculture tools such as hoes, rakes and spades.
The phosphates fertiliser production plan, which is making pure organic fertilisers was commissioned by President Museveni in October last year.
The plant has an installed production capacity of 50,000 metric tonnes, but that is expected to more than double as demand increases.
However, when production is doubled, it will still be far short of the one million tonnes that the national fertiliser policy says the country requires every year.
The enactment of the National Fertiliser policy and the opening of the fertilisers’ plant has not yet had an impact on both the penetration of use of fertilisers among farmer communities and agricultural production.
The International Food Policy Research Institute states that Uganda has the lowest rates of annual inorganic fertiliser application (only 1.8kg per hectare).
This is largely because it is only those that are involved in commercial farming that can afford them. Fertilisers remain out of the reach of many a farmer.
Whereas the Abuja Fertiliser Summit 2006 Declaration recommends that African countries apply at least 50kg of nutrients per hectare by 2015 to attain and sustain the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) target of 6 per cent annual growth in the agricultural sector, Uganda is far from achieving that target.
It is among the top African countries that have been losing soil nutrients at an alarming rate.
It is estimated that Uganda loses approximately 80kg of nutrient per hectare per year through topsoil erosion and nutrient export through harvested crop biomass.
The National Fertiliser Policy indicates that the most limiting nutrients in Ugandan soils are nitrogen and phosphorous.
Recent studies recommended raising the phosphorous nutrients to at least 200 kilogrammes of nutrients per hectare per year to what had until very recently been renowned to be high fertility soils. But this is not being done.
With up to 90 per cent of the population dependent on agriculture and an increase in the population, the soils will continue to lose a lot more nutrients.
This will result in exacerbation of the nutrient imbalances, especially that very little effort is being channelled towards replenishing soil by using any form of fertilisers.
The commencement of production has also not yet translated into reduced importation of fertilisers.
Uganda imported nearly 80,000 tonnes of fertilisers in 2018, up from 74,200 the year before and it is still expected to import nearly the same amount this year.
The National Fertiliser Policy, however, indicates that current imported volumes are still below the required one million tonnes annually.
That is not helping the country address its trade deficit with countries such as China. It is also not helping it to save foreign exchange.
Research on soils
Recent research by Makerere University based Economic Policy Research Centre showed that Uganda’s annual soil nutrient depletion rate stands at an average of 87 Kilogrammes (kg) of nutrients—nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) or NPK per hectare per year: roughly loss of 38Kg of N; 17Kgs of P and 32Kg of K— due to top soil erosion. But application of fertilisers is estimated at about 2Kg of nutrients per hectare per year, which is low compared to the desirable average of 200Kg per hectare.
The official position
The Ministry of Agriculture had indicated in its policy statement for this financial year that it would be rolling out the pilot fertiliser e-voucher project.
This aims at enabling thousands of farming households access fertilisers at about half the market price with government paying the distributors the other half, but the project has not yet taken off. A joint plan by the National Agriculture Research Organisation and Makerere University to set up demonstration farms countrywide where farmers can be taught how to apply the fertilisers has also not yet been operationalised.
The Minister of State for Agriculture, Mr Christopher Kibazinga (pictured), however attributed the situation to lack of funds. “We are trying to convince the Ministry of Finance that although we need a lot of money to invest in agriculture, especially in light of climate change and the need to increase production, we must find the money. Farmers must access inputs, water for irrigation and be taught modern methods of farming and postharvest handling. A lot of money needs to be invested so that we can realise [results] in four to five years,” Mr Kibazanga said.
The introduction of the e-voucher fertiliser project through which farmers will be able to access fertilisers at a subsidised price is great. Farming communities have not been using any form of fertilisers to boost production because the prices of the inputs have been high.
It is a shame that as we talked about modernisation of agriculture and using the sector as the vehicle that will see the country attain middle-income status, we cannot ably address the need to make inputs more accessible to the farmers. With the e-voucher fertiliser project, we have a chance to make a beginning. However, officials at the Ministry of Finance have to find the funds to give to the Ministry of Agriculture to implement the project.
We should not let this idea die, especially given the rate at which Uganda’s soils have been losing nutrients. We need it to boost agricultural production. The impact is great after the pilot stages of the fertiliser e-voucher subsidy statement indicated that it would have 10,000 farming households given fertiliser subsidies at half price.