The need for fertilizers
For many years, we have known that soil fertility and fertilizer are necessary to cultivate cocoa farms for high yield and long term farm viability and sustainability. And when in 2010, we developed the “package of interventions” for farmers that will turn cocoa farms from places that are low income with no future to thriving and sustainable farming systems, fertilizer was one of the three pillars of that package – along with plant material and grafting and Good Agricultural Practices. We knew that none of these pillars were easy to develop and scale up, but we hadn’t really considered the ‘how’ yet.
Taking up the challenge
It was only when we were tasked by our Sustainable Cocoa Initiative leadership to ensure nothing less than the availability and affordability of high quality fertilizers for the majority of farmers that we started realizing how big this challenge was. Not only did we need a fertilizer that would replenish all the nutrients that had been exported from cocoa farms in the form of dry cocoa beans, we also had to address the issue of mitigating deteriorating soil acidification, which is common in many farming systems. And we would have to develop a better, but also cheaper, fertilizer that cocoa farmers could afford. The fertilizer industry didn’t really focus on the cocoa sector as it was seen as ‘low opportunity’, and credit systems for small holder farmers to purchase fertilizer simply didn’t exist. How do we start on this?
Creating the buzz
One of the first things we did was to quantify the challenge – how much fertilizer do we need to bring back to African soils, based on nutrient exports in cocoa beans? Depending on the formulation of fertilizer, the volumes were staggering as for every 1000 kg of cocoa beans exported, we had to bring back 143 kg of nutrients, or 300 kg of fertilizer, at a cost of $750US per metric ton. Aiming to meet the needs of the future, by 2020 we would have to bring 1.2 Billion mt of fertilizer to African cocoa farms, with a cost of nearly $1 Billion US.
But with big challenges come big solutions. When we approached OCP, a Moroccan fertilizer company with a mandate to develop agriculture in Africa, they saw the size of the opportunity ($1 Billion US) and they accepted the challenge to produce a ‘new formulation fertilizer’ with natural, reactive rock phosphate with high calcium, which allowed for a much less expensive fertilizer that could address soil acidification. Once the cocoa industry and various organizations realized how many nutrients were exported in the form of cocoa beans, there was strong support to collaborate and put our shoulders jointly under this enormous challenge. And when the financial institutes saw that the fertilizer and cocoa industry were serious about this challenge and were willing to collaborate to produce, import and bring fertilizers close to farm gate, they recognized the need for credit support, as well as the $1 Billion financing opportunity. Financial institutions are now re-evaluating their risk assessments and are exploring how they can deliver credit systems for small holder cocoa farmers. The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) took the challenge to coordinate all these efforts, and set up the “Fertilizer Initiative,” where the fertilizer and cocoa industries, as well as some institutes and the Governments of Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria are collaborating to produce, import, transport and sell fertilizer to farmers at affordable prices, and the first 10,000 mt new formulation fertilizer was produced and imported in March 2013.
Whilst we’ve got a long way to go to reach the 1 Billion mt of fertilizer we need by 2020, we should also recognize that we’ve come a long way already.