Months of effort from Chimimba David Phiri, Ethiopia's representative of the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), to facilitate the procurement of chemical fertilisers for farmers in the Tigray Regional State bore fruit. Last week, Oumer Hussien, minister of Agriculture, granted him the green light to buy more than 60,000tn of fertiliser from the international market.

Close to half of the 1.2 million smallholder farmers in Tigray use chemical fertilisers, according to a survey published by the Ethiopian Statistics Service.

Phiri, appointed to his current position in 2018, has been corresponding with federal officials to secure the agricultural input for farmers who plough close to a million hectares of land in Tigray. They farm two million tonnes of grain crops annually, which accounts for a tenth of the harvest at the national level. The international community has been putting pressure on the federal government to allow the provision of agricultural input to farmers in Tigray.

Regional states have an obligation to reimburse the cost before receiving fertiliser, seeds and agricultural inputs. The Tigray Regional State Administration has not received federal budgetary support for nearly two years. In October 2020, lawmakers voted to cut off official business with the regional state following a dispute over the administration's decision to hold regional elections. The transfer of 10.4 billion Br in budgetary support approved four months earlier was blocked consequently.

The regional state remained under blockade since the outbreak of war in November 2020. No public services in electricity, telecom and banking are available. However, international donors press federal authorities to allow the provisions of humanitarian assistance in food and medicine. With the main rainy season already in, supplying fertiliser to farmers in Tigray has been an issue raised by FAO and its head in Addis Abeba, Phiri.

Having his doctoral studies in land economy and development economics from the University of Cambridge, UK, Phiri is an experienced hand, serving as sub-regional coordinator for the FAO in Southern Africa for five years. He was FAO's representative to Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and Botswana.

Phiri's request was accepted by Minister Oumer on condition, according to people close to the matter.

The Agriculture Ministry wants to be involved in quality inspection, and approval of laboratory results suppliers provide FAO before the fertiliser is allowed in.

“This is to ensure the quality of fertiliser matches the country's standards,” reads a letter Minister Oumer dispatched to Phiri.

The Ethiopian Conformity Assessment Enterprise carries out laboratory testing on the fertiliser, under the supervision of the Ministry.

“The newly-established Agricultural Authority will take over the supervision role next year,” said Sileshi Getahun, advisor to Sofia Kassa (PhD), a state minister for Agriculture.

Oumer told Phiri he had approved his request due to the global shortage of fertilisers and the scarcity of foreign currency the country is experiencing.

These factors have contributed to delays in the procurement and distribution of the much-needed agricultural input to farmers across the country. Eighteen million smallholder farmers harvest over 330 million quintals annually, though less than half use chemical fertilisers.

Established seven years ago, the Ethiopian Agricultural Businesses Corporation is the federal agency with the mandate to import fertiliser into the country. The Corporation procures the input after regional administrations submit the year's demand to the Ministry of Agriculture. For the coming Mehir season, the Corporation bought 1.3 tonnes of fertiliser; over half of these is NPS bought from the Morocco-based OCB Group at 650 dollars a tonne. The price is twice the price the Corporation spent last year.

Procuring half a million tonnes of Urea from FertiGlobe, a company in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was a convoluted process. It rescinded the contract to supply fertiliser at 710 dollars a tonne. After months of negotiations, the price was adjusted to 1,000 dollars.

Global price surges meant that smallholder farmers were faced with unprecedented costs for fertiliser, going up to 4,900 Br a quintal locally. It was nearly triple what farmers had paid last year. Last week, Minister Oumer's efforts to source additional funding to cut costs succeeded. The federal government has approved 15 billion Br in subsidies sourced from the state-owned Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE). The subsidies have lowered fertiliser prices in the retail market by a quarter.

Distribution has also been slow, with a quarter of the procured fertiliser yet to reach warehouses operated by cooperative unions tasked with distributing to farmers.

The Corporation's executives say they are not aware of the deal with the FAO.

“We haven’t received confirmation from the Ministry,” said Gashaw Aycheluhim, communications director at the Corporation.

The UN Agency, however, says the procurement process for the first batch of fertiliser is already ongoing.

“Some of the fertiliser is already in the country,” reads a statement FAO issued.

The FAO is spending 11 million dollars on procuring the first batch of 7,300tn of fertiliser from the federal government. Despite securing finance for its latest procurement, FAO faces an 85 million dollar deficit to buy the remaining amount. FAO is discussing with development partners to secure the funds, says a statement sent to Fortune.

The UN organisation has a fully staffed and regional operational office in Tigray.

However, those close to the issue fear that the procurement might be too late for farmers in the region.

Lemma Dagabassa, a lecturer at Haromaya University’s school of plant sciences, foresees the procurement of fertilisers will mean little for farmers in Tigray as the time for planting has already passed.

Sorghum, teff, and maize are the major crops harvested, accounting for nearly two-thirds of total agricultural output in Tigray.

“Due to years of soil erosion, the region is among the areas that require chemical fertilisers to compensate for the loss of nutrients in the soil," said Lemma.

PUBLISHED ON Jun 25,2022 [ VOL 23 , NO 1156]

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