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Improving African farmers' access to fertilizer: AAP researchers look to more favorable regulations

Published: Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018
Author: Athalia Snyder
Department: Office of the Dean

PEMEFA team reflecting on the day's activities

By Katie Deska

Researchers across Michigan State University and the world continue to investigate how the use of fertilizer can improve food security in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, compared to the extensive research on government-run fertilizer subsidy programs, little is known about how improving African countries' other policies, laws, and regulations might facilitate private investment in fertilizer-related businesses, and enhance smallholder farmers' access to affordable, high-quality fertilizers.

With funding from MSU's Alliance for African Partnership, Nicole Mason, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics, partnered with four internationally oriented organizations to investigate how governments in sub-Saharan Africa can increase private sector investment in fertilizer value chains by developing more private sector–friendly regulatory frameworks.

"Governments have limited resources. So you need to strike a balance and determine how the government can put in place the laws and regulations that guide the behavior of private sector players, particularly in a way that's fair to consumers, is not detrimental to the environment, and is transparent," said Mason. "It's not a matter of saying, 'government, don't do anything,' but rather viewing part of the government's role as governing the regulatory environment."

One regulatory effort Mason mentioned is a "truth-in-labeling" approach, which deters misrepresentation of what is contained in fertilizer bags, herbicides, and other goods. Depending on the government's laws, if a product's contents do not match what is listed on the bag, the producer and/or affiliated parties may be subjected to stiff penalties. According to legal scholars1, a truth-in-labeling approach conducts quality monitoring after new products have entered the market, which is generally more preferable than regulations that require registration before new fertilizer products can enter the market.

The Nile River near Jinja, UgandaIncluding Mason, the seven-person research team, called the Partnership for Enabling Market Environments for Fertilizer in Africa (PEMEFA), is zeroing in on how laws and policies constrict or promote private companies' involvement, and how fertilizer and market regulations play out in real life. In this project, two PEMEFA partners, the New Markets Lab and the African Fertilizer and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP), will follow specific actors in the fertilizer value chain to investigate what actually happens in practice versus on paper when a regulation is implemented or changed. Experts from MSU, the Regional Network of Agricultural Policy Research Institutes (ReNAPRI) through its affiliate, the Centre for Agricultural Research and Development (CARD) at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) in Malawi, and the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) will focus more on quantitative research utilizing cross-country data, data over time on changes to the policy, legal, or regulatory environment, and other statistics such as fertilizer use by farmers or a country's fertilizer imports.

"There is a growing consensus on what some of the key components of an enabling environment might be, but there is not a whole lot of empirical evidence, especially in the African context," said Mason. "There are beliefs about one approach being better than another but are there hard numbers or qualitative evidence to support that?

"We've got a very unique team and our research methods are really complementary," said Mason. "With them, we're hoping to determine if, for example, a country makes a change that seems to be supportive of an enabling environment for fertilizer business, does that translate into positive impacts on fertilizer use or fertilizer trade?"

In February 2018, the PEMEFA team gathered in Jinja, Uganda, not far from the source of the Nile River.

"Uganda currently has no fertilizer subsidy program, but is considering implementing one," said Mason.

Seven members of the PEMEFA team

In coordination with a five-day workshop hosted by IFDC, PEMEFA led sessions discussing several of Africa's existing subsidy programs, the economic rationale for fertilizer quality regulations, and the importance of an enabling environment for entry of new and potentially more effective fertilizer products.

Nearly two-thirds of the way through their grant cycle, Mason and her partners are now working to identify sources for additional funding that will help them transform African agriculture and livelihoods by improving smallholder farmers' access to, and use of, fertilizer through better laws, regulations, and policies.

The team consists of Joshua Ariga, an MSU alumnus working with the IFDC; policy experts Maria Wanzala, also an MSU alumna, and Killian Banda with AFAP; legal experts Katrin Kuhlmann, who teaches law at Harvard and Georgetown Law Schools, and Megan Glaub of New Markets Lab; and professor Charles Jumbe of LUANAR/CARD, which is a member of ReNAPRI.

The PEMEFA team is giving a series of lectures at universities in Sub-Saharan Africa and the US to raise awareness about its work and to connect with potential collaborators. The first two lectures were held at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and at MSU. The next lecture will be at American University on April 17, 2018, and lectures will also be held in the coming months at LUANAR in Malawi and in Zambia.


Keyser, J. C., Marjatta, E., Georges, D., Gbolagade, A., & Louis, S. (2015). Towards  an integrated market for seeds and fertilizers in West Africa. Washington, DC: World Bank Group. See also Guidelines for Regional Harmonization of Fertilizer Regulations in COMESA. New Markets Lab in collaboration with the African Fertilizer and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP) for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Feb. 2017, 11.