Home Green/Sustainable Interview with Esin Mete President, International Fertilizer Association (IFA)

Interview with Esin Mete President, International Fertilizer Association (IFA)

by Dave Ramaswamy, Africa Agribusiness Magazine

Dave: What is IFA’s mandate? Please give an overview of your work in Africa.

Esin: IFA is a trade association representing the global fertilizer industry with about 550 members in more than 80 countries, of which half hail from emerging economies.

IFA’s priority today is to promote the efficient and responsible production, distribution, and use of plant nutrients. Access to affordable fertilizers is a key issue in that respect, in particular in Africa.

For Africa, IFA is committed to facilitate reaching the Abuja target of 50 kilogram/ha in an environmentally responsible manner. In order to do so IFA as an association runs an Africa Forum.

In addition, IFA partners with various stakeholders on a series of programs and campaigns.

  • In order to develop from the ground up, African agriculture requires better and more reliable data. In partnership with IFDC,AfricaFertilizer.org facilitates exchange of information about fertilizer markets and policies. It has quickly become a standard reference website for all of those interested and involved in agricultural markets.
  • Recognizing the need to foster expertise on the continent, IFA and the African Fertilizer and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP) run the Africa Fertilizer Volunteer Program. The AFVP places global fertilizer industry experts willing to volunteer their time and knowledge towards building the African fertilizer value chain, with the ultimate goal of increasing fertilizer users and usage in the continent on the field in countries. Experts from fields such as project development, financing, marketing, logistics, and safety, health and environment (SHE) in production. So Far the pilot countries have included Ghana, Tanzania and Mozambique.

Individual companies who are IFA members also undertake their own extension initiatives in countries across sub-Saharan Africa, training agro-dealers and farmers on soil testing and fertilizer best management practices.

 

As an Association IFA is very active in the multilateral arena. This year, IFA and 7 partners organizations ran a year-long campaign promoting smallholders’ access to fertilizer in Africa. The campaign included 3 side-events, a letter to African heads of state, a campaign video and numerous media articles aimed at raising awareness among policy-makers and business leaders alike.

Dave:  What are the biggest growth markets in Africa? Which countries and even which regions? Please give a percentage breakdown of customers – governments, cooperatives/self-help groups, commercial farmers? What are your usual sales channels.

The African fertilizer market has been stagnating from the mid-80s till 2008, increasing by 15% only during that period. Since 2008, the region is witnessing robust growth. Between 2008 and our forecasts to 2015, we see the regional market growing by more than 40%. Most of the expansion would come from Sub-Saharan Africa. Fertilizer demand in Sub-Saharan Africa without the Republic of South Africa is projected to grow on average by 8% annually. Nigeria and Ethiopia are the leading countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. But demand is also increasing in Kenya, Tanzania and many other countries that are committed to increasing agricultural productivity. Today, Africa as whole accounts for slightly less than 3% of world consumption, but this share is expected to increase over time. With an average application rate of some 10 kg/ha, Sub-Saharan Africa consumes 10 times less fertilizer per unit area than the global average. This is one of the main reasons for the high yield gap and prevalence of hunger in the region. Working with partners, we are striving to increase fertilizer consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa to address both food insecurity and poverty in the region, and help realize the immense potential of the continent.

Dave:   Given fertilizers are generally expensive to use in Africa – compared to other regions, with poor storage and transport infrastructure, how do you ensure smallholder access?

Esin:  The elevated price of fertilizer in many regions of Africa is mainly due to high transaction costs and the lack of local production and blending facilities. IFA works towards enabling and enhancing smallholders access by engaging in innovative partnerships with other stakeholders. These partnerships aims to provide the following catalysts for African smallholders:

  • access to credit, finance and insurance by retailers and farmers.
  • facilitated imports and the distribution of diverse fertilizer products.
  • Individual IFA members often invest in infrastructure: transport, handling, storage, and blending facilities.
  • We are also keen on developing mobile technologies to provide information on markets, extension services and prices.
  • IFA members also train extension workers to help farmers organize themselves.
  • Last but not least we work to disseminate best practices based on the integration of organic and mineral nutrients, balanced fertilization, and other good soil and crop management practices.

Dave:  Given recent talks at the UN about climate smart agriculture,  how should lower nitrous oxide (N2)) emissions – a greenhouse gas,  be implemented in fertilizer production? N2O is 300 times more potent than CO2. What financial commitments are required and within what implementation timeframe?

Esin: The fertilizer industry recognizes the importance of GHG emissions reductions and sees climate-smart agriculture as a vehicle for that. To this effect, IFA is a member of the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture.

Moreover, IFA encourages its members to minimize their direct emissions, to foster the reduction of emissions related to the use of fertilizers and, where possible, to contribute to the creation or expansion of carbon sinks. IFA encourage its members to act throughout the lifecycle of their products, from their production to their use by promoting industry best practices and supporting the development of innovative fertilizers and more efficient and effective application techniques in order to reduce nutrients losses to air, water, and soils to the minimum possible.

GHG are mostly produced from ammonia production processes. IFA encourages its members to adopt best available technologies (BAT) to reduce emissions. New technologies for nitrogen oxide (NOx) capture have been developed and adopted.

IFA members are reducing their carbon footprint by investing in energy efficiency and emission control technologies. Modern fertilizer plants are rapidly approaching the theoretical minimum energy consumption for ammonia production. Conversely, phosphate fertilizer production has become largely energy and greenhouse gas neutral, due to energy co-generation activities during sulfuric acid production.

Dave:   The Green Revolution in India, in some places like the Punjab, has now reached the limits of crop yields with indiscriminate use of fertilizer, with its resulting harmful effects on soils and human life. How do you see the Green Revolution in Africa evolving differently? e.g. in many places of Africa where soils are degraded, use of fertilizers is not a magic bullet for increasing yields. Soil organic matter needs to be rebuilt first.

Esin: The Green Revolution in Punjab has not reached its limit. As far as fertilizers are concerned, the fertilizer subsidy policy currently in place in India encourages unbalanced fertilizer use. If the Indian policy is revised to rebalance the ratio between nitrogen fertilizers and phosphate, potash, sulphur and micronutrient fertilizers, the room for increasing productivity in a sustainable manner is still substantial.

Africa should of course learn from the mistakes and build on relevant success stories in other parts of the world. For instance, the model applied in the Brazilian Cerrados should be considered in the savanna areas of Africa, where soils are also acidic and often nutrient-poor. In these areas, applying fertilizers is not enough; fertilizer use must be combined with the application of lime to improve the soil pH and with the return of crop residues and livestock manure to progressively increase the soil organic matter content. But, without fertilizer, there is no hope of increasing agricultural production in Sub-Saharan Africa without undesirable large-scale land use changes and related greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss.

Africa could also learn from initiatives in Asia in terms of distribution and outreach strategies. Models developed in India for knowledge transfer to the farmers, including the use of mobile phone technology to access agronomic and market information, are worth adapting for smallholder farmers in Africa.

Dave:    What is the role of micronutrient additives/supplementation in fertilizer use?

Esin: The first role of adding micronutrients to fertilizers is to increase productivity. There are many areas in the world, both developed and developing, where micronutrients such as zinc and boron have become the limiting factors. In these cases, if the limiting micronutrients are not added, crops respond sub-optimally to fertilization with macronutrients. Adding micronutrients to traditional NPK blends can also address an array of human health conditions caused by micronutrient deficiencies. This is especially true for zinc and selenium. More than one-tenth of the total disease burden can be traced back to micronutrient deficiencies.

Among all micronutrient deficiencies, zinc is one of the most common: 2 billion people worldwide are zinc deficient and 1.5 million children die each year from zinc deficiency induced  diarrhea. The FAO estimates that 50% of the world’s agricultural soils are also zinc deficient. Micronutrient deficient soils reduce not only yields, but also the intake and bioavailability of minerals that are essential to humans who consume the crops cultivated on these deficient soils. Supplementing fertilizers with micronutrients addresses the deficiencies in the soils, in plants and in humans. As such, they contribute to increasing the quantity of food by raising yields but also the nutritional quality of the food.  The added micronutrients have immediate and profound impacts. Chronic deficiencies affecting mostly women and children in the local population are quickly eliminated as a result and contribute to eradicating many micronutrient-related illnesses.

Dave:  What does environmental sustainability mean to you? How do you define responsible fertilizer use?

Esin: For me personally, environmental sustainability is about making responsible business decisions that can foster economic growth and poverty alleviation while safeguarding the environment by limiting negative effects on the environment and on biodiversity. Responsible fertilizer use entails a balanced application of crop nutrients so as to maximize yields and maintain soil fertility, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient run-off to the environment.

During my mandate as IFA president, I have focused on shifting application from areas of nutrient excess to areas of nutrient underuse. I also believe that farmer outreach is essential for responsible fertilizer use. Farmers must be made aware of how to apply the right nutrient source, at the right rate, at the right time, in the right place. This is what we call the 4R nutrient stewardship, a framework based on sound scientific principles that guides all IFA members in their outreach and extension programs.

Dave:  Please tell us about some success stories

Esin: I would like to focus on a success story that is very personal to me. Because I believe that fertilizer have an important role to play in advancing food and nutrition security and that we must shift the conversation from enough calories to eating more nutritious food I will give en example from my home country – Turkey.

After scientific research revealed that soils in Turkey were severely deficient in zinc and wheat yields very low as a consequence, my company Toros Agri, dedicated itself to produce zinc-enhanced fertilizers. Our efforts have been repaid not just with higher yields, but also with a new generation growing up free of deficiencies. Since crops were able to absorb zinc from the soil, grain had a higher zinc content for the benefit of uthe humans who consumed the cereals grown on it. Nowadays over 300 000 tons of zinc enriched fertilizer is applied in Turkey and the economic benefits are at approximately $150 million as estimated by the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture.

The zinc success story is not limited to Turkey alone. In fact, half of the soils in the world are deficient in zinc.  Important work and field trials are being conducted under the Zinc Nutrient Initiative in China, India, Brazil and Bangladesh.

I hope that this success story from Turkey can be adapted and implemented in other regions of the world where micronutrient deficiencies threaten the future of children in particular.

Dave: Thanks for your time

Esin: You’re welcome