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Agriculture in GTP II: Putting potash in its rightful place in Ethiopian agriculture

Agricultural development in Ethiopia is experiencing a revival, thanks to the government’s continuous efforts. During the past decade, the agriculture sector has grown by an average of 7%. The government has recently launched its ambitious second five-year Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP II), which aims to increase crop productivity and boost food security in the country; with the ultimate target of Ethiopia achieving lower middle income status by 2025. Fertilizers play a vital role in this goal, explains Professor Tekalign Mamo, who until recently was adviser to the Ethiopian Minister of Agriculture and is UN special ambassador for the 2015 International Year of Soils, and senior adviser (East Africa) for the International Potash Institute (IPI).


“The most effective way to boost farmers’ ability to grow crops is to maintain balanced fertilization, which ensures soils have the essential nutrients required for sustainable cropping systems. Until recently, this has been a big gap, especially through not using potash fertilizers,” emphasizes Professor Mamo.

Potash, which refers to mined or manufactured mineral salts containing potassium, is crucial for producing high quality crops and good harvests. “It has multiple roles in boosting crop yield, helping plants withstand harsh environments such as frost and cold temperatures, moisture stress, and disease incidence. It also catalyzes the roles of key nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and helps in enzymatic reactions in plant cells,” he explains.

In Ethiopia, the agriculture sector is dominated by smallholders, who until recently used little technology and rely predominantly on traditional practices. However, some farmers have been applying wood ash as a source of potash, for example to produce good quality tomatoes which have thicker skins and shinier surfaces. And, although DAP and urea nitrogenous fertilizers have been used by Ethiopian farmers since the early 1960s, these - particularly DAP - have been mostly ineffective since they do not fully replenish missing elements in the soil that crops need. Because of this, even though the country’s annual fertilizer imports have increased 10% since the 1990s (and this figure has almost doubled during the past 2-3 years), crop productivity has only increased by an average of 5%. “This demonstrates that there is more to do,” says Mamo.


Now is an opportune time for a greater fertilizer ‘intervention’: many of the county’s tea plantations have low productivity and produce teas with poor aroma due to sulphur deficiency; similarly, oil crop productivity and oil quality has been low for the same reasons; citrus plantations have suffered deteriorating yields and quality due to zinc and other micronutrient deficiency; and, due to unbalanced fertilization, poor protein quality is often inadequate for malt barley production for local use.


To help tackle these challenges, Ethiopia launched in 2010 the first five-year ‘Growth and Transformation Plan’ which aimed to double crop production by 2015. In order to further enhance this growth initiative, the government later supported the national soil fertility mapping project, which detailed the deficiency of soil nutrients such as potassium, sulphur, zinc, boron, copper and iron. “Ethiopia first analyzed its fertilizer package in 2010 and started to explore the role of new fertilizers,” explains Professor Mamo. “IPI was the first partner to collaborate with and support this much-needed potash agenda, followed by Allana Potash,” he says.

Since then, leading fertilizer manufacturing companies - such as ICL, OCP and Yara International - have all given support to the country’s efforts to popularize these effective potash fertilizers amongst farmers. “This was enhanced by digital soil fertility mapping, first launched through the Agricultural Transformation Agency in 2012.  The results have been impressive and, to date, more than 460 administrative districts (woredas) have been surveyed and the range of fertilizers that the country’s farmers use has increased,” acknowledges Professor Mamo.

Crop failures in 2015 as a result of erratic rainfall, exacerbated by El Niño conditions, means that now is the time to address soil health and food production: Ethiopia’s fertilizer agenda is more focused than ever. The country established the first of five local blended fertilizer production plants in June 2014; all five are now operational. In an agriculture sector which constitutes 40% of GDP and over 80% of employment, productivity increases - partially due to proper fertilizer use - have a huge national impact on food and producers’ livelihoods.


To build on this national momentum, in part created through efforts of the Ethiopian government’s extension, but also regionally in light of the United Nations International Year of Soil 2015, a timely symposium on the role of potassium in balanced fertilisation will be held at Hawassa University during 24-25 November 2015. The event will be followed by a high-level roundtable with senior government and international partners in Addis Ababa on the 26rd November. ‘’To strengthen the potash agenda, Ethiopian soil experts and plant nutritionists have recently established the Potash Discussion Group Ethiopia Chapter’’ said Professor Mamo.

In connection to this, an important aspect of the international symposium is engaging Ethiopian researchers and students in soil research for future agricultural development in the country. “Over the past five years, we have involved about 60 postgraduate students in research on key soil fertility issues such as the soil fertility mapping, validation of new fertilizers, and specific research on potassium; in the latter, we have more than five postgraduate students,” states Mamo proudly. The symposium will give students and researchers the opportunity to present their findings on the need for potassium fertilization for Ethiopian soils for a more prosperous agricultural future.


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