In Wolof, we call it the “dior”. The term designates this very sandy, dry land, which is found in particular in the Niayes region, yet one of the agricultural basins of Senegal. In this coastal area which goes from Dakar to Saint-Louis, sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean by a row of dunes, the climate is suitable for agriculture, the water is fairly available, but the soils are very infertile.

“Without fertilizer, we cannot cultivate here at all,” assures Amar Sall, 66, sheltered from the sun under a large traditional pointed hat, woven from straw and leather. Given the very poor nature of this soil, the plant does not cover its needs, so fertilizer inputs are decisive. » He spreads around 450 kilos of these small beads containing nutrients each cycle – at the rate of two or three cycles per year – to produce onions, potatoes, carrots and other cabbages on a plot of around five hectares, located in withdrawal from the village of Diogo.

Day to day, this Niayes hamlet lives to the rhythm of market gardening and fishing – but also departures in canoes, sometimes turning into drama, of young people who want to reach Europe. On this Friday at midday, Diogo is preparing for the market which will take place after the big weekly prayer: trucks full of diakhatou (also called “African eggplant”) or watermelons clutter the main street, women begin to prepare their Fertilizer stalls and shops, with shop fronts painted with promising colorful vegetables, have opened their doors.

Adama Beye’s store is piled up with large bags of 50 kilos, the prices of which have hit records in recent years. “It went up to 40,000, 45,000 CFA francs [around 60 to 70 euros] per bag, it was very difficult to get supplies,” says the 37-year-old manager in Wolof, covering the sputtering with a TV that breaks the ambient tranquility. This year, it has dropped considerably, but it is still too much, too expensive. It’s still 20,000 CFA francs. » Before 2020, the price was around 12,000 CFA francs for the two most consumed products here: urea, a classic nitrogen fertilizer, and NPK, a mixture of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Strengthening of the dollar

Faced with this inflation, explains Mr. Sall, farmers are buying fewer bags, limiting these inputs whose use is already very low in Senegal – on average 9 kilos per hectare of arable land, compared to 153 in France and 375 in China, according to the World Bank. “When we reduce, it is immediately felt in the yields,” adds the market gardener. With a double consequence for the farmers: a harvest that does not cover the needs of the family and no additional income to buy other food.

How can this scarcity and dearness be explained? Senegal has borne the brunt of a global situation, just like its African neighbors who massively import their fertilizers. The price explosion began with the Covid-19 crisis, which disrupted supply chains, then intensified with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beyond the increase in energy costs (of which fertilizers are greedy) that the war has caused, it turns out that Russia is one of the leading producers of fertilizers in the world. Finally, there was the rise in the value of the dollar against local currencies, increasing the cost of imports for Africans.

Fertilizer prices have thus doubled in Nigeria, tripled in Ethiopia and almost quadrupled in Zimbabwe between the beginning of 2022 and the beginning of 2023, according to a study by the NGO ActionAid. Asked about their recent evolution at the global level, John Baffes, senior economist specializing in agricultural issues for the World Bank, emphasizes that they have now returned to the pre-Covid-19 level. “But prices in some markets remain high. Among the explanations is that the fertilizers available [on site] were purchased at high prices or due to the depreciation of local currencies,” he wrote by email.

In Senegal, the State has long tried to regulate variations through massive subsidies. This year, 40 billion CFA francs, or 40% of the public envelope for agricultural support, was devoted to fertilizer subsidies. Theoretically, growers only pay about 50% of a bag of urea or NPK. But this system is undermined by mismanagement and embezzlement, reducing its impact, many players in the sector agree.

Conversion project

To protect itself from shocks, the sector is especially impatient to see local production develop. “When you say NPK in Senegal, N, nitrogen, is imported, and K, potassium, is imported. Everything is imported except phosphate,” says Moulaye Kandé, president of the Senegalese Association of Fertilizer Professionals. Because the country is a producer. In the same Niayes region, the Industries Chimiques du Sénégal (ICS) group, which belongs to the Asian giant Indorama, operates a large mine where part of the transformed product, phosphorus, is used on site to manufacture an NPK intended for local market – the rest is exported.

Mr. Kandé himself owns a small NPK fertilizer production unit, for which he sources phosphate partly from ICS, “but at international market prices. Even if the phosphate is Senegalese, it is quoted on a daily basis! », he laments, emphasizing that there are no subsidies for fertilizer producers and that his unit does not operate continuously due to lack of profitability.

Faced with the constraints of a very globalized market, the State of Senegal is finally developing a completely different strategy: improving access to organic fertilizers, which it has started to subsidize, also up to 50%. In Diogo, the president of the agricultural cooperative Coopadin, Ngagne Diop, is enthusiastic – he even benefited from a conversion project in his own field. “The land is deteriorating with the effect of fertilizers, so we are in the process of directing farmers towards organic,” he greets, installed in his tiny office, where bags of materials take up half of the floor. space. But organic faces similar challenges: costs (only a few thousand tonnes subsidized, compared to 180,000 tonnes for chemical fertilizers), low local production, training of growers, etc.

Before leaving for Friday prayers, Ngagne Diop nevertheless raises one last idea, often forgotten in the race for yields: “Post-harvest losses are money too! » Either these tomatoes, onions or potatoes which rot in the fields or in the markets due to lack of storage. All sectors combined, in Senegal they represent between 13% and 70% of production, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.