Connecting the dots between food insecurity, fertilizer, inflation and transportation in Sub Saharan Africa

Fertilizer and it’s importance for rural farmers in Sub Saharan Africa

Rachel Lee
15 min readSep 20, 2022

If I asked you what the biggest problem with fertilizers are, I bet you’d say the environmental impact…which totally makes sense.

Producing synthetic fertilizers uses a lot of energy and produces a lot of greenhouse gases (2% of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions to be precise) [1]. And then there’s what actually happens when the fertilizer is applied to crops — or what doesn’t happen. Only 50% of the fertilizer applied to fields actually makes it to the plants it was intended for [2]. The other half washes into bodies of water, polluting rivers, lakes, and oceans; disrupting ecosystems, releasing toxins and harming wildlife.

Marine dead zone off the Gulf of Mexico which spans 6334 miles of low oxygen water, caused by run off nitrogen fertilizer. Because of the low oxygen environment, all ecosystems die, becoming what’s known as a marine ‘dead zone.’

But there is another side of fertilizers which isn’t talked about as much.

Synthetic fertilizer is directly responsible for feeding 3.5 billion people that would have otherwise died. [3]

Take a second to read that again. 3.5 billion people.

The creation of nitrogen fertilizer by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch in 1903 completely transformed agriculture. Global crop yields skyrocketed by 60% and agricultural productivity increased at a rate of 160% per year. This marked the beginning of the Green Revolution, a 50 year time period where increased crop yields reduced global poverty by close to 20%, averted hunger for millions and raised incomes. [4]

Every second person reading this article can thank synthetic fertilizer for their life, because today, half of the global population is supported by fertilizer. [5]

What exactly is fertilizer?

Fertilizer is food for plants. 😋

Plants require 17 essential nutrients in the soil to survive and grow. Fertilizers replenishes the nutrients that plants use after each harvest. Without fertilizer, the soil quickly becomes degraded and yields decrease because plants do not have the nutrients they need to grow.

Plants require a balanced supply of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and sulphur. As plants extract these nutrients from the soil during each growing season, they must be replenished by fertilizers, manure, and compost added to fields annually. [6]

Nitrogen fertilizer is the most common fertilizer, made by the Haber-Bosch process. The Haber-Bosch process combines nitrogen with hydrogen to produce ammonia, a critical component of nitrogen fertilizers. This is done by applying extremely high pressure (200–400 atmospheres) at extremely high heat (450° to 650° C) to methane, water and air. The result of the process is a liquid ammonia that can then be used to create fertilizers. [7]

(The Haber-Bosch process is extremely energy intensive, and because of this, it produces 2% of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions. 6 tons of carbon are emitted into the atmosphere per one ton of ammonia produced. It is NOT environmentally friendly. But that is another conversation for another day…)

Making eggs for breakfast

Why access to fertilizer for African farmers is essential

You wake up and decide that for breakfast you want eggs. So you open the fridge door, and bring out 3 eggs.

Then you search for a frying pan. You look in the top shelf. Nothing.

Bottom shelf. Nothing.

Middle shelf nothing.

You have no frying pan.

And you, being the extremely innovative (and stubborn) person that you are, swear to make those damn eggs.

So you crack an egg into your hand and hold your hand 1 foot above the element (so you don’t burn yourself), constantly moving your fingers around to try to cook the egg.

What’s wrong with this process?

❌ It is e x t r e m e l e y inefficient

⏳ It takes all day

🗑️Half the egg is wasted

🔥You burn your hand (even if you tried really hard not to)

This is the same thing that farmers experience without fertilizers:

🚜Farming becomes e x t r e m e l y inefficient

🌱Crops take 3X longer to grow

🌽Yields are up to 80% lower

💵Income goes down

It’s plain and simple: fertilizer dramatically increases crop yields, creates more food, increases income and lifts people out of poverty.

Now unfortunately it’s not all sunshine ☀️and rainbows 🌈

There remains one enormous elephant in the room.

*The green revolution bypassed Africa.*

Africa never adopted fertilizer.

The African government could not afford to subsidize the new agricultural technologies that comprised the Green Revolution, like hybrid seeds, new crop varieties, irrigation, and most importantly: fertilizer. Without subsidies from the African government to help small scale African farmers adopt fertilizers — fertilizer was unaffordable for the entire continent.

While yields increased to numbers higher than ever seen before in countries around the world, African yields stayed stagnant. Yields would not budge, incomes would not rise, technologies were not adopted, the nutrients in the soil were rapidly depleted and more people then ever were going hungry.

Fast forward 70 years and not much has changed.

  • Maize yields in Africa are one-third as high as in developing Asia and one-tenth as high as in the United State. (And it’s not just maize — on average, crop yields in Africa are 60% lower than the North American average). [8]
  • Hunger is still widespread on the continent with five million people dying of it every year and 226 million malnourished children. [9]
  • 75% of Africa’s soils are degraded (nutrient losses from the soil are worth the equivalent of $4 billion USD annually.) [10]
  • Fertilizer use in Africa is 90% lower than the global average. North America and Europe use 100kg of fertilizer per hectare, while Africa uses 8–10kg of fertilizer per hectare. [11]
  • 32% of the African population live off less than $1.99 a day. [12]

70 years later and Africa still has the lowest agricultural productivity in the world. Africa is the only region in which per capita food production has decreased over the last 30 years. [13]

World agriculture production graph — global yields increase dramatically while African yields slowly decrease

“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”

“Improving agricultural productivity is the most effective way to lift people out of poverty.” -UNICEF 2022 Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report.


Over 1.2 billion people worldwide are living in extreme poverty, which means that they are living on less than $1.25 US dollars a day. Three out of four of these people live in rural areas and make a living from agriculture. More than 60% of the population in Sub Saharan Africa are smallholder farmers, and 23% of Africa’s GDP comes from agriculture. [14]

AKA: Agriculture is the most important industry in Africa. It is the main source of income for the majority of the population, and creates a reliable source of food for the African continent.

Yet Africa’s full agricultural potential remains untapped. Africa has the potential to produce 3 times more cereal grains (2.6 million tons of food), enough to feed it’s entire population and become completely self-sufficient. Even more exciting, Africa is home to 60% of the world’s arable land. If the entirety of this land was utilized effectively, enough food would be grown to feed 9 billion people, more people than there are on the planet. [15]

If an African Green Revolution increased agricultural productivity, Africa could produce enough food to feed the entire world. This would not only solve a large part of food insecurity, but would also bring in billions of dollars in revenue for Africa, if it became the leading food exporter.

There are 4 things that must happen in Africa for this to happen:

  1. Improved seeds (high quality seeds, GM traits, hybrids)
  2. Basic storage (air tight containers to store grain, cold rooms to keep produce fresh longer)
  3. Improve transportation infrastructure (improved roads and port facilities, improvements in policies when crossing regional boarders (no bribes and tariffs))
  4. More fertilizer

(In this article I’m going to focus on fertilizer, one piece of the puzzle 🧩)

How to increase access to fertilizers for small scale African farmers?

This remains one of the biggest and most important problems we need to solve: increasing access to cheap and effective fertilizers in Africa.

2019 fertilizer use in Sub Saharan Africa graph. All African countries except Zambia and South Africa are way below the recommended 50kg/hectare, an amount still 3X less than the global average.

The reason that Africa didn’t adopt fertilizers during the Green Revolution is the same reason Africa hasn’t adopted fertilizers today.

Fertilizers are hella expensive.

Fertilizer prices in Africa are 4 times higher than the rest of the world.

There are 3 reasons for the outrageous fertilizer prices in Africa:

  1. Russia-Ukraine war
  2. Transportation infrastructure
  3. Commodity crops

1. Effect of the Russia Ukraine war on fertilizer prices 📈

The price of nitrogen fertilizer has risen with the increase in natural gas prices due to the Russia-Ukraine war. Fertilizer prices have increased 30% since the fall of 2022 (because of the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues), and increased by a whopping 312% since the fall of 2020 (because of the war in Ukraine). [16]

The main materials used in creating fertilizer are at an all-time high (almost double the price of fertilizer during the 2008 financial crash), with no indication of lowering. (source)

Russia accounts for 10% of global phosphate exports, 23% and 14% of global exports for ammonia and urea respectively; but since the war in Ukraine, has been exporting not even 1% of that. In addition, Belarus exports 21% of the global supply of potash, making it the second largest exporter of potash in the world, which has also ceased since the war in Ukraine. [17]

Growers worldwide have drastically cut fertilizer use back in response to the high prices and supply chain issues, which will have disastrous effects on the global food crisis.

It is not only the raw materials of fertilizers that is increasing. Energy is also a major culprit in the rising fertilizer prices. The manufacturing price of natural gas has increased over 1200% since October 2020, causing high energy prices around the world. This is a massive problem for fertilizer production, because synthetic fertilizer requires a lot of energy to manufacture. Nitrogen fertilizer production alone accounted for 2 percent of global energy demand in 2019. [18]

Since fertilizer production is so energy intensive, even a small increase in the energy price will have a massive impact on the price of fertilizers.

2. Fertilizer is a logistics game 🚛

How transportation contributes to high fertilizer prices

There are two ways fertilizer can get into African countries: ocean shipping and inland trucking. Both are more expensive than other regions in the world, and both suffer from an extreme lack of proper infrastructure.

Land transportation

Africa has very poor road infrastructure which makes it extremely hard to reach inland countries. There are only 9 major roads throughout Africa, 4 are paved, 5 are unpaved.

African transportation network (source)

Africa has approximately 31 kilometers of paved road per 100 square kilometers of land, in comparison to 134 kilometers of paved road in other low-income countries, and 500+ kilometers in developed countries [19]. Many trucks can’t make it to inland countries, and regularly break down. For this reason, it is almost impossible to import materials like fertilizer to inland African countries — because the road infrastructure is so poor.

Another massive issue with road transportation is the bribes and fees truckers must pay along the way. On average, each African country has anywhere from 15–30 ‘checkpoints’ with police officers or officials, that demand money from truckers in order to pass. Failure to pay the bribe results in imprisonment. Most bribes are Sh1500 to Sh3000 ($12.62–$25.42 USD) [20]. While initially this doesn’t seem like much, you need to know that this is more than most truckers make a day (the average income of truckers in Kenya is Sh46593.66, or $392 USD per month. Which equals out to $13.5 USD per day). And they are forced to pay this up to 30 times a trip. These bribes add up very fast and are a huge obstacle to transporting goods within Africa. [21]

Ocean transportation

Limited port capacities in Africa mean that importers must use smaller vessels to transport goods, which increase the landing and unloading costs by roughly 8% per ton of goods [22]. Once the vessels have docked, poor infrastructure slows the rates of discharge which increases congestion and raises the risk of demurrage costs on shippers. A low number of warehouses, storage facilities, cranes, and other port issues prevent the swift discharge of goods. Cargo spends 75% of its time at the port instead of on the road, on average spending 3 weeks in African ports, compared to less than a week in Asian and European ports. [23]

TL;DR Transportation is extremely difficult in Africa because of the small amount of road & port infrastructure which leads to higher importing prices.

Transportation in Africa is 40% higher than the average global transportation costs — bribes, repair costs to damaged trucks (because of poor roads), rising gas prices, and long trips all lead to these higher than average costs. [24]

Transporting fertilizers from an African seaport to a farm 100km inland can cost more than shipping the same fertilizers from North America to the African seaport. As a result, African smallholders pay 2–4 times the average world price for fertilizer [25]. In Nigeria, transporting fertilizer from the port city of Lagos to the inland capital Abuja adds $50 to each ton of fertilizer [26]. Investments in road and rail infrastructure are crucial reduce transport costs and increase access to fertilizer for small scale farmers.

Map of the 718km trip from Lagos to Abuja that adds $50 to each ton of fertilizer. Google Maps.

Multiple studies (like this one) have shown that a 10% reduction in transportation costs could lead to a 13% income increase for small scale farmers. AND could increase the use of fertilizer by an estimated 45%.

3. Commodity crops 🌽

Commodity crops are crops get that exported/sold in their raw form (like maize, wheat, rice, and sugarcane, or raw materials like oil, coal, gold and gas).

For almost a decade, from 2000 to 2015, it looked like Africa may actually be lifting itself out of poverty. The continents economic growth was the largest percentage in the world, growing at 5.3% annually.

Africa’s growth rate 2005

But it was too good to be true. Each year the growth rate of Africa slowly decreased, from 5.3%, to -7% in 2020. [27]

Africa’s growth rate 2020

Most alarming is the future projections for Africa’s growth— a slowly decreasing growth rate that plateaus; neither rising or falling. [28] These estimates suggest that poverty rates will not increase, but they will not decease either. Food produce will not decrease, but it will certainly not increase. The continent will stay completely stagnant with no improvement at all.

GDP growth rate history and forecast in Africa, 2000–2035 source

The culprit? The plunge in commodity prices. To this day Africa hasn’t experienced the same amount of growth as it did in the 2000s.

And it’s because commodities are directly reliant on the global economy, their prices can fluctuate very rapidly and unpredictably.

Take the example of a global supply chain crisis amidst a global pandemic, and a war in in the fertilizer producing capital of Europe. Both of these situations cause commodity prices to quickly spiral out of control.

Increases in commodity prices since the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine source

While current oil prices are up 500+% since 2020, maize prices are up 50% since 2020, and wheat prices is up 62% since 2020, it’s not expected to last. [29] Predictions warn a looming recession could “push millions into deep poverty”, and those who already live in extreme poverty will be the most affected.

90% of Africa’s exports are commodities, bringing in US$ 241,362 million annually, over 40% of Africa’s total GDP. [30] This high reliance on commodity exports as Africa’s primary source of income is very dangerous, placing Africa’s income in the hands of a fragile and everchanging global economy.

The price of fertilizers in Ghana have doubled since 2021. The country’s agricultural sector is currently suffering from a deficit of 350,000 metric tones of fertilizer due to Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine. [31] Throughout Africa, fertilizer prices so high that the benefits of using them are not worth the cost.

TL;DR Commodity crop prices are directly reliant on the global economy and fluctuate very rapidly and unpredictably. Africa needs to grow more stable crops that will provide a steady and predictable source of income not reliant on the global economy and external forces.

The solution.

It’s time to expand fertilizer manufacturing across Africa.

Africa has the raw materials needed to produce fertilizer, and could become completely self sufficient, producing all of it’s fertilizer needs. That would:

  • Create good jobs that are desperately needed in Africa
  • Increase overall crop yields by an estimated 60%
  • Reduce fertilizer costs by 400%
  • Drastically increase Africa’s GDP

Ammonia and urea (both critical components of nitrogen fertilizers) can be produced from natural gas. It is estimated that Africa is home to 9% of the world’s natural gas reservoirs [32]— so it has tremendous power to utilize the abundance of natural gas to create a booming fertilizer business that could not only service Africa, but could also become a global player in the fertilizer industry.

Map of natural gas reservoirs in African countries. source

Nigeria and Mozambique have the most potential to become global players in the fertilizer industry because of their rich natural gas reservoirs. Nigeria has the biggest natural gas reservoir on the continent, and is already the largest Urea producer in Africa. But Nigeria can do better. Nigeria has 80% more natural gas than India, the world’s largest Urea producer. [33] This is a tremendous opportunity for Nigeria to harness all the natural gas in the country and use it to build a fertilizer empire that can not only sustain Africa, but export around the world.

Morocco is also a country that has huge potential in the fertilizer space. Morocco holds 75% of the world’s phosphate reservoirs with over 50 billion metric tons of phosphate rock, which is a critical component in phosphate based fertilizers. [34]

Phosphate reservoirs in Sub Saharan Africa. The leading phosphate countries are South Africa and Morocco. source

Take Indorama for example

In March, 2021, Nigeria built the 2nd largest Urea plant in the world. It has increased Nigerian farmer’s yields by 30% and contributed $2 billion to Africa’s GDP. Before Indorama was built, it imported 80% of it’s fertilizers, but it is now a net exporter of fertilizer, shipping to countries throughout Africa. Currently Indorama is exporting to Brazil, which relies heavily on fertilizer from Russia, and is hoping to expand to India and the U.S.A. [35][36]

Indorama, the largest Urea producer in Africa and the 2nd largest Urea producer in the world. source

From 2021 to now, the plant has produced 3 million tons of fertilizer, supplying many of the major fertilizer markets in Sub Saharan Africa. [37]

Let’s recap the key points you should take away:

  • Increasing agricultural productivity in Africa is key to reducing poverty and food insecurity rates.
  • Fertilizer is the most effective way to increase crop yields. The job of fertilizers is to provide plants with the nutrients they need to grow.
  • Access to fertilizer for small scale African farmers is extremely limited. This is because fertilizer in Africa is 4 times the price of fertilizer in the rest of the world.
  • The war in Ukraine, poor road infrastructure and commodity crops are three huge factors contributing to the astronomical prices of fertilizers.
  • Expanding fertilizer use will come from utilizing Africa’s rich natural resources to make millions of tons of fertilizer. The solution will come from the country unlocking it’s full potential to be a leading producer of fertilizer and major exporter of food.

The solution lies within Africa.

With the African farmers, innovators, and changemakers who want to see their communities thrive. Instead of approaching poverty and food security through the lens of the rich people from the West who want to help the poor, we need to be thinking of the poor as equal business partners who have the ideas, knowledge and creativity to really make an impact.

We can’t just talk about social change as GDP or revenue — we need to talk about social change as a collective movement in partnership with African communities.

By applying this mindset to high impact technologies and dot connecting between root causes, a viable business can be created that will truly make a massive impact and help to unlock Africa’s full potential. 🌍🌱🚀

I’m Rachel, a 16 year old biotech lover, ultra runner and podcaster. Check out my other work and connect with me:

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Rachel Lee

Building the skills to one day build solutions to some of the biggest problems in the world |