Bill Gates: Why I Love Fertilizer

Published online: Nov 15, 2018 News Bill Gates
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Source: Gates Notes 

I’ve never been shy about my passion for fertilizer. It’s a magical innovation that’s responsible for saving millions of lives from hunger and lifting millions more out of poverty by boosting agricultural productivity.

So, you can imagine my delight when I recently stepped into a warehouse in Tanzania and got a glimpse of thousands of tons of fertilizer piled as high as snow drifts. The warehouse in Dar es Salaam is part of a new fertilizer distribution center, the largest of its kind in East Africa. Watching workers fill bags with the tiny white pellets containing nitrogen, phosphorous, and other plant nutrients was a powerful reminder of how every ounce of fertilizer has the potential to transform lives in Africa.

But that potential is only realized when it reaches the hands of the world’s poorest farmers—a challenge that’s proven difficult in Africa, where fertilizer use is very low, and, as a result, agricultural productivity is too. (Farmers’ yields in many parts of Africa are just a fifth of those of U.S. farmers.)

The warehouse I visited is one critical piece of the solution for improving both the supply and demand for fertilizer in Africa.

Why I love fertilizer

There are many reasons fertilizer use has not caught on in Africa. Cost is one of the biggest problems. Poor roads and other weak infrastructure make transporting fertilizer expensive, driving up its price for many African farmers by about 25 percent compared to their counterparts in other parts of the world. Then, there’s the issue of supply, which is not always dependable because of weak distribution systems in many parts of the continent. Limited access to credit prevents farmers from purchasing fertilizer even if it is available. And a lack of agricultural training means that farmers may not see the value of investing in it or understand how to use it properly.

So how can a warehouse solve these challenges? Let’s start with the warehouse itself. With room for 350,000 metric tons of fertilizer—in 2016, Tanzania used a total of 277,000 metric tons—the warehouse built by Yara, a Norwegian agricultural company, can hold an ample supply to prevent shortages.

At the same time, Yara is working with the government of Tanzania and dozens of other businesses and nonprofit organizations to stimulate demand for fertilizer by providing training to smallholder farmers on how to use it to boost crop yields.

Around 80 percent of Tanzania’s workforce is engaged in farming and related industries. Growing more food through greater fertilizer use would have a huge impact on the country’s prosperity.

What I saw at work in Tanzania is part of a broader effort underway in Africa to use agricultural as an engine to power economic growth across the continent. New innovations in farming—from better fertilizer and crops that are more productive, nutritious and drought and disease resistant—will make it possible for African farmers to increase their yields in the years ahead. With greater productivity, farming families will be able to sell their surpluses to supplement their family's diet with vegetables, eggs, milk, and meat.

We’ve seen the impact of helping farmers grow more food before with the “Green Revolution,” a historic transformation of agriculture in Latin America and South and Southeast Asia during the 1960s, which doubled food production and staved off widespread famine. The increase in agriculture production was made possible by improved seeds and fertilizer use.

As Africa experiences its own agricultural revolution, however, the world must be sure to learn from the past. One of the consequences of the Green Revolution was excessive fertilizer use, leading to water pollution and other environmental impacts. That’s why our foundation continues to work with partners to help train farmers how to apply fertilizer in the proper amounts that will increase yields while also promoting environmental sustainability. We’re also working on digital soil mapping and soil testing to provide farmers with valuable insights into how to improve the health of their soil so they can remain productive for generations to come.

My visit to the warehouse was a highlight of my trip to Tanzania. Just before wrapping up my tour, I paused briefly to watch workers stack bags of fertilizer onto flatbed trucks for their long journey to farms hundreds of miles away. It was exciting to think about the farmers who would use them and the positive impact the fertilizer would have on their next harvests and their country’s future.