Special report: Fertiliser subsidy runs into trouble

  • Thousands of farmers unable to access
  • Reports of politicians hoarding coupons
  • Maize production threatened

When government launched its Planting for Food and Jobs (PFJ) initiative, not only farmers were expectant about the impact this would have on their lives but government also was expecting the teeming unemployed youth would find the initiative enticing enough to jump aboard farming.

But when reports of farmers in the three northern regions inability to access fertiliser surfaced, the B&FT set out to investigate the veracity of those reports and understand exactly what may have led to the challenges which could affect the country’s food security and potentially let thousands of smallholder farmers slip into poverty.

Inusah, a smallholder farmer at Karaga, in the Karaga district of the Northern Region, was in a state of utter frustration and moved to tears. He begged us to help him get some of the coupons to enable him get fertiliser to apply on his relatively small farm – barely the size of four football fields.

The farm’s output is what he relies on to take care of his family. It was really a matter of desperation for him and other smallholder farmers alike who have launched a frantic search for coupons which will enable them to access government’s subsidised fertiliser.

Coupon system

As part of the Planting for Food and Jobs (PFJ) initiative, government deepened its subsidy on fertiliser, NPK and Urea, between GH¢68 and GH¢63 – but this subsidy comes in the form of a coupon that farmers need to present at registered fertiliser retailers to access the subsidy.

The market price of a bag of NPK is GH¢136 and the Urea, GH¢126 – thus with the coupons, farmers only pay half the price. And in the three regions of northern Ghana where the working-class majority are smallholder farmers – who depend on solely farming to make ends meet – the subsidy is a lifeline.

According to conservative estimates, there are about one million smallholder farmers in the Upper East, Upper West and Northern Regions. The key crops cultivated in these regions include maize, sorghum, rice, groundnut and some vegetables.

For the bulk of those one million farmers, government’s subsidy support has been a lifeline for about a decade ago, when the initiative became a mainstay. Government has experimented with a couple of ways to target these needy farmers, with the coupon system only reintroduced having being abolished more than 8 years ago.

With the coupon system, farmers are entitled to bags of NPK and Urea. Given that the standard application of two bags of NPK and a bag of Urea is for an acre, farmers with two or more acres like Inusah were expectant that government’s flagship Planting for Food and Jobs (PFJ) would grant them far greater access to the fertiliser subsidy.

But the reality he and his friends have faced on the ground is far from their expectations: and they are not the only ones disappointed. So are the smallholder farmers in Savelugu, Nanton, Nyankpala, Tolon, Kumbungu – all in the Northern Region, and Tumu in the Upper East Region as well as others the B&FT caught up with in its investigations.

“Right now, it is probably easier to access cocaine than those coupons,” one disappointed farmer said of his toil to get some of the coupons to purchase fertiliser for application on his maize farm – which is facing dire straits due to missing the required application period.

Traditionally, at the beginning of the planting season, farmers are required to apply the compound NPK fertilisers: if its maize, ideally 3 bags per acre for an adequate assurance of yield. However, owing to the current situation, farmers are losing out significantly because of the inputs’ unavailability.

To add insult to injury, another essential input needed for top-dressing to complete the application process in order to guarantee yield, Urea, was totally out of the system – with many farmers complaining they are yet to set eyes on any Urea coupon at all this season.

How are the coupons distributed?

The Northern Regional Director of Ministry of Food and Agriculture, William Boakye Acheampong who is responsible for the sector in the region, said the region was allocated 1 million coupons comprising NPK and Urea.

The coupons, per the arrangement from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, first goes to the Regional Directors of Agriculture who then send them to the Metro, Municipal, District Directors of Agriculture – who subsequently give them to their various agriculture extension officers for distribution to the farmers.

The process can be cumbersome, given the bureaucracies involved right from the national level to the district level. The coupons by their nature are like a currency which when given to the registered fertiliser seller, he/she goes to redeem from the Agric Ministry the respective value.

Also, the coupons are not usable in any region other than the one for which they were issued. The individual coupons are to be endorsed by the District Director of Agriculture and an Agric Extension Agent before they are handed to the farmer.

Ideally, a smallholder farmer with a five-acre farm needs 10 bags of NPK and 5 bags of Urea to attain the optimum requirement for his farm. But scarcity of the coupons has meant farmers have to go onto the open market and purchase those fertilisers – that is, if they can afford to – or make do with what they may have received from the extension officers.

Going around these various farming communities, there were more farmers who had gotten a coupon or two of NPK and would need at least a further 5 or more. And some of these farmers, against all odds, are still chasing after coupons even as some have missed a critical part of the fertiliser application period.

For some of the farmers, having battled devastating effects of fall army worms for a greater part of last year, they already feel overstretched and any dip in their yields following inability to access subsidies will have dire consequences on themselves and their dependents.

Where did the coupons go?

The Northern Regional Director of Ministry of Food and Agriculture. Mr. Boakye-Acheampong, disclosed that the region took custody of 1 million coupons which were subsequently distributed to metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies.

According to him, the number of coupons given last year was based on the region’s fertiliser consumption last year, as a well a provision for a projected increase.

But the District Director of Agriculture, Zakaria Fuseini, at the Tolon-Kumbungu district of the Northern Region insisted the coupons allocated them at their district were woefully inadequate. The district has close to 30,000 smallholder farmers, but coupons for NPK advanced from the Regional Agric Office was just about 23,000 while it got 5,000 coupons for urea.

According to him, his office – just like most others in the region, is swarmed by hundreds of aggrieved farmers on a daily basis seeking coupons. The situation was so chaotic that the DCE for the area, Abdul Salam Hamza Fatawu, said they had to establish an emergency technical committee to supervise distribution of the limited coupons to ensure sanity.

But a group of farmers the B&FT caught up with at Nyanpkpala, also in the Tolon Kumbungu district were sceptical about stories surrounding the shortage. For some of them, the coupons are being hoarded by some political heads – pointing fingers as far back as the regional office.

Indeed, their beliefs are widely shared by a number of farmers across the various districts the B&FT visited. Some farmers, who would rather speak on the grounds of complete anonymity, recounted stories of coupons being distributed by political party functionaries to party faithful – as well as those who are selling the coupons for as low as GH¢5.

While there are over 30 registered fertiliser importers with vast distribution network across the country, some farmers told the B&FT about the emergence of fertiliser dealers owned by some political figures who have mysteriously gotten some coupons which they are using to entice desperate farmers.

The problem, they however said was these fertilisers are typically not as good as those from the well-known dealers they have dealt with over the years.

Much as the B&FT tried to gain access to some of these shady distributors, it was unable to do so. Nevertheless, the Northern Regional Director of Agriculture = the man at the heart of the distribution – could not deny the pressure exerted on the coupon system by politicians.

He maintained that the system, though having its challenges, would work best if devoid of such interference – but as to the type of interference, he would rather not comment further.

Fertiliser sellers’ pain

In all the districts visited during these investigations, fertiliser retailers were in pain. Their products were not moving as they should, with stores overflowing with NPK and Urea as the application season draws to a close.

These sellers are forced to turn away farmers that come to access the subsidy without coupons. The desperate farmers sometimes come begging with their lives for the fertiliser, pleading that they will later secure coupons to reimburse the sellers.

But, most of the time, it is a huge gamble for those sellers who have decided they would rather lock up the fertiliser than give it out to farmers. But in all of this, the farmer is the most affected. As to how an initiative that was supposed to boost agricultural productivity, not to mention lure the youth into farming, could marginalise already-poor farmers leaves a lot of questions to be answered.

Previously, farmers had to use a special booklet to access the fertiliser subsidy. Each farmer could get as many as 10 bags of NPK and 5 Urea. And from Walewale to Karaga, through to Nyankpala, Kumbungu, Savelugu, Nanton – all in the Northern Region – to Tumu, Sisala East district, farmers will be left bemoaning what could have been as the major application season draws to a close in a couple weeks’ time.

And these farmers were all unanimous about the challenges that face the coupon system. While they agree the old system had its own challenges, of the two they would prefer the old system while effort is made to improve it.