Fertilizer access is a cheat code to lift the world’s poorest people out of poverty

Cassia Attard
14 min readOct 3, 2023


Fertilizer has become a rather awkward and personal topic of conversation in my 22-year-old university student life. Not because it’s touchy or controversial, but because it’s begun to occupy an unusually large amount of my time and brain space. When the honest answer to “What did you do this weekend?” is “I looked at FAO fertilizer trade data”, you start to feel like a bit of a weirdo¹.

Yet, I think my obsession is justified. My recent visit to NYC for the U.N. General Assembly and Climate Week taught me that it’s not a particularly niche fascination. In fact, fertilizer production, use, and trade are capturing the attention of many heavy hitters in the sustainability space, from diplomats to tech founders.

I care about fertilizer because I care about:

  • Lifting millions of the world’s poorest people out of poverty
  • Providing food for the ~1 billion people still burdened by hunger and our growing population
  • Being able to grow food in the face of climate change
  • Climate change and deforestation

Allow me to explain…

There’s a 50% chance you owe your life to synthetic nitrogen fertilizer

Growing crops requires only a handful of inputs: water, sunlight, and nutrients. The three essential nutrients— nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — are present in the soil, but often in small qualities, holding back crops from optimal growth. Of the three, nitrogen is most often limiting. For most of human history, agriculture relied on a small set of plants with the natural ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into a usable form. This remained until 1913 when Carl Bosch successfully industrialized Fritz Haber’s work of synthesizing ammonia (NH3) from the air with a process now fittingly called Haber-Bosch. Suddenly, the limiting element that many feared would drive global starvation was plentiful. The invention of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is now estimated to support approximately half of the global population.

The 20th century was a time of rapid increases in agricultural productivity. From ​​1943 to 1978 the world witnessed a 26 to 217 percent increase in crop yield of the ten staple crops (variable by region). This time would become known as the Green Revolution. Countless strategies were used to enable this transition, with the increased use of fertilizer being the most impactful.

Crop yield — crop output per unit area of land — increases logarithmically with increased nitrogen fertilizer application, and experiences diminishing returns only at exceptionally high application rates, around 100 kg per hectare. Countries that applied the most fertilizer during the 20th century saw the largest increase in yields and decreases in food insecurity.

Data from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

The trend of increased fertilizer application and yields was global, but not universal. Today, rates of nitrogen application range from over 300 kg per hectare in countries like China, Brazil, and the UK to under 1 kg per hectare in poor countries. Along with fertilizer use, yields in sub-Saharan African countries remained stagnant after the Green Revolution. The implication of underapplying fertilizers — as seen in less developed countries — is clear.

Yield is everything

“Why are you just giving me these seeds now?” Dr. Agnes Kalibata recalled a poor rural female farmer asking during a check-up on a higher-yielding variety of cowpea in Ghana. “If I had these seeds earlier, my daughter wouldn’t have gotten married. If I had these seeds earlier, my daughter would have gone to school”.

76% of people below the poverty line in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) work in agriculture. Increasing yields of a crop creates an almost-proportional increase in income for these small-holder farmers. When you’re a woman living off less than $1 per day, growing an extra 50 kg of cowpeas on your single hectare of land means sending your daughter to school instead of marrying her off. It means after feeding your husband (who statistically does less work than you on the family farm) and children, you have something to eat for dinner.

At a population level, the importance of yield increases cannot be understated. According to Joe Studwell, the first step in ensuring a country’s economic developmental success is increasing the yields on small farms. When yields are low in a developing country², many hands are needed to produce enough food to (hopefully) feed everyone. When yields increase, fewer hands are needed to produce food, and some people can begin working in industry, kick-starting a manufacturing and export-based economy. Plus, less help is needed from children, who can then spend their time in school. This is the basis for development.

Finally, increasing yield is essential to environmental protection³. A poor farmer struggling to produce enough food to feed themselves and make a living has two options: increase yield or increase land use. Increasing yield without technology, tools, and education is nearly impossible. Likely, they will seek out more arable land by clearing (burning) trees. Over the last three decades, yields in SSA have essentially stagnated. Meanwhile, land use more than doubled from 48 to 112 million hectares. This is land previously inhabited by wildlife and carbon-sequestering trees.

Yield is inseparable from economic development and deforestation prevention. It is equally inseparable from fertilizer application rates. If we want to lift millions of the world’s poorest people out of poverty, we must increase yield. To do this, they must have access to fertilizer.

Why doesn’t Africa have enough fertilizer?

Fertilizer is a globalized commodity. Nitrogen fertilizer requires only air and natural gas to be made, making production possible by all but the cheapest by net exporters of natural gas such as Russia, Canada, and China. Phosphorus and potassium must be mined, leaving production to countries rich in phosphate rock and potash.

Between the Green Revolution to 2022, subsidies accounted for the drastic international disparities in fertilizer consumption. Countries like China, Egypt, Brazil, and the USA highly subsidize and overconsume fertilizer, leading to nutrient runoff and environmental damage. Meanwhile, places like Kazakstan and SSA have very little or no public support for fertilizer use, leading to ‘nutrient mining’, when nutrients like nitrogen are gradually depleted from the soil due to agriculture and not replenished.

Spot the Africa-shaped white mass 🤔

Another primary barrier to fertilizer access in SSA is the lack of transport infrastructure. With limited and poor-quality roads in rural areas, many farmers make it to the market by bike or on foot. According to IFAD, “Transporting fertilizers from an African seaport to a farm 100 kilometres inland can cost more than shipping the same fertilizers from North America to the African seaport. As a result, African smallholders pay two to four times the average world price for fertilizer.”

Then, in February 2022, the war in Ukraine changed everything. The price of oil skyrocketed and Russian export of potash slowed. Supply shrunk and prices tripled, putting a stable supply of fertilizer out of reach of many smallholder farmers. In SSA, fertilizer prices soared to more than U.S. $1,000 per metric ton at a time when many countries were beginning to adopt agricultural inputs. According to the IFDC, “The subsequent drop in fertilizers coming into Africa will result in decreased crop production equal to approximately 30 million metric tons of grain, a year’s food supply for 60–90 million people”.

Look what happened to the SSA’s gradually increasing trend of fertilizer consumption in 2022:

This is not an issue that will fix itself once international conflict has slowed. SSA’s economic growth dropped to 3.6% in 2022 from 4.1% in 2021 and is expected to dip to 3.1% in 2023. According to the World Bank, “The persistent sluggishness of the global economy, declining yet high inflation rates, and challenging global and domestic financial conditions amid high levels of debt explain the downgrade.” Economic slowdowns don’t show a sunny forecast for increased agricultural inputs.

With high yields being critical to economic development and food security for hundreds of millions, how is SSA going to increase access to fertilizer?

Where’s Africa’s fertilizer going?

Africa produces approximately 30 million metric tons of fertilizer each year. This is twice as much as it consumes. And yet, approximately 90 percent of fertilizer consumed in SSA is imported, mostly from outside the continent. So what the heck is going on?

Export discipline

It may seem counterintuitive to export a product that a country both produces and needs more of. Why would the national governments of SSA support such strategies? Because exporting goods in a developing industrial economy is pivotal to developmental success.

In his book How Asia Works, Joe Studwell compares the developmental success and failure of countries in South East Asia. He observed that nations which successfully climbed out of poverty, such as South Korea and Japan, maintained high levels of export in early-stage industrial development. Nations that failed to do so, such as Malaysia and the Philippines, struggle with extremely high poverty today. Export discipline, he claims, is essential to finance manufacturing growth and lift the economy.

Thus, at this stage in SSA’s developmental journey, it is critical that fertilizer producers continue to export. However, why can’t African fertilizer producers trade within the continent, providing easier access to struggling farmers? The answer comes down to affordability and logistics.


At this year’s U.N. General Assembly, there was a lot of talk of increasing intra-Africa trade. With this strategy in mind, would it not be obvious to keep Africa’s fertilizer within the continent?

One key issue is that countries which subsidize fertilizer (China, Egypt, the USA, etc.) can afford higher prices for Africa’s products than poor rural farmers in Senegal. With economic development as the end goal, it’s hard to justify selling a locally-made product at a lower price.

Subsidies can play a key role in increasing intra-Africa trade and fertilizer availability. However, they must be designed carefully. In 2001, Zambia launched the Fertilizer Support Programme and saw a 50 percent increase in yields. However, that yield increase was seen by the most productive farmers who, according to The World Bank, “already had reasonable access to agricultural inputs on commercial terms”. Meanwhile, yields for poor smallholder farmers in Zamia remained low due in part to the lack of road access in rural areas, and thus lack of subsidized fertilizer.

We must be extra cautious of international subsidies, which can easily undermine the developing market. They’re also ‘flaky’, having historically been introduced and then quickly cut, leaving the African fertilizer market stranded and unable to support itself

Lastly, governments must be cautious not to over-subsidize, or to have an exit plan. Many countries overapply fertilizer without yield gains. This is an economic and environmental burden. These places are mostly middle-income countries which recently developed to the point of attaining fertilizer access and are now overapplying without benefit.


Only 34 percent of rural Africans live within two kilometres of an all-season road. This makes fertilizer distribution difficult and disincentivizes African fertilizer producers from attempting to sell their products within the continent. SSA is also comprised of 46 countries. Why navigate trade logistics across 46 borders when the same quantity could be shipped to Brazil?

Transportation logistics is further complicated by conflict in many African regions. This year in Ethiopia, conflict in the North has been affecting the transportation of cargo in and out of the region and fertilizer distribution has seen a hit. According to Africa Fertilizer Watch, “The wars have resulted in the displacement of millions of people and plunged thousands into near starvation conditions.”

Investing in road infrastructure would not only increase fertilizer access. It would also give farmers access to local markets and rural people access to healthcare.

The big question

A few weeks ago, Alzbeta Klein, the CEO of the International Fertilizer Association (IFA), participated in an interesting and important fireside chat at the Rockefeller Centre in NYC.

After the talk, I chased her down with a burning question.

Alzbeta Klein (right) speaking about the importance of fertilizer distribution in SSA

Having spent about a year looking into fertilizer use and watching alarming trends, there was a question that the internet could not answer: How do we increase fertilizer access in SSA while maintaining export discipline?

She told me that the problem was complex distribution logistics in SSA, and the solution was for SSA to focus on creating larger farms (to simplify supply chains with fewer buyers) and growing more commodity crops. Perhaps it is bold of an undergraduate student to question the perspective of IFA’s CEO, but I think she’s utterly incorrect.

Here’s why we should not solve the fertilizer distribution issue with an increase in farm sizes and commodity crops:

  1. To increase farm size, farms must be combined. This means wealthier farmers would purchase many smallholder farms⁴, creating a new land tenure structure in the region and stripping poor people of their only assets.
  2. When growers do not own their land, yield reduces drastically. What incentive does a farmer have to tend the land carefully and increase output if they don’t own the farm? Essentially none.
  3. When farm size increases, yield reduces drastically. Even compared to high-tech, mechanized farms, nothing rivals the yield accomplished on small farms⁵. There is no current substitute for personal time and attention toward weeding, pest control, and harvest. To eventually transition to an economy where fewer people are needed in agriculture, farms must remain small until sufficient yields are accomplished.
  4. Commodity crops are not climate-adapted. In the face of climate change, SSA is projected to see a yield decrease of over 50% in many commodity crops such as wheat, corn, and soy. The new Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS) plan centres on growing more native African crops to prevent massive losses in the food system. According to VACS, “Overreliance on a few staple crops leads to systemic vulnerability, especially as extreme weather increasingly causes crop failures and reduced yields.”

So what, then?

I admit that shutting down someone else’s plan is much easier than crafting your own. Nonetheless, it is very clear to me that decreasing export discipline or increasing farm size is not an option for development in SSA.

There is no one solution. I believe the answer lies in a combination of infrastructure investment, subsidies, technology, and farmer cooperatives.

Subsidies and infrastructure investment

I’ve discussed the importance of both subsidies and infrastructure above. I am not an expert in public policy design and will not suggest what these government interventions should look like. But I do know that when developing nations blindly follow models used in the ‘developed’ world, things tend to go south. This happens when subsidy plans or trade logistics are copy-pasted from countries like the USA and England into places like Ethiopia and Malawi. At times, the World Bank and IMF have even ill-advised developing nations based on strategies used by countries at a very different economic stage.

Subsidies and infrastructural expansion need to be carefully planned with regional strategies. Not copy-pasted. To summarize:


Technological solutions have their place in all large problems. In this case, GMOs could almost be a panacea. In 1838, Jean-Baptiste Boussingault discovered that some plants, such as legumes, can convert the nitrogen in the air into a usable form. Most plants cannot. It’s been almost 200 years, and this problem remains the golden egg of GMO engineering.

A crop variety that doesn’t require nutrient inputs would be a game-changer. Not only would this spare the high costs and logistical nightmare of fertilizer distribution to small farms, but would also save the time needed to train farmers on fertilizer use and prevent potential environmental damage from overapplication.

Luckily, this is no niche pursuit. Every agricultural conglomerate in the world has genetic engineers banging their heads against the wall. We can only hope it’s possible.

Farmer cooperatives

Agricultural cooperatives (or co-ops) are groups of farmers who pool resources and knowledge. This can look like a shared tool shed, giving a handful of farmers access to an irrigation pump that they otherwise could never afford. Or regular meetings where they discuss yield-improving strategies. Or self-driven research, such as at Farmers’ Field Schools where smallholders conduct their own field trials and find out which fertilizers work best for their crops and farming systems, when they are best applied, and in what quantities.

Most importantly, it means that farmers can negotiate with suppliers as bulk orders bring down transaction and transport costs. From a supply chain perspective, this group of many small farms now acts as one large farm. This simplifies fertilizer distribution and incentivizes African producers to sell within their continent.

Co-ops, however, are not a copy-pasteable solution, either. Each area has distinct social structures and co-ops need to be strategically designed, requiring a team of experts.

We can feed the world

Agricultural progress is often taken for granted. But it is not luck that provides us with enough food to sustain today’s population. It was a team of incredibly wise and ambitious scientists, philanthropists, economists, and farmers who drove the Green Revolution.

Africa is the fastest-growing and youngest population in the world. By 2050, Nigeria is projected to overtake the USA as the world’s third most populated country. To feed this rapidly growing continent, Africa needs the Green Revolution that bypassed them 60 years ago.

I believe it’s possible. The time and energy being invested into this problem was evident at the U.N. General Assembly. I saw the U.S. Secretary of State declare the need for climate-adapted agriculture in SSA. I saw collaborations between the Rockefeller Foundation and Gates Foundation to increase fertilizer access. I saw startups supporting small-scale farmers in SSA. People care and people are working on it.

Fertilizer access may seem like a strange choice of obsession for a 22-year-old. But, it is one of the most important issues to the world’s poorest population with far-reaching consequences on economic development, global health, and the environment. For those struggling with food security and extreme poverty, and the 2.5 billion Africans that will need food in 2050, we must increase fertilizer access.


¹I don’t answer that way… I’m not that obnoxious. I usually just tell people what I ate instead.

²I don’t like the terms “developing” and “developed” country. The wonderful book Factfullness highlights that countries cannot be boxed into these categories, and most lie somewhere in the middle. He prefers to categorize areas by Level 1,2,3 and 4. For simplicity, I used the word “developing” country to refer to a country on Level 1.

³Perhaps you learned about eutrophication in ninth grade and think fertilizer is the devil. This is a common opinion among my fellow environmental majors at McGill. Eutrophication is when excess nutrients run off from land (primarily farmland) into aquatic ecosystems, causing algal blooms and dead zones. This is a very real issue of fertilizer use. However, this is only an issue if fertilizers are overapplied, which is common in the US, China, Brazil, and many other places. This is not the case in Sub-Saharan Africa and most other areas burdened by low yields.

⁴Cooperatives are another option to effectively increase farm size, discussed in the ‘So what, then?’ section.

⁵This is based on evidence from developing countries where small farmers have access to necessary tools and inputs. Current small-scale farms in SSA do not match the yield of large American farms, but this is a matter of access to knowledge, inputs, and tools. When given enough resources (not equal), small farms trump large ones in yield.



Cassia Attard

Hey, I'm Cassia! I'm a 23 y/o Sustainability student at McGill. Previously, I've worked as a climate consultant and with various climate-tech projects :)