Rethinking inorganic fertiliser subsidies



  • Poor soil quality in southern Africa requires inorganic fertilizers, but their impact is limited.
  • Malawi’s fertilizer subsidy program falls short due to declining soil health; solutions involve diversification and organic practices.
  • Enhancing soil health through subsidies, carbon finance, private sector involvement, and digital tools can promote sustainable agriculture.


Could ‘payments for soil health services’ be an option in Malawi?


In many parts of southern Africa, soil quality is poor due to weathering and low nutrient content. Inorganic fertilizers are often necessary, but their effectiveness can be limited. Malawi’s fertilizer subsidy program isn’t achieving food security goals due to declining soil health.

Solutions like crop diversification, organic matter addition, and fertilizers can help, but challenges exist. Improving soil health has benefits for nutrition and climate resilience. Payments for ecosystem services could support soil health, alongside other actions. Possibilities include redirecting subsidies, better extension services, diversifying crops, tying subsidies to soil health, and linking to carbon finance. Private sector involvement, affordable lime, and digital tools could also play roles.


Payments for ecosystems services (PES) to smallholder farmers could be a possible mechanism to incentivise soil health practices


PES is widely used for water, biodiversity and carbon services. The global initiative CompensACTION seeks to promote PES innovation at large scales to facilitate positive environmental outcomes.

In Malawi, PES could be used for soil health services. Such payments could help to incentivise sustainable agriculture practices, which would facilitate climate change adaptation and mitigation (the latter through carbon sequestration), increase and diversify farmer incomes, and possibly improve credit ratings and easier access to finance for farmers. Payments for carbon sequestration are likely too small to stimulate change by themselves but cobenefits may be large.

Farms in Malawi are small and the additional carbon sequestered through soils or agroforestry would likely bring in very small payments to farmers, but the co-benefits of such schemes may still be attractive.

Author: Bruce M Campbell, Jacob Nyirongo, Jan Duchoslav, Paavo Eliste, Moses W. Munthali, Christone Nyondo, and Eva Wollenberg

Publisher: Farmers Union of Malawi, Climaeat

Language: English

Year: 2023

Ecosystem(s): Agricultural Land

Location(s): Malawi

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