Flourishing on fertilizer and soil testing

MR TITUS GITAU chief executive, Mea fertilizers

BY Victor adar

For farmers who have used fertilizer to spur growth, a scenario where one is not lucky to get good returns is all too familiar. Agriculture rich areas like Embu, Nakuru and Trans Nzoia have left individuals scratching the back of their heads due to failure to do the right thing.

In Kiambu for example, most individuals think you have money to waste when you are into coffee or tea farming. Lands in this county 15 years ago were under coffee. Today many plots have since been turned to commercial properties use as business shifts to building homes, apartments, shopping malls and offices.

But MEA, which focuses on importation and distribution to blending of fertilizer, testing and research services as well as education of farmers, is seemingly getting off the ground changing the negative narrative around farming. It is making good strides a time when farmers have borne the brunt of poor crop yields thanks to reasons ranging from lack of soil fertility solutions to infrastructure and lack of education.

Chief executive of MEA fertilizers, Mr Titus Gitau says that research and development are the starting point. His eyes are set on unlocking farming opportunities, and 40 years in the market puts MEA on the right path. Serious and focused, he says the genesis of how they got to where they are today, using simulation, is what is actually reversing the situation. The story of the farmer is bad. Crops are not always doing well as expected mainly due to use of wrong fertilizer formulas.

“We try to encourage scenario where we do soil testing,” he says. “Sometimes it is the farmer who does not understand what needs to be done. How much of fertilizer do I need, what is the value output? It all goes to the kind of fertilizer that you use. Increasing agricultural productivity rests on what your soil needs, basically what your soil lacks.”

Mr Gitau says that there is need to understand all the elements. Issues like subsidies on fertilizers, adulterated fertilizers and seeds, all affect food production in the country a time when land is becoming more and more tiny. Although average farmers, the one-acre farm owners, have not always benefited from subsidised fertilizers mainly because of cost issues, private sector players must think again. When 50kg bag of fertilizer goes for about Sh2600, it is small-scale farmers who get the short end of the stick. “That’s just one bag. So that’s one of the constraints, and there are the infrastructure constraints. But with the Standard Gauge Railway, things might change.”

Amid the grim picture, MEA has continued to play a major role in making things happen by educating farmers more and more, ensuring that they “don’t use the straight fertilizers” as the firm’s blending plant in Nakuru is truly a game changer. Citing a guy who is growing tea in Kericho and another growing tea in Limuru, Mr Gitau says, quality is always going to be slightly different. “They are the same thing but needing a different combination.”

To him there is food security in the US, Russia, Ukraine as well as South Africa because of the use of right fertilizer formulations – and that is the challenge that African countries, especially Kenya, are facing. First, farmers in Africa are not using as much fertiliser as they ought to. Secondly, a majority are using the incorrect formulas since more often than not they bank on formulas that have been developed in Europe without doing proper analysis of what is actually required.

While new technological solutions have made farmers endure tough weather climates and barren soils, boosting farm yields is no easy task. It is always a story of inappropriate use of not only farm inputs but also not knowing type of soil and even the right season and time to plant.

Africa boasts of bigger land mass compared to parts of Europe and America, but 8 kilograms per hectare is being used on farms. It is unusual how farmers in countries like Asia are using, for instance, 24kg per hectare, three times the amount, sometimes even five times more that what African farmers can afford to use.

“We are putting in a lot of resources in terms of seeds, in terms of fertilizers in front of anything else, but the harvest is going down. Population is going up. Where farmers are now is to know what needs to be done, depending on what you are going to plant. The requirements are different because on the same soil, you are planting potatoes and beans, for instance. If you are just using fertilizer without understanding the soil, you are simply pushing yourself out of Agribusiness,” Gitau says, adding that plants, like human beings, need vitamins and minerals.

New plant in Nakuru

With a supreme goal of formulating a fertilizer based on what the soil is lacking, and what farmers are planting, MEA’s new plant in Nakuru is riding on the fact that soil testing is king. It is after the test that one will know what route to take. In trying to answer the “what does the soil has, what does the soil lack?” the firm boasts of state of the art soil testing laboratories that have been upgraded to ISO standard.

“We are able to analyse fertilizers,” emphasizes Gitau. “If a farmer has any doubt of any kind of fertiliser he/she is using, we can analyse that. We can also analyse the soil type. We are able to look at the soil, advice on how to improve it and tell you that these are the elements that are deficient in your soil. It is a complete soil analysis lab.”

In delivering affordable products, the 40-year old firm is putting up a granulation plant to form fertilizers. The first in Africa, the plant will shift the dynamics big time as importation of raw materials aimed at manufacturing fertilizers locally will push down cost of buying apart from creating revenues and jobs.

“We don’t have raw materials to produce fertilizer in this country. So it will be a big foreign exchange earner for government, those dollars can be put towards the use of this country. We will be able to develop a fertilizer for you,” says Gitau.

Apart from the usual inefficiencies, subsidies on fertilisers and adulterated seeds are some of the things that affect food security in the country, keeping the cost of production high.
“What happens if I bring 30 metric tonnes of fertilizer to Kenya?”, Mr Gitau quips, “It takes a day in Saudi Arabia to load that. But it would take ten days in Mombasa port to discharge what was done in one day in one port. So there are inefficiencies. Because that ship is there for ten days it means we are paying for that time. Instead of subsidising let’s fix our infrastructure,” he says.