At a recent AERC research workshop in Nairobi, I made a comment about African governments’ not spending enough money on public goods, and spending too much on private goods such as fertilizers. The comment seemed to have struck a nerve. Several people in the audience pointed out that, in Malawi, fertilizer subsidies have increased cereal production, so government spending on fertilizers was not such a bad thing. Going beyond the general arguments that these fertilizer subsidies often don’t reach farmers (they’re stolen by middlemen) and that they benefit large (and hence less poor) farmers more, I suggested that even the Malawi case is not clear-cut.
As Maggie McMillan points out, it was improved seeds and the relaxation of farmers’ credit constraints that contributed most to the improved yield in Malawi: “Low fertilizer use is indeed one of the Africa’s most vexing challenges. But subsidizing is only a band-aid, masking its high cost and low productivity without sustaining growth. Such band-aids can be useful, but they can also be a distraction, drawing attention away from the interventions needed for large-scale improvements."