From health crisis to hunger crisis?

From health crisis to hunger crisis? Impacts of COVID-19 on fertilizer value chains in East Africa

As the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic has fundamentally re-scrambled what is deemed essential vis-à-vis what can be sacrificed, long taken-for-granted futures are suddenly jeopardized by new uncertainties. One popular example is the fear that today’s health crisis might quickly develop into a ravaging food crisis. Early warnings from the international arena of parastatal organizations, donors, philanthropists, and agribusiness multinationals, have alerted us about looming famines of “biblical proportions” especially in Africa. Such efforts of anticipating the pandemic’s second-tier ramifications are surely paramount to deal with the new uncertainties. However one should also not forget how crisis and scarcity narratives have always been prone to be appropriated and how they can create an uneven political economy of their own (Scoones et al., 2019).

I therefore use this note to add a critical reminder of how crisis and scarcity narratives are more than neutral techniques that raise awareness and ensure preventive measures in times of uncertainty. I do so by discussing how the anticipated food crises has created leeway for global agribusiness players to cease and capitalize on what Fairbairn & Guthman (2020) identify as “silver linings” for the deepening of agribusinesses power and market dominance during the pandemic.

At the core of the expected food crisis lays the assumption that agricultural value chains will be disrupted and in the worst case fully break down. Disruptions of value chains for farming implements such as seeds and fertilizers, but also manual labour, could then drive productivity losses and ultimately result in a food crisis. Hence the crucial question; how has the supply of farming implements changed due to the pandemic?

COVID-19 and disrupted fertilizer value chains in East Africa?

A close look at fertilizer value chains is excellent to respond to this question. As fertilizers are bulky commodities and almost exclusively sourced via long supply chains from global markets, fertilizer supplies are arguably most prone to disruptions when (inter-)national movement becomes restricted. Where farmers are dependent and accustomed to applying fertilizer, any disruption in fertilizer value chains can have dramatic consequences. Delayed or no supplies at all can thereby put farming regions for whole seasons at existential risk.

Based on my ongoing – but now digitally mediated and webinar-enriched – interactions with actors from fertilizer value chains in East Africa, the good news is that most experts agree that the East African seaboard has experienced almost no direct impacts on its fertilizer value chains at this time. Governments quickly declared fertilizers as essential goods to uphold importation and trade. In some cases, subsidies for fertilizers were reinstated or import regulations loosened. Albeit temporal border closures, re-exports to land-locked countries could widely be upheld. All in all, fast and appropriate measures by African governments ensured that value chains for fertilizer were barely affected and far from breaking down.

Narratives of crisis and scarcity as tools of making and entrenching agro-markets

Whereas the last half year has therefore indeed highlighted the capacity of African governments to reasonably prioritize interventions into fertilizer value chains, the same moment of crisis became subject to multinational agribusinesses seeking to capitalize on it. For example, YARA International, one of the world’s largest manufacturers for synthetic fertilizers quickly launched its “Action Africa: Thriving Farms, Thriving Future” project to “avert a hunger crisis”. Supported by the Norwegian Government, the World Food Programme, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and the African Fertilizer and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP), YARA sent one of its vessels from Norway to ship 20,000 metric tons of free fertilizer to be distributed within seven East African countries. This generous approach towards African markets is nothing new and part and parcel of a market development strategy long pursued by YARA. Already in 2016, YARA heralded its benevolent role for African markets as it gave a “Christmas gift to African women in agriculture” by distributing 55 tonnes of fertilizer to Tanzanian smallholders. Both, the 20,000 and the 55 tonnes of donated fertilizer are however nothing more than a drop in the ocean. Considering a total market of 2,390,000 tonnes along the whole East African seaboard, with Tanzania requiring at least 500,000 tonnes, the same donations are no more than a good will gesture.


Albeit its marginal impact in material terms, this time’s gesture had substantial discursive impact. The arrival of fertilizers in Mombasa and Dar es Salaam port was accompanied by celebratory ceremonies that involved Prime Ministers, embassy delegates, and YARA staff. Jointly waving their flags to the heavy-laden trucks and train carts which were prepared to distribute fertilizer into the rural interior, YARA could publicly perform and reassure its devotion to public-private partnerships (PPPs) with African governments. In Tanzania, YARA’s donation even became a fiercely debated political resource. As the arrival coincided with the approaching general elections, Tanzania’s leading parliamentary party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) communicated the fertilizer arrival as its very own success story. Vice versa, YARA manifested its role as prime fertilizer supplier not only within Tanzania’s political landscape, but also by a mandatory incorporation of thousands of smallholder farmers into YARA’s digital marketing tool. Accordingly, the gesture of donating fertilizer in the wake of a looming food crisis became a spectacular showcasing for YARA’s ambition to become the dominant fertilizer supplier all along the East African seaboard. As such, it created political and economic value for YARA’s ongoing penetration and entrenchment of emergent markets.


All benevolence and good intention aside, these insights into the East African fertilizer value chain remind us therefore how narratives of scarcity and crisis can easily become resources of power in a state of uncertainty. As such, they allow distinct actors to mobilize and legitimize exceptional anticipatory action. This mobilization is however never apolitical and hence requires scrutiny. The case of YARA’s Action Africa project, although at first glance laudable, suggests how a moment of re-scrambling can just as well become a moment of entrenchment and reiteration for dominant imaginaries that align with the interests of few actors (in this case global agribusinesses). Although fertilizer value chains were barely disrupted by the pandemic, a large share of attention and especially of public funding became thereby diverted towards YARA’s publicity stunt. As a recently published study on COVID-19 effects on African farming states, a probable food crisis calls however for far more multi-facetted interventions and careful sensitivity on issues such as gender, class, and youth (See also Leach et al. 2020). A healthy scepticism towards confined actions heralded under the umbrella of business benevolence seems therefore reasonable to keep focus when the unknown futures of this pandemic are navigated.

Article by: Gideon Tups, University of Köln

Sub-Project C01, Future in chains.

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