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Kenyan first lady Rachel Ruto was misled – fertiliser is used in Uganda, ignore myth of ‘fertile soils’

Kenya has been gripped by a fake fertiliser scandal. As the saga unfolded, Rachel Ruto had a novel take – soon, like in neighbouring Uganda, there would be no need for fertiliser at all because of prayer. But this is not the case.

  • Fertiliser use in Uganda is much lower than in other African countries, including Kenya, but researchers say this is due to the cost of fertilisers, access to the input and lack of knowledge. 

  • Scientists say most soils in Uganda have low fertility and that fertiliser use is unavoidable. The government has warned that soil nutrients are rapidly depleting.

  • The country is building a multi-million dollar green fertiliser plant to promote and increase fertiliser use.

In April and May 2024, Kenya was rocked by a multi-billion shilling fertiliser scandal in which substandard inputs were allegedly stockpiled by government warehouses and delivered to farmers.    

The scandal has threatened president William Ruto's first-term legacy and the political career of his agriculture minister. Ruto has called for a thorough investigation, even as the East African country hosted a key African Union summit on fertiliser and soil health. 

As the scandal raged, first lady Rachel Ruto hosted a prayer meeting in the capital Nairobi, where she sought to pivot from the controversy. In future, she said, Kenyan farmers would “not be using fertiliser”. 

“This fertiliser that you hear our president saying, you know, ‘we have to give the fertiliser to the farmers’, in Uganda there is no fertiliser. True?” she asked. The audience responded with a standing ovation. 

“In Kenya we have to plant with fertiliser. But apostle Suubi told me that Ugandans don’t plant with fertiliser,” said Ruto. 

“Apostle Suubi” refers to the Ugandan pastor Julius Suubi, who was in Nairobi for the prayer meeting. The pastor apparently told the first lady “he was so shocked when he came to Kenya and found Kenyans were planting their crops with fertiliser”.

Ruto said Uganda was fertile, attributing this to what she called “the East African revival”. The first lady has controversially championed “faith diplomacy”, with the church having played  a key role in her husband’s election as president in August 2022.

Ruto’s claim was widely reported in Kenyan news outlets and went viral on social media. But is it true that Ugandan farmers don’t use fertiliser? We did some digging.

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Why some Ugandan farmers don’t use fertiliser

Dr Kayuki Kaizzi is a principal research officer at the National Agricultural Research Organisation, an agency of Uganda’s agriculture ministry. He has studied fertiliser use, its benefits and soil fertility in Uganda. 

He told Africa Check that fertiliser use in Uganda was low. World Bank data showed that in 2021 Ugandan farmers applied an average of 2.4 kilograms per hectare. By contrast, Kenya used 60 kg, South Africa 104 kg and Egypt 542 kg.

“[This low use of fertiliser is] due to socio-economic factors, fertilisers being expensive, lack of farmers’ awareness of the benefits of fertiliser use, the false belief by many Ugandans that soils in Uganda are fertile, and many organic movements giving farmers false information that fertilisers spoil the soil,” Kaizzi told Africa Check in an email.

In addition, organic farming organisations promised premium prices for organically grown food, he added.

Similarly, Uganda’s 2019 annual agricultural survey published in 2022, found that up to 80% of farming households did not use inorganic fertiliser because it “was too costly”. 

Other farmers said access to fertiliser prevented them from using it, while some claimed their soils were already fertile.

The myth of fertile soils

Kaizzi said “the soils in Uganda are not fertile.”

Uganda’s national fertiliser policy says it is no longer accurate to claim the country’s soils are fertile, because “the depletion of soil nutrients continues at an exponential rate that is not recorded elsewhere in the world”. 

The policy pushed for “increased demand, access and use of fertiliser” in Uganda. 

“Fertiliser is important for most soils in Uganda,” said Dr Patrick Musinguzi, a soil scientist and lecturer in the agricultural production department at Makerere University in Uganda. He has written on soil fertility and run courses on soil mapping.

He told Africa Check that Ugandan farmers needed fertiliser because the country was dominated by ferralsols, a type of soil that has low fertility. Musinguzi has studied this type of soil in Uganda.

He said some soils in Uganda, such as andosols, or soils of volcanic origin, “have some organic matter levels … but the majority of soils have low soil organic carbon levels”, resulting in low fertility. 

The poor soil quality was due to “continuous cultivation, low use of external inputs, residue mismanagement, or burning, and inherently physical and chemically poor soils”, said Musinguzi. 

Therefore fertiliser use was inevitable. 

Musinguzi said mineral fertilisers – those produced through chemical processes – were used mainly by commercial farms, large farms growing perennial crops such as tea, cotton and sugar, and in smaller quantities by smallholder farmers with limited resources. 

Ugandan farmers, he said, also used organic fertilisers, such as farmyard manure and compost. 

“Recently, the use of foliar fertilisers is evident,” said Musinguzi. 

Foliar fertiliser is sprayed directly on the crop, and in Uganda it has been used on vegetables such as cabbage and chilli.

Plenty of fertiliser in Uganda

Uganda’s fertiliser policy was published in 2016, the same year that president Yoweri Museveni said his “government was considering fertiliser subsidies for farmers” to cushion them from low food prices. 

In 2018, Museveni commissioned a fertiliser factory, saying that Uganda spent US$60 million a year on imports. However, the plant has had false starts, opening and closing

The latest import data from the Uganda Revenue Authority, covering the year 2021, shows that Uganda imports fertiliser from countries including Kenya, Russia, China, Germany, Egypt and South Africa. 

In 2023, the African Development Bank approved a $2.9 million project to provide 400,000 Ugandan farmers with fertiliser.

In February 2024, Uganda signed a deal for a $400 million green hydrogen fertiliser plant with a capacity of 200,000 tonnes. 

Conclusion: Kenyan first lady misinformed about non-fertiliser use in Uganda

Rachel Ruto told a prayer meeting in April 2024 that there wasn’t fertiliser use in Uganda, attributing her claim to a Ugandan pastor present at the meeting. 

However, publicly available data shows that Ugandan farmers use fertiliser and the government is pushing for increased use due to declining soil fertility.

The country's agricultural experts have also dispelled the myth that Uganda’s soils are so fertile they don't need inputs.  

Ugandan government data shows that the majority of farmers don't use fertiliser because of cost and access barriers. But the country is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in factories to produce fertiliser.

Therefore, we rate the claim as incorrect.

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