Fertilizing maize | A woman applies fertilizer on a maize crops. Copyright: B. Das/CIMMYT. This CIMMYT image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike license.
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Fertiliser from Morocco — Key to Africa’s food security

Morocco sits on over 70 per cent of the world’s phosphate rock reserves, the mineral used for manufacturing phosphatic fertilisers. African countries should aggressively pursue joint venture investments in fertiliser manufacturing with Moroccan conglomerates as a pathway towards food security.

Fertilisers are critical drivers of agricultural output. Global food production is highly dependent on the cost and availability of fertilisers. 

Crops need three primary nutrients — Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium — for growth. Nitrogen (N) mediates plant growth, vigour, colour, and yield. Phosphorus (P) helps in adequate root development, resistance to drought conditions, and ripening of seeds and fruits. Potassium (K) is necessary for photosynthesis, improved crop quality, and resistance to lodging, disease and drought. Plants also need secondary nutrients such as Sulphur (S), Magnesium (Mg), and Calcium (Ca); and micronutrients such as Iron (Fe), Zinc (Zn), Manganese (Mn), Boron (B), Copper (Cu), Molybdenum (Mo), Chlorine (Cl). 

Each of these nutrients and micronutrients serve unique functions and cannot be replaced by others. This is the basis of the ‘law of minimum’ popularised by agricultural scientists Justus von Liebig in the 17th century, that “crop yields are proportional to the amount of the most limiting nutrient”, that is, growth is dictated not by the total nutrient resources available for plants, but by the scarcest nutrient. Fertilisers replace nutrients crops take from the soil and those lost through harvesting. Balanced nutrition is required to obtain maximum yield.

Bags of fertiliser. Creator: Adam Cohn . (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The mineral fertiliser market is divided into three categories: nitrogen-based fertilisers, phosphorus-based fertilisers, and potassium-based fertilisers. 

With Morocco sitting on the world’s largest phosphate reserves, African countries should aggressively pursue joint venture investments in fertiliser manufacturing

In 2021, according to Worlds Top Exports, global fertiliser exports totalled $82.5 billion, a 60 per cent increase from the 2017 figure of $51.3 billion. 

The biggest exporters of fertilisers are Russia, China, Canada, Morocco, United States of America, and Saudi Arabia. Together, these countries account for 52.6 per cent of all global fertiliser exports.

  • Russia: US$12.5 billion (15.1%)
  • China: $10.9 billion (13.3%)
  • Canada: $6.6 billion (8%)
  • Morocco: $5.7 billion (6.9%)
  • United States: $4.1 billion (4.9%)
  • Saudi Arabia: $3.6 billion (4.4%)

Regionally, Europe is the biggest exporter of fertilisers, accounting for 35.9 per cent ($29.6 billion), followed by Asia (34.8 per cent), North America (13.4 per cent) and Africa (13 per cent). 

Nitrogen-based fertilisers accounted for 80.4 per cent of the exports, compared to potassic (15.5 per cent) and phosphatic fertilisers (2.7 per cent).

The Case of Morocco

Morocco occupies a special place in the global fertiliser industry. The country sits on more than 70 per cent of the world’s phosphate rock reserves, the mineral used for manufacturing phosphatic fertilisers. Wielding control over such an unprecedented reserve has transformed the Kingdom into a gatekeeper of the world’s fertiliser and food market.

Wheat Grain.

Morocco began mining phosphorus in 1921, but for the first 60 years, it mainly exported the raw material, until the 1980s when it began producing its own fertilisers when Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP) constructed the largest fertiliser production hub in the world in Jorf Lasfar, on the Atlantic coast. 

Morocco is a key partner in global food production. In 2020, OCP mined 40.7 million tons of phosphate and exported 10.3 million tons of raw materials. From the mined phosphate, OCP manufactured 7.1 million tons of phosphoric acid — the element used in the manufacture of DAP. It exported 1.9 million tons of phosphoric acid. Phosphorus fertiliser production peaked at 11.3 million tons, out of which 11.2 million tons was exported. This means that Morocco exports more than 99 per cent of all the fertiliser it produces. 

Morocco exports more than 99 per cent of all the fertiliser it produces

These exports directly influence the production of food for billions of people across the world, from the world’s populous countries such as India to the smallest countries in the heart of Europe. In 2020, India imported 50 per cent of its fertiliser from Morocco, to produce food for its 1.3 billion people. Brazil imported 40 per cent and Europe imported 41 per cent of its fertiliser from Morocco.

In the African fertiliser market, Morocco supplies 54 per cent of phosphate fertilisers used by the continent’s farmers. Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, with a population of 206 million people, meets 90 per cent of its annual fertiliser demand from Moroccan imports. 

Challenges facing Morocco’s fertiliser production

Morocco’s push to cement its position in the global market has not been without challenges. Phosphate extraction and fertiliser production are highly energy and water intensive. For instance, the industry consumes 7 per cent of the country’s annual energy output and 1 per cent of its water. Increased fertiliser production burdens energy and water resources. 

In its 2020 Sustainability Report, OCP noted that “our goal is to reduce our total water consumption by 15 per cent by 2024 and to supply 100 per cent of our water needs from non-conventional sources by 2030… to reduce water stress.”

Another challenge originates from the production process. Any rise in natural gas prices not only affect the cost of producing energy for fertiliser production but also for producing the nitrogen component used in the manufacture of ammonia. The most popular phosphatic fertiliser, diammonium phosphate (DAP), comprises of 46% phosphorus and 18% nitrogen, and is produced when phosphoric acid reacts with ammonia. Ammonia is composed of nitrogen and hydrogen. Producing the nitrogen component of ammonia accounts for at least 80% of the variable cost. This is the reason why any increase in oil and gas prices also increases the prices of DAP. Investment in renewable energy resources could significantly ease the price pressures caused by fossil-based fuels.

Morocco and food production in Africa

Agriculture is the backbone of Africa’s economy. Agriculture contributes 30 per cent of Africa’s GDP and employs 55 per cent of its working population. Any intervention that can increase the productivity of African farmers would exert positive feedback on food security.

Agriculture contributes 30 per cent of Africa’s GDP and employs 55 per cent of its working population

Structural food insecurity in African countries is associated with poor agricultural systems, poor governance, and weak institutions. The combination of low productivity, susceptibility to commodity price shocks, and over-dependence on food imports, is a threat to social and political stability.

An earlier analysis of the growing food problem in Africa revealed that the continent needs eight times more fertiliser, six times more improved seed, and massive investments in irrigation and storage facilities, in order to increase its agricultural productivity two to three times.

One of the solutions to the fertiliser problem is increased partnership with Moroccan conglomerates such as OCP, which currently has OCP has subsidiary divisions in 12 African countries. OCP also runs an Agribooster program which aims to provide farmers with inclusive and customised end-to-end solutions to increase yields, incomes, and long-term livelihoods. The Agribooster program currently covers 168,404 farmers. 

With Morocco sitting on the world’s largest phosphate reserves, African countries should aggressively pursue joint venture investments in fertiliser manufacturing. In March 2021, OCP and the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) signed a joint venture agreement to construct a $1.4 billion ammonia and fertiliser plant in Nigeria. OCP has also committed to invest $1.3 billion in the construction of an industrial fertiliser complex in Ghana. 

These are model partnerships that should be replicated by other African countries. In the spirit of the African Union’s 2006 Abuja Declaration, which called for “African Green Revolution”, increased food productivity can be achieved through accelerating fertiliser manufacturing value chains in the continent.

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