Emerging challenges in cross-border movement of inoculants in sub-Saharan Africa

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Since the late 19th century, root nodulating rhizobia (RNB), commonly known as rhizobia, have been known to be responsible for fixing atmospheric nitrogen on legumes. This knowledge soon led to the practice of inoculation, with early adoption achieved by transferring soil from field to field, or soil to seed before planting. However, this was quickly replaced by the use of pure cultures on agar slants, and later on as broths. Inoculant industries were first established in the 1920s and the global practice of inoculation today is valued at more than UD$ 10 billion annually. There is nearly 70 million tonne of soyabean inoculated annually with Bradyrhizobium japonicum in the USA, in addition to 34 and 53 million tonne in Argentina and Brazil, respectively. Inoculation activities have been on-going in sub-Saharan Africa since the 1950s, mostly on soyabean and forage legumes. However, adoption of inoculation on a commercial scale has not been appreciable, except in a few countries, such as Zimbabwe and South Africa, where commercial farms had dominated the agricultural sector. With rising fossil fuel costs, continued reliance on nitro-genous fertilisers for crop production in sub-Saharan Africa will lead to high farm production costs which cannot be met by smallholder farmers.

The philosophy of the N2Africa project is to improve system productivity in smallholder farms through enhanced input of biologically fixed N using best-fit technologies. One of such technologies is to use high quality rhizobial inoculants. In our effort to provide farmers with inoculants, we have had to import the products into several countries with varying degrees of success. A close look at the regulatory requirements for inoculant import in all the 8 countries where N2Africa is operational shows that import regulations in the 8 countries are enforced through the issuance of import permits and phytosanitary certificates. The following are the steps to follow in the import/export of rhizobial strains and inoculants:

  • The receiver (importer) applies for import permit from the Plant Quarantine Service (PQS) (or the agency empowered with that role) of the importer’s country
  • The importer sends a copy of the import permit to the person or organisation sending the product (the exporter)
  • The exporter presents the import permit to the PQS of the exporting country for a phytosanitary certificate to be raised
  • The exporter sends the product along with the phytosanitary certificate

However, that is where the similarity ends because different countries have varying approaches to the enforcement of the laws governing inoculant imports

The policy environment can be broadly divided into three categories:

The first group comprises those countries, such as Ghana, Nigeria and Mozambique, where inoculation has traditionally not been practised: There is some tentativeness (or even confusion) as to how to enforce inoculant import regulation. The Act governing plant health regulation does not have inoculants specifically identified as products covered by the law and thus is only inferred. And although a regulatory body exists, there may be overlaps in function with other agencies. For instance, the Ghana Plant Quarantine Service has the mandate regarding issues of plant health, but import permits may also be obtained from the Soil Research Institute (SRI). In Nigeria, we were initially able to process our import permits for both inoculants and rhizobial strains from the Plant Quarantine Service (PQS) regional office in Kano. However, there came a sudden instruction that all subsequent applications for import permits be sent to the PQS headquarters in Ibadan and all product inspections are to be done in Ibadan. For now, this is not a problem for us since we could use the services of IITA headquarters in Ibadan to process the permits and physical inspection. However, a serious problem could arise when private sector involvement in inoculant import becomes visible; the entrepreneur that does not have representatives in, or close to, Ibadan will likely face escalating import costs due to the delivery to Ibadan for inspection before getting to its final destination. Inspection by PQS officials at the ports of entry will be much more sensible – rather than shipping the goods to Ibadan. N2Africa has successfully imported inoculants from the UK into both Ghana and Nigeria for the last 2 years using the import-permit system. There also appears to be an informal channel through which inoculants from Zimbabwe find their way into Mozambique along with seeds purchased from SeedCo.

The second category has countries that had in the past had  robust inoculant production outfits but which, for various reasons, have now collapsed. This is the case with Malawi and Rwanda. While the import permit-phytosanitary certificate system seems to work, there appears to be some restriction by subjecting applications for import permits to vetting by the research institutes that had earlier been producing inoculants. In the case of Malawi, inoculants are explicitly mentioned as one of the products that are covered by the Plant Protection Act of 1969. For inoculant import to be approved in Malawi, a sample of the product must first be sent for analysis to the Chitedze Research Station. Given that the laboratory there is currently not functional, it is hard to imagine the nature of quality check that takes place to decide whether to approve the product for import or not. The indication here is a tendency for import protection measures in favour of a local product but, since the local product is of poor quality t, import restriction are likely to be relaxed.

Kenya and Zimbabwe constitute the third category of countries where importing inoculants has so far been almost impossible. This is in spite of the fact that the inoculants were to be used for research activities and the quantities for which permits were sought were small. Ironically, MEA Fertiliser Ltd., the inoculant manufacturer from Kenya, has been aggressively marketing its products in neighbouring countries. Similarly, the Soil Productivity Research Laboratory (SPRL), which is the sole manufacturer of inoculants in Zimbabwe, has been selling in neighbouring Mozambique. So far, the non-issuance of permits to N2Africa in Kenya has been due to the current lacuna in the law as a result of the on-going review of the phytosanitary laws by the Kenyan Plant Health Inspection Service (KEPHIS) and the Kenyan Bureau of Standards. The review process has benefitted from inputs from N2Africa’s Prof Nancy Karanja and Dr Paul Woomer especially on provisions for inoculant quality standards. It is, however, worrisome that inoculant imports are being kept on hold because of an on-going review. The normal practise would have been to continue using the extant legal and regulatory provisions pending the completion of the review and the enactment of a new law.

What our experiences have so far shown is that we will be faced with varying degrees of obstacles as we continue with our efforts to provide high quality inoculants to African farmers. We need to be proactive in ensuring that the necessary paperwork is done timely and in the right manner to ensure that inoculant imports are not held up for long periods at the ports of entry.