By Joshua Surtees:
The Russian national anthem rings out at a farm to the south of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. Farmers attending the handover ceremony of 20,000 tonnes of Russian fertiliser rise to their feet, out of respect for their guests.
Later, some will collect bags of the desperately needed nitrogen, phosphate and potassium (NPK).
Amid global fertiliser shortages and rising prices since 2020, aggravated by the Russia-Ukraine war, the Russian chemicals company Uralchem-Uralkali last year agreed to donate 260,000 tonnes of fertiliser to African countries most at risk of food insecurity.
The first shipment, to Malawi, facilitated by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), was signed off in November to urgently avert a looming hunger crisis in the land-locked country. But despite food and fertiliser being exempt from international sanctions placed on Russia, one of the world’s largest fertiliser producers, diplomatic tensions have restricted flow, leaving thousands of tonnes sitting on ships in European docks.
The Malawi shipment, having eventually received clearance to leave a port in the Netherlands, faced further delays when it arrived in Mozambique in early January before making its way to Lilongwe on trucks. It finally arrived in Malawi in February.
Although the donation is a humanitarian agreement, last week’s ceremony in the village of Mkwinda could be mistaken for a bilateral deal between two countries and another building block in Russia’s strategy of deepening its alliances in Africa.
The flags of Malawi and Russia flutter side by side in the breeze of an impending rainstorm. Malawi’s minister of agriculture, Samuel Kawale, shakes hands with the Russian ambassador, Nikolay Krasilnikov.
“You came to our rescue when we needed you the most,” says Kawale, describing Russia as “a true friend”.
But Malawi’s farmers appear unconcerned about the provenance of fertiliser, or of being made a geopolitical tool in a global crisis. They are more exercised about the time the donation took to arrive. Many farmers were forced to plant this year’s crops without fertiliser – leading to fears of food shortages at harvest time.
Stivellia Juni, from Nali village, received a single 50kg bag of NPK at the ceremony. “It’s not enough for my maize field and I have not accessed urea for the top dressing,” she says. “This year’s maize harvest will be low because many farmers shifted to legumes after seeing the fertiliser shortages and high prices.”
Justin Malonga, from a village near the shores of Lake Malawi, hasn’t received any fertiliser this year. “There will be a great hunger,” he predicts.
Ricksina Chakalamba, a member of a group of smallholders in Salima, east of Lilongwe, says at planting time a few months ago she registered for her allotted two bags of government-subsidised fertiliser and raised a loan to pay the administrative costs, but when the distribution came to her village it was all snapped up before she could get any.
“Now, so close to harvest time, putting fertiliser on my crops would be of no use,” she says, before adding hopefully, “but there’s next year. We can’t give up, it’s our livelihood.”
After Malawi was placed on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s food insecurity list last summer, and a £600,000 contract for fertiliser paid to a UK-based supplier failed to deliver the promised goods, the Malawian government asked the WFP for help. The agency enlisted an unlikely source; Uralchem-Uralkali’s founder, Dmitry Mazepin, is under personal sanctions because of ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. He had to resign as CEO and sell his controlling stake so the company could avoid sanctions.
UN secretary general António Guterres has welcomed Uralchem’s donation and thanked the governments who made it possible, including Russia. Last summer, Guterres helped broker the deal between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul to allow the unimpeded export of food and fertilisers from both countries. Negotiations to extend the export deals are ongoing.
A WFP spokesperson says: “The WFP works with the Russian Federation in the same way it works with all UN member states, in line with its humanitarian mandate of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.”
When asked whether the company sought Putin’s blessing for the donation, a Uralchem representative said: “We are beyond politics, this is a gesture of friendship.”
A humanitarian aid race between Russia and Ukraine has been building for a while, with Ukraine keen to grab support and influence in Africa, where Russia has had a footing for decades. Kyiv has committed to use its food surplus to provide grain to 5 million African people and Malawi’s former president Joyce Banda recently became a “grain ambassador” for Ukraine, working to help identify the continent’s most needy countries. Malawi is very much at the centre of a diplomatic tussle.
The world is now awake to how crucial Russia and Ukraine are to food supply chains, but fertiliser attracts less attention, despite being vital for agriculture in all countries. In Malawi, 80 percent of the population are smallholders or subsistence farmers and while the country’s endless green fields suggest a fertile land, producing enough maize to feed the population requires NPK.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, fertiliser prices reached record highs, and while these are finally coming down, according to regional expert Sheila Komen Keino, they are still more than double what they were before the Covid pandemic.
“This donation goes a long way to cushioning the government and farmers against those high costs,” Keino says.
The Malawi government heavily subsidises imported fertiliser, allowing farmers to buy 50kg bags for 15,000 kwacha (£12) as opposed to the market price of £62. The donation is particularly welcome by a government whose purchasing power has been reduced by the 25 percent devaluation of the country’s currency.
In Mkwinda, Krasilnikov spoke of delivering a “fruitful harvest”, “strengthening bilateral ties,” and repeated Putin’s invitation to the Malawian president, Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, to his Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg in July.
Kawale told the crowds that the Russian donation will help to produce 800,000 tonnes of maize and feed 400,000 families. Kawale told the Guardian he looked forward to working with Russia on agricultural development.
“It’s naive to think we can do everything on our own – we can’t. We have developed countries who are thriving – why can’t we learn from them? Including Russia,” Kawale says.
Other African countries are due to receive Uralchem donations in the coming months, with Kenya high on the list. The Moscow-based chemical firm says it is exploring soil types and crops grown in different nations, to “donate fertilisers where they will make the most impact”. —The Guardian UK