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Systemic Change in Crop Nutrition


Crop nutrition is the second element of the trinity of crucial factors in growing vegetables. The crop nutrition system experiences very similar problems to that of crop protection, in that most farmers have some knowledge, but the limitations to that knowledge mean it can actually harm rather than increase productivity. The impact of problems in this aspect of the inputs market for vegetable production are severe. In terms of the underlying causes, Katalyst’s analysis saw them as threefold.

The first two interlinked problems, in line with the problems seen in seed and in crop protection, were that the functions of marketing and distribution were not working effectively. Good agricultural practice for the growing of vegetables stipulates specific ways in which to use different elements of crop nutrition. Three categories are identified as macro (major chemical fertilisers such as NPK – Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium), micronutrients (zinc, boron, etc. sold in different mixes), and compost. As with pesticides, farmers default to simple solutions and so used as much macro fertiliser as they could afford. If problems with crops arose they simply used more, particularly of macro nutrients, in tandem with the additional pesticides they were using. There were products, particularly micronutrients and higher quality compost, available in the market at a national level but, for the reasons outlined in detail for the seed sector, they were not getting out to the areas that would benefit from their use and, if they did, inefficient marketing meant that they were not valued accurately and demand was low.

In addition to marketing and distribution problems, a related but separate constraint was in the technology itself, or the research and development function of inputs companies. Compost is the most traditional and still widely used form of crop nutrition in the majority of developing countries. However, low quality compost by itself does not provide adequate nutrition for most vegetables. The decomposition of manure or food waste affects soil fertility and there is very little knowledge among farmers of the determinants of this nutritional value. Poor farmers do purchase compost commercially. However, the cost is generally high and the quality low by the standards in comparable countries. Even more commercial farmers, some of whom employ many workers, do not have access to high quality compost. Commercial compost producers also engage in low technology methods of production which are slow and therefore increase costs significantly.

At all three levels of the crop nutrition spectrum, the functions of marketing and distribution were underperforming which was resulting in reduced productivity for farmers. At the macro-level, failure to deliver proper advice as part of a marketing strategy was damaging a brand through overuse and crop failure. At the micro-level, dealers – often the same companies as those that market macro fertilisers – were not delivering information on balanced fertiliser usage and so uptake was low. As a consequence, these products were not reaching areas where potential markets existed. In the compost market, even once the issue of the research and development function itself had been overcome, the marketing and distribution functions for both commercial and smallholder farmers were not developed. Katalyst saw an opportunity to transform the crop nutrition market.

Defining the innovation

Katalyst envisaged a crop nutrition market where farmers were aware of, and had a greater choice of, products across the crop nutrition spectrum. Marketing of products would incorporate greater product support to increase competence of farmers in their application, while the market would grow through increased confidence of producers increasing demand in low-income markets.

The first area for experimentation to change the operation of the marketing and distribution functions was in altering the behaviour of different types of companies so that they would begin to embrace some new marketing techniques. These would educate customers as to the proper use of their products. This was a sensible place to start as it required a relatively low level of investment from fertiliser companies and could, in fact, save money for farmers. This was not about new products or new investment but largely about a behaviour change using current tools at the disposal of all stakeholders.

There is a complexity here in that companies might sell one or multiple micro-nutrients, macro fertilisers, or compost or they may be integrated with a combination of these products, as well as performing a number of other roles such as seed suppliers in the target communities in some cases. The Katalyst view was that all parties could benefit from advocating balanced use, but that personal incentives and a lack of coordination might lead some to give counterproductive advice. For example, it is difficult to see the incentive for a producer of a single micronutrient to tell potential customers to use less of that and more of another product. As such Katalyst experimented with a range of different types of partners. Two of the partners were producers and marketers of micronutrients, one was a mixed fertiliser company selling products from micro to certain macro, and the other partner was a compost producer and marketer.

Katalyst played the same role as in other marketing interventions; assisting companies to see the benefit of accessing new markets and helping them to reach new customers through the development of innovative marketing techniques. In this case, one of the main methods was a docudrama, which was shown to draw the interest of the community but also to result in greater adoption of practice than direct advice. Other techniques included dealer training, farmer meetings and demonstration plots. Signs of impact from this intervention were positive at both the market performance and beneficiary level. There was significant growth in sales of all types of fertiliser but particularly in micronutrients. Networks and the number of permanent employees within the firm have also spread significantly, and they continue to scale up the model, showing actor level institutionalisation. At the farmer level, a limited scope study by Katalyst showed notable increases in purchases, yields and profits of farmers in the target areas.

However, while successful, it was clear that the envisaged gains in fertiliser usage would not be realised by changing behaviours alone based on existing products, due to the underdeveloped nature of the market. Just as with IPM, the market for higher quality compost – or the technologies to create it – did not exist in Bangladesh prior to Katalyst. After one year of the marketing intervention, Katalyst saw the potential benefits of the introduction of technologies to improve the quality and decrease the cost of compost as being of great value to some of the other work that was being done in vegetables, and indeed in other crops. As such it was seen as a necessary introduction to the compost component of the fertiliser market system before the more systemic constraints of marketing and distribution could begin to be addressed. In this related system for the supply and demand of the technology – Trichoderma, which is a biological agent which accelerates and improves the compost quality – there were two constraints in which Katalyst sought to play a more direct role. Firstly, there was the question of whether the technology worked in the context of Bangladesh. Here, Katalyst partnered with an inputs company who saw an incentive in that, if Trichoderma were eventually to become a valuable product, they would have first mover advantage and a more developed understanding of the product than their competitors. Katalyst and their partner tested the product and found it to be successful, raising awareness of the product’s potential. It was at this point that Katalyst decided to move to the next level in both Trichoderma, and in the broader marketing and distribution interventions.

In Trichoderma, Katalyst now had a key ally in advocating for the potential benefits of the product from the private sector. The task now was to address the formal and informal rules around regulation and government buy-in. Katalyst partnered with the government’s Rural Development Academy (RDA), both to refine further the product’s applications for the local market and to secure buy-in from key stakeholders. The public nature of the partner was also important to ensure ownership of knowledge from testing remained in the public domain. The intervention was successful in generating both knowledge and buy-in. However, it had been hoped that a solution would be generated as to how to scale up the production of Trichoderma to a commercial level. It was clear that RDA could not be this partner and it would be necessary for commercial actors to invest if the products were to become available on any scale in Bangladesh. Importantly, though, the benefits of Katalyst’s work here were already beginning to spread with one inputs company having begun testing on Trichoderma in its own laboratory.

In marketing, based on the success of the pilot, it was felt that the market would benefit from increased competition and a more diverse range of stakeholders becoming involved in providing these products. This had the potential to utilise the existing distribution networks of firms already selling multiple agricultural inputs and as such, expand the drive to a more balanced use of fertiliser into more rural areas. As such, Katalyst partnered with a further five firms to accomplish these goals. Exact intervention methodologies were modified slightly based on early learning from the pilot. This intervention modality has proven low-cost and effective at the farmer level.

In both Trichoderma and in marketing and distribution of micronutrients, Katalyst’s focus since 2014 has been on increasing the number of farmers impacted by the interventions developed and refined earlier in the programme. Through Katalyst’s work in marketing and distribution, the system has clearly changed in the way that farmers are accessing information on the availability of different fertiliser products and those products are now available to them. However, the lag between when this would impact on the majority of the population and the current rate of growth is something that Katalyst feels it can shorten and thus deliver benefits to people more quickly whilst maintaining sustainability. The partners in the new phase are larger companies who might have the capacity to reach scale more quickly.

In Trichoderma, both commercial farmers and commercial producers of fertiliser have begun to utilise the product to produce higher quality, lower cost compost. However, as Katalyst begins to look towards impacting more specifically on poorer farmers rather than attempting to demonstrate the technology, the focus has shifted away from providing better and cheaper compost for farmers to buy in the market, to allowing homestead farmers to produce their own compost through the purchase of Trichoderma. Here, Katalyst have partnered with one of the firms who have demonstrated their interest and capability in catering to new markets and directly to poor farmers through partnerships with Katalyst in both the seed and crop protection sub-sectors.

The expansions in outreach that have occurred, both through Katalyst facilitation and independently, have been expedited by an independent response by the regulatory function of the system. The Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) has begun to formalise the use of Trichoderma by granting licences for its manufacture.


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