Gildas Zodome founded the organic fertilizer company Bio Phyto Collines in Benin. Despite being involved in a niche sector of a still burgeoning African market, Zodome has seen his company thrive across the continent.
We asked an independent agricultural input expert, who wished to remain anonymous, what share of the fertilizer market was organic. “Almost none” he replied. The market for natural organic inputs (such as manure, leaves and compost) represents only 2 billion euros on a global level compared to the 150 billion euros of the standard input market. In other words, just over 1% of the agricultural inputs market is organic.
No better can we see this market domination than in Africa. Even with the entire continent representing only 5% of the world's consumption, mineral fertilizers (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium) are still more popular than their organic counterpart. According to the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC), mineral fertilizer use in Africa soared by 130% between 2008 and 2015.
Manufacturers attracted by African potential
This impressive growth rate has attracted major manufacturers from all around the world: the Orascom construction group in Egypt, the American Monsanto in Burkinabe cotton, the Chinese CGCOC Group in Cameroon, the Pakistani Engro Corporation, which was planning on investing the trifling sum of a billion dollars in fertilizer in the Maghreb, the OCP Group in Morocco which will produce 2.5 million tons of fertilizer per year for Ethiopian farmers…
The stakes are high for those leading the African green revolution in a region still struck by the highest concentration of undernutrition in the world — 1 in 4 inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa. Agricultural productivity is far from meeting the demand of its people with some areas at only 1.8% of the agricultural productivity level of developed countries.
However, critics of agrochemicals in developed countries are also speaking up about the situation in Africa. Their numerous arguments focus on the cost of chemical fertilizer, the challenges of getting it to remote rural areas, its poor quality (once again highlighted by the IFDC in a March 2013 report), the health impacts on farmers who regularly spray their crops without using protective clothing, and the part agrochemicals play in spreading endocrine disrupters.
Organic fertilizer as a viable alternative
It was witnessing the recurrence of illnesses among farmers using synthetic fertilizer that spurred on a 33 year-old doctoral student from the Abomey-Calavi University (UAC) to set up his own production of organic pesticides and fertilizers
"Diarrhea, fainting, intoxication ... the phenomenon is very well known," says Gildas Zodome, a former local representative of several Beninese public institutions in the agricultural sector, including the Regional Centre for Agricultural Promotion (CeRPA) and the National Institute of Agricultural Research of Benin (INRAB).
It took Zodome two years to produce the first prototypes - made from a mixture of aromatic plants (eucalyptus, neem seeds, orange, hyptis; commonly known as bushmint) - finding his inspiration in the pest control and fertilization methods used by his ancestors. The fruits of his labor have given him a dozen essences which he combines into recipes he keeps secret; all the more so because he has had them patented.
Cheaper and more efficient
Following tests on several farms, by farmers and by INRAB researchers, only Zodome’s best performing pesticides and fertilizers are now being distributed. His company’s three key products are now finding success outside Benin, in Burkina-Faso — where the company has benefited from the assistance of the business incubator La Fabrique – as well as in Niger, Madagascar and soon Togo.
“The farmers are getting a good deal” he assures us. Starting with the prices: 10,000 CFA francs for a 50 kilo bag (about 15 euros). "In Benin, chemical fertilizers cost around 17,000 CFA francs a bag (approximately 25 euros), 12,000 even if they are subsidized (approximately 18 euros),” Zodome explains. As for pesticides, his prices are similar to the competition at 5,000 CFA francs per liter (about 7 euros).
Yields are also more attractive according to Gildas Zodome — “On a one-hectare rice paddy, we measured an average production of 4 tons of rice with our products compared to 3 tons using chemical inputs - leaving a profit margin of over 50,000 CFA francs.”
Bio Phyto Collines now has nine permanent employees in Allada, the birthplace of the company’s founder, where it has cultivated one hectare of aromatic plants, with the rest coming from external suppliers. With 400 tons of organic fertilizer produced annually and 15,000 liters of organic pesticides, the company has reached a turnover of 100 million CFA francs (150,000 euros).
Objective: to multiply production by five
Bio Phyto Collines hopes to multiply its production by five within three years, aiming for the success of companies like Éléphant Vert in Morocco and Mali or Safi Organics in Kenya. Considerable opportunities for growth and development lie ahead for Zodome and his company.