Wagner Aside, Russia Exerts Soft Power Through Fertilizer

Via The Africa Report, a look at how Russia exerts soft power in Africa through fertilizer:

Already a key security player in Africa via the Wagner Group, Russia is also leveraging its fertiliser exports.

The Wagner group, active in the security and mining sectors, spearheads Russia’s presence on the continent, particularly in West Africa. But Moscow has other levels of influence, including fertiliser.

The proof: the programme for the second Russia-Africa summit, to be held on 27-28 July in St Petersburg, includes a roundtable devoted entirely to this subject, entitled ‘Stabilising the fertiliser market to eradicate hunger in African countries’.

Another session entitled ‘Russia and Africa: Partnership for food sovereignty’ is expected to deal extensively with the subject, given that it is sponsored by the Russian Association of Fertiliser Producers (RAFP).

Promise to transfer skills

Russia, a major world fertiliser producer, does not intend to limit itself to the role of “supplier”. Having made a visible statement by donating fertiliser, Russia also intends to “transfer cutting-edge agricultural technologies to Africa”,  according to the conference programme.

“A long-term strategic partnership with Russian suppliers will allow African nations to increase their agricultural productivity, train qualified specialist personnel, create new jobs and provide their populations with food staples,” says the programme brochure for the roundtable to be presented by Russian fertiliser producer Uralchem, which was chaired by Vladimir Putin’s close friend Dmitry Mazepin until he ceded control in March 2022, under EU sanctions.

In 2022, Uralchem-Uralkali offered around 30 training sessions across the continent to more than 3,000 African participants.

The importance of Russian fertiliser to the continent is nothing new. Since Africa produces very little fertiliser (in terms of both raw materials and finished products), it imports it on a massive scale.

Russia, on the other hand, is a leading producer, with four global giants in the sector – Acron, EuroChem, PhosAgro, and Uralchem – and exports to many countries around the world, particularly in Africa. PhosAgro, since 2016, and Uralchem, since 2018, have expressed their desires to expand in Africa, while Acron sold 324,000tn of fertiliser there in 2020 (in particular to Morocco, Kenya, Ghana, and Togo), including 104,000tn of NPK (the main phosphate fertiliser used in Africa). This figure is up 15% from the past year, according to the group’s annual report.

Dependence on Russian imports

This dependence on Russian supply has been highlighted by the war in Ukraine.

A study commissioned by the Economic Community of West Africa States (Ecowas) in July 2022 indicated that West Africa faces a fertiliser deficit of between 1.2tn and 1.5tn (or between 10m and 20m tonnes of cereal equivalent).

In 2021, Moscow supplied more than 50% of potash imports to Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, according to the report, while Russian fertiliser flow (all products combined) accounted for 50% of Togo’s needs, 40% of Ghana’s, 35% of Burkina Faso’s and Senegal’s, almost 30% of Côte d’Ivoire’s and over 20% of Mali and Guinea’s requirements.

In line with colonial practices and habits, the EU blocked our initiative. It took us six months to get the shipment to Malawi.

It is against this backdrop that Russia has started donating fertiliser. Although the initiative came from President Vladimir Putin, who in September 2022 offered to make available free of charge 300,000tn of products blocked in European ports as a result of European Union (EU) sanctions against Moscow, it was Uralchem, the owner of the volumes in question, who implemented it.

After an initial shipment in late 2022 (containing 23,000tn of NPK  – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) to Burkina Faso, two more shipments followed in 2023, to Malawi (20,000tn of NPK) and Kenya (24,000tn of potash, urea and NPK), making a total of 77,000tn. A fourth shipment was to be dispatched to Nigeria matching that to Kenya, which would have brought the total volume to 110,000tn, but it has not yet been delivered.

While little publicity was given to the first operation, subsequent operations, particularly the one to Malawi, were widely covered by the media, as the logistics were handled by the World Food Programme (WFP) as part of the mobilisation of the United Nations and France under the September 2022 ‘Save Crops Operation’, designed to save the harvest by facilitating fertiliser access in developing countries, particularly in Africa.

Strategic donations

These donations enabled Moscow to play up its anti-European rhetoric while reaffirming its commitment to contributing to Africa’s food sovereignty. “In line with colonial practices and habits, the EU blocked our initiative. It took us six months to get the shipment to Malawi, and it was only recently that we were able to make another delivery to Kenya,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a May visit to Burundi after a stopover in Kenya.

“As one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of mineral fertiliser, we are aware of our crucial role and responsibility in ensuring food security for those who are most vulnerable,” said Dmitry Konyaev, Mazepin’s successor at the head of Uralchem.

Diplomatic declarations aside, the Russian effort is strategically sound. On the one hand, with 110,000tn donated, Moscow is no match for the Moroccan group OCP, the continent’s leading supplier, which provided 180,000tn free of charge, in addition to 370,000tn sold at a reduced price.

We plan to double our exports to Africa within five years.

On the other hand, the geographical distribution of the Russian donations – with two in West Africa, two on the eastern seaboard, one in the developed market of Kenya, the other in one of the continent’s most disadvantaged countries, Malawi – is no different from OCP’s.  The Moroccan giant, whose success is based on a combination of commercial growth and development projects, has followed a similar strategy, betting on both East and West Africa as well as on different country profiles, with its list comprising Ethiopia, Rwanda, Malawi, Senegal, and Guinea.

Commercial aspect

Despite doubts about the quality of fertilisers that have long been stockpiled, and logistical obstacles regarding their distribution to farmers on the continent, the Russian offensive is to be taken seriously, especially as it is not limited to donations. According to several observers, the difficulties created by Western sanctions against Moscow have not prevented Russian-African fertiliser transactions from taking place. With or without sanctions, Moscow wants to sell its products, and the continent’s governments need to ensure their respective agricultural sectors are in good health.

On this commercial front, another Russian producer stands out: PhosAgro, which sold some 11m tonnes of fertiliser in 2022, up 6.4%, and whose African sales in no fewer than 21 countries (including South Africa, Benin, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Cameroon) accounted for 6% of its overall business in 2021.

Directed since March 2022 by Mikhail Rybnikov, who replaced Andrey A. Guryev, the son of the billionaire and group founder Andrey G. Guryev, PhosAgro boasted last April that it would be Russia’s leading exporter to Africa, with some 500,000tn in 2022, a volume up 25%. “We plan to double our exports to Africa over the next five years,” its deputy chairman Alexander Sharabaika said at a Moscow conference in March 2023, reaffirming a target already set by Guryev in 2021.

“As part of our development in Africa, we want to contribute to the expansion of the distribution network and to the creation of businesses in the bagging and packaging sector,” stated the Russian producer, who has financed a Russia room at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) headquarters in Rome, to host events and discussions on agricultural issues.


Despite its great ambitions, PhosAgro’s expansion in Africa has not been easy. Launched in 2016, it only took off in 2019 with the opening of an office in Cape Town and the signing of an agreement with South African phosphate specialist Kropz to develop sales in South Africa, Congo, and Ghana.

Although the group made a name for itself by winning contracts in West Africa – notably in Benin, ahead of OCP – its success was short-lived, with regional sales on the decline starting in 2021, mainly due to delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the sharp rise in fertiliser prices, synonymous with a reduction in demand. Since then, it has remained a modest player in West Africa, which remains under the corporate influence of the Moroccan giant headed by Mostafa Terrab.

PhosAgro, which seems to want to avoid a significant confrontation with the competition, has also taken a back seat in East Africa, where competition between OCP and the Saudi group Ma’aden is strong. As a result, PhosAgro has made South Africa, which supports Russia diplomatically, its base camp.

It remains to be seen whether all this will be enough to see the Russian flag flown on the continent.

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Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has long held a keen interest in natural resource policy and the geopolitical implications of anticipated stresses in the areas of freshwater scarcity, biodiversity reserves & parks, and farm land.  Monty has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries spanning Africa, China, western Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast & Central Asia, and his personal interests comprise economic development, policy, investment, technology, natural resources, and the environment, with a particular focus on globalization’s impact upon these subject areas.  Monty writes about freshwater scarcity issues at www.waterpolitics.com and frontier investment markets at www.wildcatsandblacksheep.com.