Hamish Sneyd | Middle East and North Africa Fellow
As the issue of food security increases in prominence throughout the world, the use of fertiliser is also growing in importance as a diplomatic tool to exert soft power. Fertiliser has become essential to Morocco’s diplomatic influence throughout Africa and the world, particularly in the current global fertiliser market, which has seen fertiliser prices at the highest levels since the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Much as the COVID-19 pandemic brought vaccine diplomacy to analytical prominence in international affairs, food security and the ever-present threats to the world’s food systems will see an increase in the use of fertiliser as an influential diplomatic tool.
Morocco is among the world’s top fertiliser exporters with US$5.7 billion exported in 2021. This is driven by Morocco’s comparative advantage in being home to more than 70 per cent of global reserves of phosphate rock – a critical mineral in the production of phosphorus fertilisers used for growing crops and livestock. Morocco’s fertiliser expertise is part of its larger role in domestic and regional agricultural development. Morocco’s domestic agricultural capabilities have garnered international praise for their alleviation of poverty through the development of modern agricultural processes and efficient irrigation under the Green Morocco Plan. These achievements have elevated Morocco as a geopolitically important and credible actor in agricultural development and food security. Increased agricultural capacity is integral for Africa’s economies as agriculture provides employment for two-thirds of Africa’s working population. A number of African governments are also recognising the need to bolster agricultural output for their economic growth and development aspirations. This provides Morocco’s fertiliser diplomacy with added continental importance.
Morocco’s state-owned producer Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP) has been a key actor in Morocco’s fertiliser diplomacy. On the basis of ‘south-south cooperation’, OCP has recently offered 550,000 tons of donated and discounted fertiliser to African countries. OCP has also provided major investments to improve the fertiliser production capacities for Africa’s markets with the vision to reduce dependency on food imports and mitigate future shocks to Africa’s food systems. This has entailed investments of US$6.3 billion to construct fertiliser plants in Sub-Saharan Africa along with joint development agreements with key African states including Ethiopia and Africa’s most populous country: Nigeria.
In combination with Morocco’s regional investment growth in sectors such as energy, construction, and tourism, Morocco’s fertiliser diplomacy at the regional and global levels will further boost Morocco’s geopolitical importance. This is particularly prevalent in the increasingly important realm of food security, encompassing agricultural production and the reliability and affordability of food supplies. Morocco’s importance to food security will also be depended on by regional and sub-regional bodies such as the African Union (AU), which has recently released its Climate Change and Resilient Development Strategy and Action Plan (2022-2032). This strategy aims to provide a framework for a sustainable and climate-resilient Africa. It is here where Morocco’s abundance of fertiliser and agricultural development expertise can be drawn on by the continent when seeking to achieve the goals of this strategy.
Africa holds 60 per cent of the world’s arable land and will play an integral future role in feeding the world’s population – 25 per cent of which is projected to be African by 2050. It is with these facts in mind that increase the need for reliable food systems and agricultural input for Africa and the world, which will continue to be impacted by climate change, persistent food insecurity, soil erosion and desertification. These processes demand reliable and African-led food security solutions of which Morocco’s fertiliser production capacity seems suited.
Africa’s fragile food systems have been further exposed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has disrupted food supplies to African countries that rely on both Ukrainian and Russian fertiliser, wheat, and other food imports. Similar to Morocco, Russia is also a top phosphate fertiliser exporter, and recent economic sanctions against Russia has posed significant challenges to global supplies. This further elevates the critical role that Morocco’s fertiliser diplomacy will have for Africa’s food security.
Morocco’s prevalence in continental affairs is a far cry from its past absence in Africa’s development, caused by its withdrawal from the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, in 1984. Under King Mohammed VI and since joining the African Union in 2017, Morocco has sought a stronger engagement with African states across multiple sectors. This is premised on south-south cooperation and creating mutually beneficial economic links, particularly with Sub-Saharan and West African states. However, Morocco’s expansion in continental affairs goes beyond mutual economic benefit. Political motivations are naturally at play, as King Mohammed VI seeks a greater role on the continent. Morocco’s continued territorial dispute with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic over the resource rich Western Sahara must also be noted as a critical political motivation to Morocco’s shifted involvement in Africa.
Morocco’s ambitious foreign policy has seen it emerge as a vitally important geopolitical actor with tangible African-led solutions to the issues of food security and agricultural development. This is vital for African states which have historically been coerced to rely on external forces for their food security. The significance of Morocco’s fertiliser diplomacy is better appreciated when understanding the often-devastating track record of foreign interference in Africa. Morocco’s fertiliser diplomacy is the embodiment of “African Solutions to African Problems”, where Africa and its people have the necessary resources to address the issue of food security. As more attention is drawn to food security as an existential problem, so too will fertiliser diplomacy become a more relevant solution. States with relevant capacity in fertiliser production should adopt fertiliser diplomacy within their foreign policies, with Morocco providing a gold-standard framework for an effective and influential fertiliser diplomacy.
Hamish Sneyd is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.