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How Germany's ban on harmful pesticides could impact Africa

Simone Schlindwein in Kampala, Uganda
January 30, 2023

The German government wants to ban the export of pesticides no longer approved in the European Union. But manufacturers and distributors with their sights set on Africa as a growing sales market are not pleased.

Faustine Magulala pictured spraying eggplant
Faustine Mugalula, a vegetable farmer in Uganda, regularly sprays his crops with pesticideImage: Simone Schlindwein/DW

A pungent smell hits the air as soon as farmer Faustine Mugalula unscrews the lid of the plastic bottle. The fumes cause nausea and vomiting. The small container labeled "ROKET" contains a chemical substance that kills every caterpillar and every bee.

The warning "toxic" appears on the package insert. It shows active ingredients that are no longer approved in the European Union because they are harmful to health and the environment. Yet, they may still be exported to the rest of the world.

Uganda is no exception. "25 milliliters to 20 liters [approximately 0.84 fluid ounces to 5.2 gallons] of water is enough to spray my garden," said Mugalula, tipping the caustic-smelling solution into the canister he straps to his back. He ties a tattered red cloth around his mouth and nose and picks up the spray wand with a trigger on its handle.

A red cloth covers Faustine Magulala's mouth and nose while he handles a bottle of pesticide
Faustine Magulala uses a tattered cloth for protection while working with a harmful pesticideImage: Simone Schlindwein/DW

The gaunt 50-year-old with gray stubble and rubber boots trudges into his vegetable garden and starts spraying his eggplants.

Mugalula's land lies at the heart of a small village in southern Uganda, on the outskirts of the capital, Kampala. He is one of the millions of small-scale farmers in the highly agricultural country who regularly treat their vegetable crops with pesticides. "If I spray pesticides, I have a better harvest," he said. The quality of his output is better, too. "They just look better and I can sell them better." He uses the income to pay school fees for his six children.

Is glyphosate dangerous?

A ban long overdue: health and food safety experts

Profenofos and cypermethrin, the active ingredients in the pesticide which Mugalula applies, have been banned within the EU since 2020. The European Food Safety Authority has said they can cause thyroid cancer. But the chemicals are still allowed to be exported. Europe's leading chemical companies, especially Bayer and BASF in Germany, are market leaders in the worldwide production of crop protection products. 

According to the 2022 Pesticide Atlas of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, more than 17% of German pesticide exports outside the EU are approved for Africa.

For Silke Bollmohr, an expert on food safety and pesticides and scientific adviser to NGOs in Kenya, this is a huge problem. Small-scale farmers in Africa, in particular, do little to protect themselves and their environments when dealing with these poisonous chemicals.

Africa seen as an export market for pesticides

Pesticide use in Africa is still very low compared to other world regions, but manufacturers see the continent as a growing market. "The industry is hoping for this market," said Bollmohr. In the context of the current world food crisis, a narrative is now being spread that food production can be increased only with more pesticides, she added.

Cem Özdemir gestures as he speaks in front of a crowd, standing in front of a green background
German Agriculture Minister Cem Ozdemir is pushing for a ban on harmful pesticides Image: David Young/dpa/picture alliance

German Agriculture Minister Cem Ozdemir intends to stop the export of harmful chemical active ingredients. According to his ministry, a bill is being drafted and may be available in the first half of 2023. However, the ministry has said the active ingredients that will be included are still being clarified.

An export ban is long overdue, according to an open letter sent to Ozdemir by 274 human rights organizations from 54 countries in the Global South in November.

Pesticide ban doesn't make sense, say critics

The warehouse for Uganda Crop Care Limited is located in Kampala's industrial district. Large barrels of glyphosate supplied by Bayer in Germany are unloaded from trucks out front.

The local importer is one of the few companies licensed by the Agriculture Ministry to bring pesticides from German manufacturers into Uganda. Employees use motorcycles parked at the warehouse to deliver the chemicals free of charge to farmers, and to recruit new customers.

Sharad Kumar Singh holds a bottle up in front of posters for his pesticide supply company
Uganda Crop Care Limited director Sharad Kumar Singh imports pesticides from GermanyImage: Simone Schlindwein/DW

Uganda Crop Care director Sharad Kumar Singh was born in India. Photos of Singh and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni adorn the walls of his small office. 

In addition to large-scale farmers, his customers include flower growers who deliver tulips and roses by air freight to Europe and cotton and tea farmers who produce almost exclusively for export and represent an important sector of Uganda's economy.

Singh doesn't think an export ban makes sense. "Like many African countries, Uganda also has a problem with food security," Singh said, warning of a supply gap as countries around the continent lack alternatives.

"Uganda, yes, all of Africa is still suffering from hunger," he told DW. "You have to satisfy hunger first, then you can come up with new regulations."

Uganda's food production vital for the region

Extreme drought has caused the number of people facing hunger in East Africa to rise exponentially. More than 21 million people don't have enough food, and this situation is likely to continue because the soil is dry and hard after a prolonged drought, making sowing impossible.

Uganda is considered the region's vegetable garden. UN aid agencies such as the World Food Program buy food here to supply refugees in the camps in neighboring countries like Somalia, South Sudan, Congo and Ethiopia. Increasing food production in Uganda is, therefore, vital for the survival of the entire region.

Pesticide market subject to little regulation

Jerome Lugumira of Uganda's National Environmental Management Authority welcomes a possible export ban from Germany. The chemist is concerned with the long-term effects of pesticide use. Lugumira heads a team that regularly takes soil samples and represents the environmental agency on a committee of the Agriculture Ministry that decides on import licenses.

"We have a huge problem," said Lugumira. The government doesn't monitor the use of pesticides, and the market is subject to little regulation. As a result, many chemicals have long passed their expiry dates, he added.

"Farmers often misapply the products, for example, in the rainy season, when they are washed away by the rain and then end up in rivers and lakes," he said. In addition, Uganda's approval system is easy to corrupt, he added. A European export ban could remedy that.

After Faustine Magulula is done spraying, a fine mist hangs between his eggplants. He pulls the dirty red cloth from his face and stuffs it in his trouser pocket. He will pull out his spray gun again in two weeks and carry out the same procedure.

This article was adapted from German by Benita van Eyssen