Fertilizer interventions have attained prominence in rural poverty reduction programs in Africa. Using data from maize plots operated by small farmers in western Kenya, we find a von Liebig-type relationship between soil organic matter (SOM) and maize yield response to nitrogen application. Low SOM commonly limits the yield response to mineral fertilizer application. Although fertilizer is, on average, profitable in our sample, on roughly one-third of the plots degraded soils limit the marginal productivity of fertilizer such that it becomes unprofitable at prevailing prices. Moreover, because poorer farmers most commonly cultivate soils deficient in SOM, fertilizer interventions might be less pro-poor than is widely assumed and may instead reinforce ex ante income inequality.

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