On a Thursday afternoon, under the scorching sun, hundreds of farmers were lined up in Kigali’s suburb, Mulindi, known to be a junction of cheap fresh food from different parts of the country.
Energetic and enthusiastic, they got down to business selling fresh from-the-garden foods. Among them was Charles Mwizerwa. He isn’t a farmer. He is an innovator who had showed up to present different solutions to the challenges Rwanda’s agricultural sector has faced for ages.
An agronomist and researcher at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Mwizerwa talked about an application called ICT4BXW, which, he said, has helped smallholder farmers across Rwanda combat banana disease.
“Over 8,000 smallholder farmers have downloaded the app, and they teach others about the information they find there. The ICT4BXW is an ICT-based tool with information in Kinyarwanda that acts like an early warning system that provides real-time data on the incidence of Banana Xanthomonas Wilt disease," Mwizerwa explained.
He added that farmers who do not own a smart phone can call 845 toll-free and learn about banana farming and how to fight diseases.
“This will increase food security in the country. About 20,000 farmers have used the platform,” he said.
Morris Haragirimana, another innovator, has gone in a different direction. He has developed a solar powered irrigation system which he sells to farmers in his home area in Bugesera at Rwf 60,000 (US$59).
"This drastically reduces the cost of production for farmers. It has made irrigation possible in some remote areas where the electricity grid has not yet reached. This system is durable and farmers who buy it no longer need to worry about electricity or fuel bills. It is environment friendly and requires little maintenance," Haragirimana said.
But these are only are only a small representation of what is happening behind the curtains in the struggle to feed 12 million in this predominantly agricultural country, where 72 per cent of the working population is employed in agriculture.
Big on beans, bananas
Largely a subsistence agricultural country --- much like the rest of the East African Community --- there’s now talk of a “silent agricultural revolution” taking place in Rwanda.
Every first Friday of August, Rwandans gather in their communities to celebrate the National Harvest Day, “Umuganura” — meaning “thanksgiving day”. It is a centuries-old practice and the food communally shared on a large flat basket remains the same and reflects on Rwanda’s food production.
The food mostly includes beans, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, corn, greens, cassava, and sorghum cake—the most productive crops in Rwanda, according to FAO.
Rwanda, ranked the highest in bean consumption per capita globally, with an average local consuming 34.8 kilogramme, is followed by neighbouring Burundi, where an average person consumes 31.5 kilogrammes of beans. The country also consumes a lot of banana, which is grown at different levels by at least 90 per cent of households, according to International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
Rwanda is ranked the second largest consumer of banana in the world, with an average Rwandan consumes about 227 kilogrammes of banana per year, according to the Helgi Library which utilises data from the FAO Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSTAT) .
Although 75 per cent of Rwanda’s agricultural produce comes from smallholder farmers, the sector employs about 70 per cent of the population and contributes to around 30 per cent of the country’s GDP.
In addition to the challenges of climate change and the fact that 90 percent of Rwanda’s terrain is sloppy, which makes it prone to soil erosion and land degradation, the UN reports that 81.3 per cent of the country’s population is food secure.
However, Rwanda’s food production is only a drop in the ocean of what the East African region produces, although production still varies.
Tanzania, for instance, produces more than 80 percent of the total rice production in EAC, with the rest of the members supplying 20 percent, according to the Regional Agricultural Investment Plan (RAIP).
Take Uganda as well, where 89 per cent of the population is food secure. The FAO describes its population as still having normal access to food from own production; food prices in the market are affordable; they have an “acceptable food consumption score”, and can afford at least three meals per day of a diversified diet.
But contrast in Kenya, 36.5 per cent of the population is food insecure. Kenyan farmers whose crops depend on rain are becoming increasingly vulnerable to drought and the unpredictability of weather patterns resulting from climate change, but this is a shared problem.
The Hunger Frontline
Nevertheless, agriculture accounts for 65 per cent of the country’s export earnings, and provides employment for more than 80 per cent of the Kenyan population.
Although Rwanda’s population is generally food secure, the 2021 Global Hunger Index ranks Rwanda 98th out of the 116 countries with a score of 26.4. “Rwanda has a level of hunger that is serious,” the report reads, an outlook compounded by data that shows that stunting has been a persistent issue in the country, despite efforts to eradicate, or at least reduce, it.
The UN estimates that 800,000 Rwandan children under 5 are stunted. Although the rates of chronic malnutrition among children under 5 years decreased from 44 per cent to 38 per cent, rates are still too high. 18 per cent of children between 6-8 months are stunted, and 49 percent for children aged 18-23 months are stunted, and children in rural areas are more stunted than those in the city.
Part of the reasons for stunting in Rwanda is the poverty rate, where more than 30 per cent of the population is under the poverty line. Farming, perhaps unsurprisingly, has become one of the frontlines in the battle against poverty and hunger.
One of the high profile figures in this fight is the renowned Gerard Sina, 59, who has created more than 280 full-time jobs and 600 part-time jobs in Rulindo District where he was born.
Sina, who started his business when he was only 20 years old, has also built a school in his home area, with nursery to secondary sections, where students study for free, even those in boarding school.
His successful career started from his parents’ sweet potatoes harvest of 1983, whose puree Sina used to make his famous Urwibutso doughnuts, kick-starting his success and the transformation of the area where he was born.
Today, he works with more than 3,000 farming families. Sina, a farmer himself, also offers free seeds, fertiliser, training, and buys crops when ready for harvest. His flagship, “Akabanga”, a chilli pepper oil, has gained attention for himself and the country, and is probably one of the most well-known Rwandan products globally.
Getting seeds right
Many pieces have been moved to solve the Rwandan agricultural puzzle. One of them is seeds. After years of spending millions of dollars on seed imports, Rwanda says it has reached its target of becoming a self-sufficient in seeds supply. It is no longer importing maize, soybean, and wheat seeds.
Before 2017, it depended on imports to meet its need of these seeds, bringing 3,000 tons of hybrid maize seed, 800 tons of wheat and 700 tons of soybean every year. Well up to 463,500 farmers now have access to improved seed.
One of the many who helped move the pieces is the pan-African agricultural organisation the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
In 2009, AGRA through a grant, supported Rwandan maize farmers with the first hybrid seeds and, later, partnered with the Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB) in capacity-building of local seed companies under a project named “Securing Early Generation Seed for Emerging Seed Industry in Rwanda.”
Before then, the country relied on imports.
One of the beneficiaries of the programme is Norah Kamashaza, 36. She has two farms in the Eastern province; one in Bugesera and another in Nyagatare, but she also rents out land to grow maize.
Now, she has a significant market in the Eastern province, and sometimes also sells her produce through the government-owned “smart nkunganire” platform, where dealers search for stock and buy at a wholesale price.
At the time of this interview, Kamashaza was at the Special Economic Zone at the factory where they clean and treat her maize before selling it.
“The corn that you see here got harvested this last season. Some got rejected, but what we have here that is certified is 53 tons. It will be transported from here after they finish all the packaging, and distributed,” Kamashaza said.
Previously, Kamashaza was making a profit of Rwf 200,000 (US$195) per season, but now makes Rwf 4million (US$ 3,908), a massive improvement in her fortunes from more advanced methods of farming, and better quality seeds.
Norah Kamashaza in the seed factory that handles her products - Photo Luqman Mahoro
“It has changed due to the experience I got and a lot of training that was given to us by the lab as well as the support we got from AGRA. I gained a lot of knowledge and then started producing four tons that we were adding to the hectare because I would apply new techniques that I was taught, and started to grow maize in a better way,” Kamashaza said.
She has also increased the number of people she employs. “When I first started, I had one permanent employee and a few casual labourers; about 20 of them, that would help work in the field when it was time for planting or weeding. But now, at this level, I have 5 permanent employees and more than 300 casual labourers per season.”
Although it is strewn with good stories, Rwanda’s agriculture sector faces many challenges. The reality of behind the postcard of the celebrated “land of a thousand hills” is a mountainous terrain that other East African countries, barring Burundi, doesn’t have to contend with. It’s prone to high levels of soil erosion and land degradation. Other major hurdles are land constraints due to population pressure. Rwanda is the smallest country in the EAC, and one of the most densely populated in Africa. The average population density is estimated at 274.6 people per square kilometre. It also has weak processing capacity for agricultural produce.
Racing against the odds
It has been in a frantic race against the odds. Several policies and initiatives have been developed, such as the Forest Planting Season and “Umuganda” (community work), where more than 25 million trees were planted during the 2020/21 forest planting season.
In 2019, the National Agriculture Insurance Scheme, where farmers are cushioned against losses caused by disease and accidents, was launched.
The scheme also enables farmers to more easily access financial services and ensure flow of credit to the agriculture sector that was once overlooked by financial institutions.
At a UN Food Systems pre-summit last year, President Paul Kagame said that Africa's food markets are often fragmented, and links to food processing and value addition services are sometimes lacking.
"Africa's food producers do not earn the level of income that they deserve, and they must cope with high level of economic risk and uncertainty," said.
The experts agree. For this to change, the African farmer must be the central theme of all innovations and investments in agriculture.
It is how the continent will end its dangerous over-reliance on food imports, that has dramatically been illustrated by the disruption of wheat grain flows by the Russia-Ukraine war, end malnutrition, and create the desperately critical new jobs needed in the food economy.
This article was first published by The East African.