Undulating hills with lush green vegetation characterise most parts of Rwanda, which is on the brink of an agricultural revolution.
Forests and banana plantations line up most roads in the hilly country. And in the valleys, in between one hill and the other, there are paddy rice, maize, and vegetables.
Seeds of Gold was in Rwanda last week, driving to Rugunga in Kisagara District, some 140km from Kigali, the capital.
In Rugunga, as in other parts of the country, farmers are organised into co-operative societies. The farmers grow maize, beans and vegetables throughout the year on a wetland.
The maize is planted on raised furrows and sweet potatoes are grown around them, on the edges of raised soil beds to prevent erosion.
All this is done through the co-operatives, which are vibrant and well-managed. They use them to access inputs, trainings and market.
Boniface Nayigisiki, who heads Kojyamugi Cooperative, says the system has helped farmers enhance their income by getting ready market, enabling the farmers to use their proceeds to access benefits like health insurance scheme.
“All farms in Rwanda are organised into irrigation schemes. The land belongs to the government but every farmer is allocated a small piece where to grow crops through co-operatives,” Nayigasiki explains.
During planting, farmers get subsidised fertiliser and seeds from the government, which they plant and deliver to the sacco for marketing after harvesting.
Established over 11 years ago, Kojyamugi Cooperative has over 4,000 smallholder farmers who grow maize on 529-hectare stretch of wetland.
The co-operative is further subdivided into smaller groups consisting of 15 members to facilitate easy training. Each group has its own leadership.
“Our members harvest more than 1,200 metric tonnes of maize every season part of which we sell to a baby food processing company called the African Improved Foods while the rest is milled and sold to locals,” the co-operative chairman explained, adding that last year, they sold over 800 metric tonnes of maize to the food processor.
Farmers are paid 260 Rwandan Francs (Sh32) for a kilo of maize, Nayigisiki noted.
“Before the co-operative was formed, everyone was looking for his own market which was hectic as middlemen took advantage of most of us. Through the co-operative, however, we have an organised marketing system and curbed post-harvest losses.”
Rwanda owes its agricultural success to well-organised saccos, which have since rose from about 2,500 in 2010 to more than 8,000, according to the Rwanda Cooperative Agency. The country has also a strong National Agricultural Policy that prioritises technologies that increase yields, reduce post-harvest losses and improve quality, along with climate-smart and nutrition-sensitive approaches.
Over the last decade, more than two-thirds of the country’s population has successfully relied on agriculture for work and food. The transformation now ranks Rwanda among the top five potato producing countries in Africa, producing about 2.24 million metric tonnes of the commodity every year, compared to Kenya’s 2.19 million metric tonnes.
The latest Africa Agriculture Status Report (AASR) released last week during the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Kigali, ranked Rwanda the highest in dedication to agricultural growth, followed by Mali, Morocco and Ethiopia.
The performance of the countries are measured using an Africa-wide framework known as the “Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme” drafted in 2003 to serve as a blueprint on how to accelerate agricultural growth in the continent.
The blueprint recommends an allocation of at least 10 percent of national budgets for agriculture, and 1 percent of agricultural income to be spent on agricultural research.
But very few countries have come close to meeting these targets, according to the AAS 2018 report.
The average land holding for a common Rwandese small-scale farmer is estimated at 0.7 acres, while the effective use of that land is 0.3 acres per household. Limited land access has not barred the tiny country, however, from being an agricultural powerhouse.
Fulgence Nsengiyumva, the State minister in-charge of agriculture in Rwanda, reckons that besides land, water and population, a country needs strong policies to strengthen its development agenda.
“We recently revised our agricultural policies and developed a strategic plan for agricultural transformation to enhance productivity in rural areas. We also have extension service personnel who work and train farmers on disease management and proper agronomic practices,” Nsengiymwa says.
Boaz Keizire, the head of policy and advocacy at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), says that while farm inputs such as fertilisers can address land degradation issues and high quality seeds could improve productivity, he argued that political goodwill from the government of the day is critical agricultural transforming.
Dr Kirimi Sidi, a Kenyan scientist heading the International Potato Centre in Rwanda, notes that the country’s potato sector has grown massively due to flexible seed regulations that allow seed multipliers to ply their trade without restrictions.
“When we started engaging local farmers to grow orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, farmers here were managing three to five tonnes per hectare, today after training them and giving them high quality planting materials they are able to get up to 12-17 tonnes per hectare on average even without using fertiliser,” observes Dr Sidi, adding that farmers are linked with wholesale buyers, an idea that makes their venture very remunerative.
Dr Sidi notes that for Kenya’s potato sector to thrive like Rwanda, policies must be designed to allow smallholder potato farmers to grow what is called quality declared planting materials, so that they can multiply and sell the seeds without being asked to produce certificate or licence.
“This is what has transformed potato farming sectors in Rwanda and Tanzania.”
Prof Hatibu Nuhu, Agra’s regional head urged African governments to prioritise farmer-led irrigation in rural areas to make farming remunerative so that people do not have to migrate to urban areas for jobs.
The Africa Agriculture Status Report (AASR) ranked Kenya eight out of the 47 AU member states that submitted their progress status.
The country scored 4.8 points out of 10.
Although the report indicates that Kenya is headed in the right direction, the country is still lagging on various fronts, for instance there is low fertiliser usage rate which stagnates at 6.2kg/ha instead of the recommended 50kg/ha.
Growth of agriculture trade record is also at -2 percent due to less production and poor bilateral trade policies.