The smallholder farmers feeding the long food supply chain in Rwanda

Rwanda is one of the smallest countries in East Africa, but one of Africa’s most densely populated nations. It has the highest bean consumption per capita globally, followed by Burundi, and is the second-largest per capita consumer of bananas.

On a Thursday afternoon, under the scorching sun, hundreds of farmers 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 the business of 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 the country’s agricultural sector has faced for ages.

An agronomist and researcher at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Mr 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 to provide real-time data on the incidence of Banana Xanthomonas Wilt disease,” Mwizerwa said.

He added that farmers who do not own a smartphone 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 that he sells to farmers in his home area in Bugesera at Rwf 60,000 ($59).

“This drastically reduces the cost of production for farmers. It has made irrigation possible in some remote areas where electricity 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,” Mr Haragirimana said.

Harvest Day

But these are only a small representation of what is happening behind the curtains in the struggle to feed 12 million in the predominantly agricultural country, where 72 percent of the working population is employed in agriculture.

Largely a subsistence agricultural country — much like the rest of the East African Community partner states — there is 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 century-old practice, and the food is communally shared in a large flat basket to reflect Rwanda’s food production.

The food mostly includes beans, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, maize, green vegetables, cassava, and sorghum cake — the most productive crops in Rwanda, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Rwanda, ranked the highest in bean consumption per capita globally, with an average resident consuming 34.8kg, is followed by neighbouring Burundi, where an average person consumes 31.5kg. The country also consumes a lot of banana, which is grown at different levels by at least 90 percent of households, according to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

Rwanda is ranked the second-largest consumer of banana in the world, with an average Rwandan consuming about 227kg of banana per year, according to the Helgi Library which utilises data from the FAO corporate statistical database (Faostat) .

Although 75 percent of Rwanda’s agricultural produce comes from smallholder farmers, the sector employs about 70 percent of the population and contributes to around 30 percent 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 percent of the country’s population is food secure.

Also read: Warning over hunger crisis gets louder in E. Africa

Food production

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, contributes 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.

Take Uganda, for example, 89 percent of the population is food secure. The FAO describes its population as still having normal access to food from own production as food prices in the market are affordable and have an “acceptable food consumption score” and can afford at least three meals per day of a diversified diet.

In contrast to Kenya, 36.5 percent 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, although this is a shared problem. Nevertheless, agriculture accounts for 65 percent of the country’s export earnings, and provides employment for more than 80 percent 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 says, 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 five are stunted. Although the rates of chronic malnutrition among children under five decreased from 44 percent to 38 percent, rates are still too high. It is estimated that 18 percent of children between six and eight months are stunted, and 49 percent for children aged 18-23 months are stunted, with children in rural areas are more stunted than those in the city.

Part of the reason for stunted growth in Rwanda is high poverty rate, where more than 30 percent of the population is under the poverty line. Farming, perhaps unsurprisingly, has become one of the frontlines in the battle against poverty and hunger.

Agriculture jobs

One of the high-profile figures in this fight is Gerard Sina, 59, who has created more than 280 full-time jobs and 600 part-time jobs in Rulindo District, where he was born.

Mr Sina, who started his business when he was only 20, has also built a school in his home area, with the nursery to secondary sections, where learners study free, even those in boarding school.

His successful career started from his parents’ sweet potatoes harvest in 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.

Mr Sina, who works with more than 3,000 farming families, 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.

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 for these seeds, bringing 3,000 tonnes of hybrid maize seed, 800 tonnes of wheat and 700 tonnes of soybean every year. Well up to 463,500 farmers now have access to improved seed. One of the many who moved the pieces is the pan-African agricultural organisation the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

In 2009, AGRA, through a grant, supported Rwandan maize farmers with the first hybrid seeds and, later, partnered with the Rwanda Agricultural Board 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.

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