Rwanda slowly resorting to agricultural research to improve productivity
According to the Finance Minister John Rwangombwa, the 2012/2013 budget's main objective will be to build on the past achievements to accelerate growth and poverty reduction.
Looking at the options available to make good of the theme, especially poverty reduction, between now and July 2013, the country will inevitably have to turn to agriculture, arguably the best weapon to helping the local population out of poverty.
The agricultural sector occupies approximately 91.1% of the active population especially women and contributes to 36% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) besides contributing about 70% of the country's export revenue, according to a 2009 situational analysis report of the Rwandan agricultural sector.
And according to Mr. Rwangombwa, the sector has been a key contributor to the reduction of poverty by 12% from 2005/2006 to 2010/2011. Poverty levels are currently at 45% from 57% in 2005/06.
The sector has also ensured Rwanda remains on track to attain one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targets which is to halve the proportion of hungry people by 2015.
"Food security balance sheet from crop assessment survey for 2012 season A indicates that the surplus of food is equivalent to 126,000 metric tons(MT) compared to 82,000MT in 2010/11," says the Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Mr. Ernest Ruzindaza.
Agriculture is also one of the key pillars on which the 2020 Vision is built.
The 2012/2013 fiscal year is a very vital one in as far as the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS) is concerned. It's the year in which the first phase will be closed and the second phase will be developed for launching in 2013.
During the budget speech presentation on June 14, Rwangombwa told the parliament that funding will be allocated with a clear aim of improving weak areas.
However, despite its importance to the economy, the agriculture sector needs help to further boast its capacity especially if it's to serve its full contribution in the fight against poverty.
Damian Mukarwema, 52, a farmer in Gicumbi district located in the Rwanda's Northern Province says the biggest challenge to the area is soil erosion.
"Our biggest challenge is dealing with soil erosion. During heavy rains or winds, most of the soil is washed away and crops break under the pressure as a result," he told the Independent.
Indeed, it has been estimated by a 2009 United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) report on Rwanda's state of environment and outlook that soil erosion results in a loss of 1.4 million tons of soil per year.
The loss of soil represents a decline in the country's capacity to feed some 40,000 people annually, according to the report.
To make matters worse, more than 60% of farm households cultivate less than 0.7 hectare of land. Around half of farm households cultivate less than half a hectare, and more than a quarter cultivate less than 0.2 hectare, according to a report on Rural and Agricultural Financial Services Strategy (RAFSS).
The report adds that, the poorest of Rwandans who are most involved in agriculture, generally own the least land, moreover, most of it highly degraded, and only 23% of cultivated land is more or less free from the risk of erosion and subsequent degradation.
"Soil erosion remains a huge challenge for our farmers largely because of the hilly topography coupled with some poor agricultural practices by our farmers," says Dr. Daphrose Gahakwa, the deputy director general in charge of research at Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB).
The other challenge, says John Rubaza, an agricultural consultant, is weak market linkages between the rural farmers and the buyers.
"We need to invest in market information to ensure farmers have an idea what crop is marketable and where and that way, farmers can be helped to make decisions," says Rubaza who has worked with grain processors in Gicumbi.
Accessing funding for agricultural production in Rwanda also still presents another challenge. At a time when the government is encouraging a shift from subsistence farming to commercially viable practice, both on-field farmers and agro-processors are claiming the financial institutions are playing tight with their money.
One such processor who finds it hard to borrow is Vienne Mbabazi's Cooperative Nzinza--fruit processors in Gicumbi district. A bank asked for at least 30% of the loan the cooperative wanted and other collateral security as a pre-condition for a loan. In July 2011, RAFSS pointed out that indeed, financing agriculture is still an issue.
"The financing of agricultural value chains is the key challenge for rural and agricultural finance in Rwanda, particularly in relation to staple crops," says an excerpt from the report.
Lawson Naibo, the Chief Operating Officer at the Bank of Kigali says that financial institutions are finding it hard to extend funds to farmers despite banks claiming they have money to offer.
"Agriculture is undeniably a key sector for the Rwanda economy but again very risky and requires remarkable caution before investing in it," he says.
A project analyst with the Rwanda Bank of Development(BRD), the major financier of agriculture projects in the country says what farmers don't understand is that farming should be a business and one which carries substantial risks.
"That's why we have risk analysts whose job is to measure profitability chances of a project before we consider funding them," explained the analyst.
That's where the conflict emerges from. Farmers simply don't understand that banks are into business and not a charity drive to dish out money, says Bright Turavugana, a banker.
RAFSS also points to the insufficient processing capacity among farmers even when the gospel is to learn how to add value to raw agricultural products to earn more from the market.
For example in the bean sub-sector which is cultivated by a large majority of Rwandan farmers, who have a long tradition of and strong expertise in bean cultivation, the report says Post-harvest losses are high as there's is only one processor (i.e. bean packer) in the country and the sub-sector is weak in terms of its ability to dry beans coupled with insufficient storage infrastructure.
Naturally, men are generally stronger than women. However, a 2009 study by the agriculture ministry indicated that women in the age group of 15-60 years spend one third of their time in agriculture as compared to 19% spend by men in the same age group.
At this point, two fronts are clear. That while agriculture is so important to this country, it still chocks on a number of bottle necks whose resolution would see the sector contribute even more to the national ambitions.
"What is urgently required for now is to come up with solutions to cover two fronts. On one side, we need to encourage modern farming practices that help farmers control soil erosion, introduce new crops/varieties to optimize output," says Rubaza.
Rubaza adds that, "The other efforts should emphasize post harvest handling including infrastructure for storage, investing in agro-processing and enhancing market information."
What's being done?
According to Dr. Gahakwa who heads a team of researchers at RAB, Rwanda needs agricultural research to improve the farming activities.
"We are doing our best to contribute to our agricultural outlook given its weight to the economy and to be precise, there's no agriculture without research,' she said.
Gahakwa says several research efforts have seen successful breakthroughs in the name of improved crop varieties such as beans, potatoes, rice and maize.
One such a break through concerns the 'Gihingamukungu (97-0620) potato which is tipped to earn farmers an extra income considering its many attributes.
According to Phanuel Ndayemeye, an extension worker researcher with RAB, the potato is the 'future' for Rwandan farmers.
Ndayemeye explains that the potato, which is rich in vitamin A, will be a great boast to nutritional needs of babies and has even more uses in its processed form.
Once dried, the 'Gihingamukungu' as it has been christened by RAB researchers can have its flour used to bake cakes, biscuits or porridge.
"It has a huge market in Belgium where it's used to make biscuits but the problem is we don't have it in viable quantities to actually exploit the market," reveals Ndayemeye.
The other potato variety, RAB says is the CACEARPEDO, which can yield between 25 to 30 tons per acre and matures in just four months. Its processed form has the same uses as the 'Gihingamukungu.
RAB researchers have also been making trials with Yam beans which are very popular in Western Africa. During this year's Agricultural exhibition held in Gasabo district, the yam was on display along with the new potato varieties attracting hundreds of views per day in the week long exhibition that was held under the theme, "accelerating agricultural transformation by promoting Agro processing Industries and post Harvest technologies.
Like the potatoes, the Yam, could equally change Rwanda's food production fortunes.
"If successfully localized and adopted in Rwanda, the Yam's flour can be used to make 'Ubugali', its tubers can be eaten as food while its leaves provide good vegetable source," explained a RAB official who was manning the stall during the exhibition.
Yet despite this Yam's success in countries like Ethiopia, Nigeria and Cameron, there are no farmers yet, for the crop whose marketability is almost assured.
"Our work is to just research and hand the results to other departments whose onus is to popularize varieties," explained Dr. Gahakwa.
There are other varieties such as cassava PDB which RAB says matures in just 15 months, and is 'tolerant' to the troublesome brown stick bacteria which has wrecked most of the local varieties in most parts of Rwanda.
The farmers' federation is already distributing this breed to most members as it has potential to only withstand diseases but also has high output and quality capacity.
Lessons from the Chinese
A bout three hours from Kigali is Rubona village located in the southern province district of Huye, where a facility that has the capacity to restore hope to cultivators has been established.
The US$ 6 million China-Rwanda Agriculture Technology Demonstration Center expected to spearhead modern agriculture technology and demonstration as a way of improving agricultural output was officially opened by Prime Minister Pierre Damien Habumuremyi about two months ago.
At the centre, a result of the 2006 Forum for China-Africa cooperation (FOCAC) held in Beijing, Chinese experts will teach locals the technique of growing upland rice, silculture, paddy rice and mushrooms. They will also train local farmers on simple modern ways of dealing with soil erosion, a major challenge in this hilly country.
"Improved methods of farming will make agriculture more productive, giving farmers more income and helping our economy bridge the huge trade balance gap we currently experience," said premier Habumuremyi during the launch.
Indeed, Rwanda's import receipts have been on a steady rise for the past years, increasing from U$325 million in 2003 to U$1.3 billion by 2010.
It's now hoped that if the new technology can help farmers get more from the land through the use of improved seeds, better soil management and value addition on raw garden crops, it would help garner more export receipts reported to have been just $254 million in 2010.
JUNCAO grass approach against erosion
At the RATDC, Chinese agricultural experts have figured out that by growing crops amidst long rows of reed grass, they could win the battle against soil erosion.
"It's a simple method where one just has to plant rows of the grass and then cultivates the crops in the space between," explains Prof. Lin Prof. Zhansen the director of the centre.
If you don't believe it can work, there's a mechanical experiment at the centre to actually prove the efficiency of this approach.
Two gardens are set out--one with the traditional approach that farmers have been using for years and another using the JUNCAO grass approach.
Then at the end of each garden, there are cemented ponds to receive the soils and water lost from both approaches. In the pond at the end of the traditional garden, a substantial amount of soil and water is seen collected in there with almost nothing in the other pond at the end of the JUNCAO garden. The advantage is this method helps the farmer kill more than two birds with just one stone.
"On top of its main role which is to stop erosion, the grass can also be eaten by the cows distributed under the one family one cow project, the dry leaves which drop off rot into organic manure hence adding value to the soil and most of all, this grass is one of the raw materials used in growing the Jincoa mushroom, another goldmine crop," explains Prof. Lin Zhansen.
Another wonder demonstration at the centre is the project involving the growth of what they are calling the JUNCAO mushroom. It's an organically grown plant, using the dry JUNCAO grass.
Prof. Lin Zhansen says in the next three years, about 600 technicians and 3,000 farmers will be trained in various aspects of using simple modern technology including developing mushrooms.
A kilogram of the JUNCAO mushroom goes for about $2 on the local market and could earn more for the farmer if processed.
Despite the availability of the market, the supply is still not enough to launch a serious commercial campaign.
"What the Chinese are helping us is to develop a viable variety and train local farmers on how to grow it because we have been trying to do so since 2006," says Dr. Gahakwa.
But the centre seems to have made progress as Prof. Lin explains that several cooperatives and institutions have been trained and are already growing the mushroom in several parts of the country.
One such an institution is the Iwawa youth rehabilitation centre on Lake Kivu where students recovering from drug addiction are as part of their remodeling course cultivating mushrooms which they consume.
But Prof. Lin says, between May and November, 2011, the centre produced 25,000 mushroom tubes 4450 of which were given to farmers and cooperatives to launch their own production. Another 10,641 tubes were supplied to extension farmers who were to act as models to others.
The centre is developing several mushroom varieties including the medicinal one called Ganoderma lucidum which can be very helpful to HIV positive people.
The centre has trained over 100 group representatives in processing the grass to develop mushroom tubes, dealing with the crop and after harvest handling that encompasses processing.
Up-land rice cultivation
Rwanda has been involved in Rice farming since 1950 and as of 2008, the production accounted for 66000 tons of paddy rice from 12,000 hectares.
According to Robert Sendege, a rice expert, 99.9% of Rwanda's rice is grown in developed flood valleys or in the marshland, creating an ecological concern to wetlands.
However, Prof. Lin says his centre is looking at possibilities of introducing and popularising up-land rice considering Rwanda has many hills.
The centre in collaboration with RAB is now developing several adoptable varieties to distribute to farmers who they say are organised.
However, the Chinese experts are also involved in paddy rice growing especially in helping farmers better their skills of water conservation.
The centre is also home to many simple Chinese technologies including hand tractors, domestic grain milling machines, and rice harvesting machines which they lend to farmers' groups.
"But farmers organised in cooperatives can pool funds and acquire these simple machines which could help them process their harvested crop and sell with them with added value," explains Lin.
Agricultural funding in budget 2012/2013
In view of what agriculture means to the Rwanda economy, there's an obvious need to fund it more as a sure way of reaching out to as many Rwandans as possible.
In the 2012/2013 budget, Agriculture as a sector was dumped in the general production cluster which includes Trade and Industry as well as Water and Environment to share a total budget of Rwf727.5 billion. Trade and industry is already set to take over Rwf300 billion leaving the balance to be shared by two ministries of Agriculture and that of Water and Environment.
With a strained budget, it's going to be difficult to actually make agriculture realise its full potential.
"Funding remains one of our major problems as researchers, most of the funds from central government serve to meet our salaries and real research has to be funded by grants obtainable through competitive proposals to funders," says Dr. Gahakwa.