8 November 2012

Rwanda: Farming Rewards

How commercial agriculture restored hope to a former government driver:

When he lost his job as a chauffeur to a government official in 2006, Laurent Hakizimana whose and his family's livelihood depended on his driving skill felt the road had taken a fatal turn. He was not so sure that he could provide for his four children.

"It was challenging, I had gotten used to earning a monthly salary and I didn't know how my family was going to survive the change," he explains, adding "I had nothing in mind that I would do to make us survive the tides that were facing us."

However after the staff layoff that saw him losing his job, the government was fair not to just wave a dry good bye; Hakizimana, now in his 40s, recalls that they were taken for a short training in entrepreneurship after which he received a compensation of Rwf1.5million.

"While undergoing an entrepreneurship training that the government organized for us, my eyes got opened all of a sudden and I realized there was a possible venture that I would undertake. I was determined to go into poultry. I decided that at the end of the training I was going to start a small farm and that's when everything I do today began," Hakizimana further recalls.

His determination didn't waver for after the training he partnered with yet another colleague and they begun to pursue the dream. Although it was not performing as expected, he says he had grasped the idea and he was sure that a little more efforts would yield more success.

"We were making some profits but it was not satisfying but from this exercise, I was sure that poultry farming would deliver. Coupled with another idea of tomatoes that I had learnt from a TV broadcast, I carried out a survey and found it satisfying too; I was resolved to start a comprehensive farm on a small piece of land that I owned in Masaka."

Albeit the commitment, Hakizimana recalls that the compensation money he had got from his former job was out but resulting from his commitment; he sold the only asset he had at the time, his car, and created Masaka Hens farm business.

However the interesting bit about Hakizimana's business transcends the initial hardships for they are faced by almost every start up entrepreneur. Instead it is the picture of commercial agriculture that it holds, portraying the future of agriculture as the backbone of the economy. Hakizimana's farm gives a living example of what agriculture has to turn into if productivity from Rwanda's limited land resource can be maximized. On a plot of land that is slightly less than a football pitch, Hakizimana practices three things at a time; owns an 8x24meter green house from where he grows tomatoes and these are already in harvest time, three poultry houses that carry 1000 chicken each and a storage unit plus a small commercial banana plantation that he says he started just of recent.

"When people visit and witness all the projects that I have on my farm, they are sometimes tricked to think that it is a big plot and maybe that it is very costly to do something similar; but the truth is, the land that I use for all the three is not the size of a football pitch," the farmer says. And concerning profitability, there is nothing that can compare with agriculture if it is done with a business mindset according to Hakizimana. "My harvests cannot in anyway compare with what farmers, who practice it the ordinary way, because I earn about Rwf3million every month and sometimes even more from my small plot."

From the poultry farm for instance, he says that every 1000 layers that he keeps; approximately 900 eggs are collected on a daily basis meaning that he collects about 2700 eggs daily from the farm. Sold at Rwf2, 000, a tray which carries 30 eggs, he collects Rwf180, 000 daily from his eggs totalling to about Rwf5.4million.

This income is only from the eggs before other benefits from his poultry farm considering that none of the by-products of poultry is lost, not even their wastes.

"When I am making the floor for chicken, I use wood remains that I have to change frequently to ensure hygiene and on every change, the wastes are bought each sack at Rwf2000. Earning from these sales of manure mostly run the entire business," discloses Hakizimana.

The green house that accommodates close to 1000 tomato plants produces 400kg in very week's harvest. This sold on a market that offers a minimum price of Rwf500 is yet another profit for the commercial farmer that he is. All the achievements however have come at a high pay for the farmer. "Sometimes I spend more than a week without being with my family while I am busy with the farm and this is just a bit of the price that I have had to pay to get to where I am today," he says.

Whilst commercial agriculture is a profitable venture, Hakizimana also agrees that there still remain challenges to his farm which one would look at as a model farming project.

Limited skills in dealing with farming activities in a businesslike manner are one of the top challenges that still face Masaka Hens farm. "I am no school graduate and my knowledge of some of the practices is limited which most of the times challenge my efficiency," notes Hakizimana.

He says that in case the authorities would assist and offer him opportunities of going for study trips elsewhere to experiment best practices in his domain in the region, there is a potential for lowering his costs of operations and thus increase his productivity plus raise the income.

Another challenge is limited funds to produce enough or as Hakizimana puts it, "few farmers are engaging in the use of highly productive methods like the greenhouse which makes such produces as tomatoes and chicken scarce on the market. There should be a wide advocacy plan to interest more people or reinforce those that are already trying to make results." This to him continues to be a challenge that is resulting wastage of land resources.

He acknowledges that utilities of water and electricity are still expensive for his production. "Electricity to run my small business is expensive. If we could have the grid extended into the area; it would, apart from boosting production, benefit us to grow the business's profit margin."

However an eye at Hakizimana's books of accounts reveals the magic, commercial agriculture is the way forward for the Rwandan farmer and if there is going to be an increased production of market demanded produce other than just the traditional foods.

The spread production of similar food crops in the region is what the Trade and Industry Minister François Kanimba recently poked as being the pest eating on the growth of intraregional trade in East Africa. "The issue is that what we produce is almost the same region over and this is why trade amongst us is not doing well because there is nothing one produces specific from the other."

But for the Rwandan farmers to adopt to change and embrace these new technologies like green house farming and keeping of animals that were not so popular traditionally like pigs and chicken; it still calls for harder efforts. "Many farmers still want to do things the old way which doesn't yield any longer," Gasana Valence an agribusiness student at the University of Rwanda says. According to Gasana it calls for a stronger effort in terms of advocacy and extending support to those already taking the route in order to demonstrate the profitability of the methods.

"Rwandans kind of love copying things other learning them first hand, if farmers already engaging in commercialized farming that best utilizes the scarce land are given adequate support; more others would in the long run adopt from them resulting increasing the contribution of agriculture to the economy, from just being a livelihood to being a big financial resource," urges Gasana.

The benefits of commercial farming according to Gasana are far reaching. "For instance when you look at challenges of soil destruction, they are not so prevalent with new technologies such as green house agriculture since just a small piece of land is put under use while even the administration of the chemicals done very scientifically."

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