To be able to sustain the food production that has for the last few years rendered Rwanda food secure, government introduced a number of policies, some of them have come under scrutiny with suggestions that people were being ordered on how to use their land. The New Times' Felly Kimenyi interviewed Agriculture Minister
Dr Agnes Kalibata to expound on these claims and other issues concerning the agriculture sector. Below are the excerpts.
The New Times (TNT): You may begin by telling us the status of food security in the country...
AK: Since we started the crop intensification programme to increase food security we have not looked back.
We have met a few challenges here and there along the way, like irregular rains but these were not big enough to threaten our position. As we start a new season from season A into B, I see no major problem.
There were challenges in some areas in the beginning of the previous planting season because of the rains that came and then disappeared in some places but I should say everything is on track now.
TNT: Speaking about problems could you be specific and tell us which regions were affected?
AK: When we started the season rains were not so great, in some areas they came and disappeared along the way while in some areas they did not appear at all...here we can talk about areas like Kayonza and Kerehe districts which had problems getting started and some areas in the Southern Province.
But even with those problems, not all crops get affected, it is crops like maize that need a lot of rain at the beginning but for others like beans were not affected because they have a short growing period. I can actually say we had a good bean harvest-probably not as good as we may have wanted, even with the problems we encountered. We are way beyond food security we are working for excess for market.
We are looking at margins for selling for our farmers to see this as a profitable business.
So you will find that in most districts that I mentioned, the crop that was affected most is maize but beans are there.
TNT: Speaking about excess produce for markets, how readily available are the markets for the excess produce?
AK: We have a number of programmes in place to help farmers find market for their food like the commodity purchase programme by the Ministry of Trade which saw the setting up of the Rwanda Grains and Cereals Corporation, and we have the strategic reserve programme which also buys food from farmers and the Purchase for Progress (P4P) programme through which World Food Programme purchases food to supply to its areas of intervention.
We also have a lot of people in the private sector who have increasingly joined the processing industry especially maize processing which they export to neighbouring countries as flour.
We are actually exporting a lot of maize flour in neighbouring countries like Burundi, Congo...it is interesting that we do not export raw maize which is something to be proud of.
These are market opportunities to ensure market for the farmer's produce.
TNT: With all these programmes in place, are farmers getting the best deal, in terms of price for their produce?
AK: Actually Rwandan farmers are getting a very good deal. We have taken advantage of the current food crisis in the East African region. Since 2008 prices have been going up.
We had issues of climate change that affected regional countries like Kenya and Somalia. Besides these, we have countries that depend on us for food because of different situations. We are looking at countries like Congo, Burundi and we have a lot of food that we export to Sudan.
All these are markets for our farmers and this comes with a sense of competitiveness that translates into good prices.
This has in turn facilitated us to successfully push for the crop intensification programme simply because farmers have buyers for what they are producing.
So the key commodities that we produce like maize, beans, potatoes, cassava, all these have buyers.
And of course we have produce like bananas that we consume locally. I remember a few years ago we were importing them from neighbouring countries like Uganda but now all we consume is locally produced and all these are market opportunities.
TNT: Last year, when the Prime Minister visited Minimex, a major maize miller, it emerged that this factory was importing corns from Tanzania to process flour....
AK: I don't know if this is still the case but what I can say is that anybody who goes into this kind of business is required to have adequate storage facilities to ensure constant supply of raw materials all year around.
We have two seasons a year so if you want to continue processing during off-season, you may want to have enough storage facilities and these are some of the challenges our millers face. Some are forced to stop milling during off season which should never have been the case if they had enough storage.
Stopping to produce after some point does not necessarily mean that there was not enough produce the previous season, it is just that the produce was there but was bought off by others.
That is why, even as a country we have the national strategic reserves to turn to in case of shortage. I think Minimex has also identified the problem and are dealing with it to ensure that they purchase in abundance at harvest.
TNT: Crop intensification and land consolidation have been criticized by some misconceiving it to be robbing people of the ownership of their own land....
AK: Crop Intensification Programme has a number of pillars and one of them is land consolidation, which is supposed to work out of an understanding between different members of a given community and we work on the principle of cooperatives where groups of farmers sit and agree on what they are going to grow the next season.
This is matched with what we have as priority crops. As a country, we promote certain crops because of the value we see in them. So sometimes you find a mismatch between the crops we are trying to promote and what the farmers want...may be a certain farmer is not interested in land consolidation...but it is a public policy that has to be implemented.
We have spend a lot of time trying to explain to farmers and it has worked; showing them the benefits of say growing one commodity on a large scale as opposed to growing so many on a small scale.
Again you find places where local leaders have not probably explained better and this is when you find conflict, which also at times happens because of some overzealous local leaders who will just tell the farmer to put on their land a certain crop without a proper explanation which may lead to misconceptions.
We need a very solid way of explaining to farmers so that it becomes a change process as opposed to have a forced process, to ensure farmers can embrace these policies because of the good they see in them.
If we force them to embrace them, it will not be sustainable in the long run because they will only do it when you are there and when you leave they will go back to their old ways.
TNT: It is said that government is too much into farmers' management of their day-to-day affairs rather than concentrating on policy issues....
AK: Getting involved in what farmers do on a daily basis is part of our policy mainly for two reasons; one because we want to see change in how the farmers do business in terms of production and productivity and two, because we are determined to eradicate poverty from these farmers.
When you look at poverty numbers in our country... poverty levels are still high and a huge section of our population is dependent on agriculture.
If we concentrate, work with these people then we shall see change happening faster and that is the job I am paid to do-the difference between me and the farmer is the knowledge and exposure we have, which we have to use to lift them out of poverty.
TNT: There has been an issue of middlemen. Farmers complained a few years ago that they were ripping them off because of a disconnect between farmers and the market...
AK: With the immergence of all these bodies involved in commodity purchase, these problems have gradually been eradicated...these problems mainly happened because of lack of competition or even because farmers did not know any better.
They have now been organised into cooperatives and this has elevated their negotiating power...they negotiate directly with the people who want to buy their produce, if they are unhappy with the price today, they do not sell because they are assured of a better price from another buyer tomorrow.
It is different from when a farmer had one tonne than opposed to when they have 100 tonnes. Through cooperatives, they have the volumes to help them negotiate for a better deal.
The volumes also mean that one buyer would be interested in going to them instead of them going to the market, the market goes to them.
We also have other mechanisms like the minimum price set for every commodity, and the E-Soko system that allows farmers to know, using their telephones the prices elsewhere. So every farmer now has an idea of the price in the market.
TNT: There were concerns raised by REMA (Rwanda Environment Management Authority) on the environmental impact of using inorganic fertilisers, should Rwandans be concerned?
AK: I do not believe it is the belief of REMA but rather some people in the institution...even in my different interactions I have encountered people having different views concerning the use of organic or inorganic fertilizers.
Personally I have tried and failed to come across a scientific justification on the dangers associated with use of inorganic fertilisers, some time people go into these arguments on emotional basis while others go into it on a perspective of promoting organic fertilizers which is the fancy thing to do these days.
This is mainly because organic foods in the developed world is the appealing thing but we forget the principle that anything you do in excess will always have negative implications - including eating excessive food.
Inorganic fertilisers are perfectly ok to use for crop production...they are used everywhere else in the world, today in Rwanda we are using 30kgs of these fertilisers per hectare while in the developed world-where food security is even no longer an issue for discussion, they are using 100-140kgs on the same land.
So you can see, even as we try to optimise productivity for a country like Rwanda where yield per unit is extremely important, we are still very far from what we could do going by what other countries are doing.
These people in the developed world who use this amount of the fertilizers also care about their health.
What I can tell you is that these fertilisers are very fine. We are not introducing any new element in the soil; its phosphates, its calcium, nitrogen, potassium, and these are elements that are already in the soil.
If we were to use organic fertilizers as some people are proposing, for this area where you use 100kgs-by which we are far in Rwanda, you would need 10,000kgs of organic fertilisers to have the same yield.
We are actually not near from where we should be, my target is having at least 100kgs used if we are to comfortably feed our population and this is how we have managed to get where we are in as regards food security; it is not a miracle that happened.
100kgs has world over been approved as not being near any threat. We are not operating in a vacuum; we are operating in a world where studies and research and all sorts of things have been carried out.
So I do not think that the ministry of agriculture of Rwanda is interested in harming the country's land and its people.
TNT: You have given yourselves a target of having the country self-sustaining in as far as rice production is concerned by 2017. How far have you gone and what is being done to ensure quality is not compromised by the zeal to have mass production?
AK: In terms of rice production, what is needed is very straight forward-more irrigation means more land available for rice production. Today we are producing about 55,000 tonnes of milled rice-when you factor in our increasing population, you can put this production at two-thirds of what is needed to sustain ourselves.
So the more resources we put into marshland development, the better and we have dedicated a whole project to do that -the RSSP (Rural Sector Support Project)-is working to ensure that more marshlands are put into rice production.
This is paying off when you look at it in the regional context, our farmers are producing more than two times what farmers in the region are getting on the same land. Our farmers are responding to the fact that we do not have much land, meaning they have to optimally use what they have.
They also have good supply of water from the various irrigation schemes.
The combination of these factors - increasing land for rice production like the target we have of at least developing 2000 hectares every year for the next five years, and optimum production on the available land will see us there.
Concerning quality, we no longer have a problem, we have worked with the Ministry of Trade to address a number of issues concerning quality, especially the small mills that were being used by the farmers and these have since been replaced by modern processing units and I should say this issue of quality has been addressed.
You have probably seen Rice Mart stores across the country where well processed and packaged rice is being sold and that is purely Rwandan rice.
TNT: The private sector has been reluctant to venture into agriculture on a large scale...what do you think has been the cause?
AK: There are a number of reasons but then you cannot say that the private sector has entirely been on the peripheries, they have been on board but at may be a much lower scale that where we want them to be.
As for large scale investments, there are a number of factors that have discouraged the private sector to come on board, one being the fact that agriculture is being seen as a risky venture.
The risk factor is being removed like the introduction of insurance in agriculture and a number of facilities in place to boost investment in agriculture and we are seeing the perception gradually changing.
We have also introduced public-private partnerships in agriculture. Sometimes it is not easy to have people change perception so you have to guide them in the process, through such partnerships because when you look at the reason you find minimal participation of the private sector in this sector is not because they lack the capacity to invest, but the knowledge on how worthwhile and profitable this investment is.
TNT: The impact of the quarantine imposed on animals in the Eastern Province due to foot-and-mouth disease has continued to hurt people in the area....
AK: The reason this problem prevailed for longer than foreseen-we have not had a quarantine before that went on for more than one month-is that the cows that had this disease were inside the Gabiro Military Barracks area and we told the owners that these cows should be contained and treated from there and immunised those outside the area.
The problem came when people continued moving with their cows in and out of Gabiro instead of enforcing the quarantine and this escalated the problem.
Now we have agreed with all parties concerned that we identify all the animals with signs of the disease and have them slaughtered to remove any concerns of affecting others, before the quarantine is lifted.
Otherwise we have a lot of farmers that were defaulting on the quarantine system which kept the disease spreading.
And this was not made easy by some local leaders who instead of enforcing the quarantine, decided to side with the farmers and this has hurt the farmers more in the end.
This is a pandemic problem you can not joke around with. But I think by the end of this week (last week) we shall have identified and removed all the cows that are affected and we shall give ourselves time to monitor the situation.
But we shall not lift the quarantine even if there is one animal that is sick. So it is hurting everybody but this level of indiscipline, not being able to respect such measures has come with consequences.