Accra — A group of smallholder farmers from the south of Rwanda has won recognition for its efforts to supply the government with high-quality seeds that are improving yields of maize and legumes all over the country.
Impabaruta, a cooperative of smallholder farmers in Kamonyi district in the county's Southern Province, has been named the 2013 African Farmer Organisation of the Year, beating over 60 contestants from all over Africa.
"Our main aim is to restore livelihoods by ensuring that our people have food on the table despite challenges brought about by climate change," said Manass'e Mpangazehe, the chairman of Impabaruta.
In recent years Rwanda has experienced floods and droughts that have had devastating effects on poor farmers. According to the Rwanda Environment Management Authority, flooding during the rainy season in 2012 caused 37 deaths and huge losses for crop and livestock farmers.
The general development of the country, including its agricultural sector, was dealt a devastating blow by the 1994 massacre of more than 800,000 people. Now, as the population, currently about 12 million, continues to grow, space for farming is diminishing even as the need for food increases.
Impabaruta was recognised for its good governance, its market access strategy of having farmers pool their produce to sell as a group, and for involving women and young people in its activities.
The annual African Farmer Organisation Award recognises a group that has demonstrated an ability to improve the livelihoods of the poor in Africa.
The award, given this year on November 28 in Accra, is organised by two nongovernmental organisations, African Investment Climate Research (AFRICRES) and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
"We are convinced that smallholder farmers can make a difference," said Fadel Ndiame, lead coordinator for the Farmer Organisation Support Centre in Africa, a programme set up by AGRA, during the award ceremony.
TECHNOLOGY, CAPITAL KEY
But smallholder farmers face a number of challenges, including access to technology and sufficient capital, he said. "The only way make the difference is to have them work in groups," he said.
Impabaruta was founded in 1998, with just 10 members, most of them smallholder farmers who owned plots of less than a hectare to two hectares (5 acres).
The group's collective land holdings continued to grow from 11 hectares (27 acres) in 2010, producing 40 tonnes of seed annually, to 60 hectares in 2012, with a yield of 138 tonnes of seed. At this point, the government of Rwanda recognised it as the most exemplary cooperative in professional management.
Impabaruta now has a membership of 678 smallholder farmers in 2013, two-thirds of them women.
On their plots, members grow maize and beans for seed, which is collected and sold by the cooperative.
"We have employed agronomists to ensure that we produce the right seed quality," said Mpangazehe.
The highest quality seed is sold to the government, with whom the group has a permanent contract. The rest of the seed is sold back to the growers at a reduced rate.
According to experts, seed is one of the least expensive farm inputs, but its quality is an important factor in influencing crop yields.
"Seed is the genesis of everything, and therefore the foundation of life. Poor seed will definitely result in poor yields," said Nicholas Biekpe, managing director of AFRICRES.
According to Ndiame, increasing agricultural production is Africa's most urgent need, given shifting climatic conditions and the growing population.
Impabaruta offers small loans to members to enhance their productivity by increasing their acreage under seed production. The cooperative has invested in irrigation facilities that can be shared across several farmers in shifts.
"This has enabled us sustain productivity, particularly in dry seasons," said Mpangazehe.
AFRICRES's Biepke described the award competition as a motivational tool to help farming groups maintain professional standards, be more productive, and remain accountable to their members.
The judges were looking for innovative techniques that help smallholder farmers develop resilience to climate change, access credit or financing, improve their productivity and access markets for their farm produce.
"In order to help set rural communities on a path from dependency to resilience, we need new solutions to the combined challenges of extreme poverty and extreme climate (impacts)," said Eric Danquah, a professor at the University of Ghana.
Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi and specialising in agriculture and environment reporting. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.