After serving as mayor of Taba commune in current Kamonyi District, Manase Mpagazehe abandoned his career in banking and politics to emerge one of the most successful farmers in Rwanda.
Mpagazehe (middle standing with overcoat) and cooperative members display the trophies won last week.
Impabaruta, an agriculture cooperative he chairs, was recently named African Farmer Organisation of the Year 2013 in Accra-Ghana.
Mpagazehe grew up in a family where farming was the main source of livelihood.
"My parents were subsistence farmers and used to grow a variety of crops. That is how they raised money to pay my school fees. I never went far with education, I went up to Senior Five, which was reasonable education during our time," he says.
As a child, Mpagazehe's parents advised him to embrace farming, since it guaranteed profits throughout the year.
He remembers his parents taking him to the garden every morning to dig before going to school. The experience prepared him for his lifetime job. Today, Mpagazehe is one of the most successful farmers in his district and the country in general.
How he started
Born in 1959 in Gacurabwenge Sector of Kamonyi District, Mpagazehe, is married with five children-three girls and two boys. He dropped out of school in 1978 and started working with Banque Populairie du Rwanda (BPR).
He was in the department that was operating a credit line to support farmers, an experience that motivated him to be a farmer.
"I never considered agriculture as a commercial activity, but planted maize and beans to feed the family and sold some," he says.
His days at BPR ended during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. He, however, was given a job to work as Taba Commune Bourgemetre (mayor) when sanity returned in the country after the liberation war and Genocide.
"I was serving as interim Taba Bourgemestre. I later quit and joined an agriculture cooperative known as Impabaruta. We have since mobilised women and youth to join us and have a micro-finance cooperative to sustain our agriculture. Today I farm on more than 80 hectares of land."
Mpagazehe also owns several hectares of banana plantations from where he earns millions of francs every year.
"I am one of the most successful banana growers in the country. A bunch of banana from my garden weighs over 180 kilogrammes. I share the knowledge and skills of banana growing with fellow Rwandans. I teach banana growing and management in most districts in the country," he notes.
"Farming is the secret behind my my success. I expanded my farming activities and continued leasing land for farming. I planted bananas, onions, yams and tomatoes," he adds.
Managing the farm
Mpagazehe says he manages his farm with his son and wife and the other people he employs. He employs modern farming methods and applies artificial fertilisers.
"It is a full-time job. I am always busy with the cooperative work band, I have left my son to take control of the banana plantation. He is a promising farmer and you may mistake him for a professional," he says.
Mpagazehe, however, says he hires agronomists from time to time to make sure he doesn't go wrong.
He lauded the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and its partners for the enormous support towards enhancing food security and poverty eradication.
He said they were benefiting from the services of Volunteer Extension Officers trained by Rwanda Rural Rehabilitation Initiative (RWARRI), an NGO supported by AGRA.
"RWARRI agronomists have been instrumental in the development of the cooperative. They advise farmers and cultivate the habit of saving to be able to expand their farms," Mpagazehe says.
Mpagazehe said projects supported by AGRA continue to improve the living standards of farmers.
"The projects give us life skills which are essential for development. Look at the trophies we won in Accra, Ghana. The brains behind the success were AGRA supported agronomists," he says.
Marketing and benefits
Mpagazehe hailed the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) for buying his produce at a good price.
Unlike other people who are decrying high food prices, Mpagazehe has food stocks in his home.
"I do not buy food at home. Apart from the dividends I get from the cooperative, I harvest several tonnes of bananas for sale every year," he narrates.
From the sale of his produce, Mpagazehe has managed to construct decent residential houses. He has also educated all his children up to university.
"All my children are doing well. This is attributed to the firm economic background I created with my farming activities.
Mpagazehe says he faces some challenges, particularly lack of enough skilled manpower. He also cites inadequate capital and delayed payment by clients.
"We borrow money from banks and when we are not paid in time, interest accumulates. We have also failed to control drought and floods, so we make unnecessary losses," he says.
Mpagazehe says one of his great est achievements was to mobilise the youth to embrace agriculture instead of languishing in towns looking for white-collar jobs.
"The youth should return to the villages and utilise the idle land for agriculture. I am rich because of farming," he says.
Mpagazehe has called upon the government to support farmers, especially by teaching them modern farming skills.
Bellange Uwizeye, RWARRI agronomist, praised Mpagazehe, saying he had managed to organise his cooperative to unbelievable levels.
Uwizeye says Mpagazehe's projects provided an opportunity for district farmers to gain more knowledge and share their experiences with other farmers across the country.
"We are committed to support ing farmers. Our aim is to improving productivity and market access among smallholder farmers in Eastern and Southern provinces. But, for sure, Mpagazehe has been excellent in conceptualising the idea," he notes.
Uwizeye said the farmers were not given the African Farmer Organisation of the Year Award (AFOYA) by accident.
"Impabaruta Cooperative, under the leadership of Mpagazehe, has been outstanding. We gave them short notice about the competition and they emerged the best on the continent. They have been doing well in our agriculture revolution. They are very good cereal growers applying all techniques to manage a cooperative," he said.