Rwanda's agriculture and livestock sector has long been characterised by an ageing farming population whose average age is 55 years. As a result, innovation, creativity and technology adaptation as well as skills transfer has been slow, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI) and agricultural experts.
But lately, some youth have embraced the sector and committed to making it more vibrant in its entire supply chain.
The Rwanda Youth in Agribusiness Forum was formed in May 2016 to bring together young people engaged in commercial farming in the country.
Unlike traditional farming, these youths' focus is commercial farming.
Currently, the organisation has 1,265 members grouped into five clusters namely crop production, livestock production, agro-processing (animal and crops), other agro-services which include packaging, inputs, extension services, mechanissation, among others, and information communication technologies (ICTs) for agriculture.
Eric Manirakiza, a rabbit farmer, founded Impano Rabbitry Company. The 26-year-old is a 2014 graduate in ICT programming at the University of Rwanda's College of Science and Technology.
He told Saturday Times on Monday that he started with 100 rabbits in October 2016, and his colony has already grown to about 600 with modern rabbit farming involving proper record-keeping on the rabbitry population and ensuring hygiene and sustainable productivity.
The rabbitry has an average birth of 200 rabbits per month.
Manirakiza's farm has 80 female rabbits divided into two units of 40 each, he said.
An adult rabbit at his farm gives birth to at least five baby rabbits, he said, and its gestation period (conception to birth delivery) is 30 days. It also breastfeeds its off-springs for 30 days after which the off-springs are weaned and the mother rabbit made to mate again.
The rabbits are sheltered in plastic-covered metallic sheds which let their liquid and solid waste out freely, leaving them well aerated.
After paying farm costs and salaries for his 11 employees, he earns about Rwf700,000 per month from his business. Manirakiza said that his rabbits typically weigh about five kilogrammes at five months and are sold at Rwf8,000 each. Rabbit meat costs Rwf3,000 a kilogramme at the local market and about Rwf6,000 per kg when exported, he said.
His farm, located in Ruhango Sector of Ruhango District in Southern Province, was one hectare at inception but has since grown to five hectares so he can grow enough grass to feed the rabbits.
Manirakiza said that his rabbitry has an ICT system which helps him keep records for his livestock and analyses the database looking at things like when should the rabbits give birth, when should the young ones mate.
"It's like a calendar alert application in a telephone. We enter data into it and it gives us notification, for instance, when there are two days remaining for the rabbits to mate," he said.
His priority is good rabbit hygiene, because he wants to begin selling rabbits to restaurants soon. Hotels in Rwanda are currently reluctant to put rabbit on their menus because there is an unreliable supply of the meat and it is sometimes unhygienic, he said.
Once he starts to get 1,300 kg a month, he will begin selling to hotels, he said. Consumers in Belgium and South Africa have asked him to supply 2 to 15 tonnes of meat per week, but his current production falls far short of such demand.
"Rabbit meat is healthy; it is high in protein and very low in fat, almost zero. In countries like Kenya, rabbits are on high demand," he said, adding that he wants to work with other youth to help meet the demand and create more jobs.
Manirakiza also plans to make manure compost from the liquid waste generated from his farm, currently, they produce about 10 jerry cans (about 200 litres) of liquid waste per day and trials have shown that such manure has very high soil fertilising properties, he said.
Dieudonné Twahirwa ventured into spice farming by growing hybrid chili aimed at the export market.
He graduated from the University of Rwanda in 2012 and is now managing director of Gashora Farm in Bugesera District.
He said that he started growing tomatoes and watermelon on land equivalent to one tenth of a hectare with Rwf130,000 worth of investment and earned Rwf1.3 million from the harvest. But, he said, the tomato produce was highly perishable so he needs ready market to avoid losses.
He said that he later partnered with his friend and grew hybrid chilis, which grow well in Rwanda, on one hectare. They now harvest about 10 tonnes of dried hybrid chili in six months with a kilogramme being sold at $2, which equals to $20,000 (Rwf16.3m) per hectare. The investment per hectare in the same period, he said, is $5,000 (about Rwf4m). He exports chili to India where he said the demand is high. "There are no market limits for hybrid chili," he said. "We were told all the produce we can supply there can be bought."
He employs 12 permanent workers on only four hectares he owns where he grows various spices, including hybrid chili, bird's eye chili, ginger, and butternut squashes. He hopes to expand his farm so he can employ more locals and help reduce food insecurity.
This year, he plans to grow various spices and vegetables on more than 135 hectares, working with farmers under contract.
Germaine Tuyiringire, 30, a resident of Rwamagana District found interest in poultry farming.
She has a 500-chicken farm and makes at least Rwf400,000 per month from chicken sales. Her capital was Rwf1 million.
A chicken weighs 2 to 2 and a half kilogrammes within 60 days and is sold at about Rwf4,000. One kilogramme of chicken meat costs between Rwf2,000 and Rwf2,400 at the local market.
Alexandre Nshimiyimana, is into avocado processing, and makes soap and Vaseline.
He started in 2015 with a production capacity of 50 kilogrammes, but now he said, he produces 500 kilogrammes of soap, equivalent to between 2,000 and 3,000 soaps, with each unit being sold at Rwf500.
The 26-year-old resident of Rugarama Sector in Burera District said that his revenues per month is about 1 million, but the net profit is about Rwf300,000 after deducting all the operational costs.
He employs three permanent workers and about seven day labourers.
"We can make use of Rwanda's agricultural produce through adding value to it and by so doing, we can be economically self-reliant," he said, adding that he wants to enter export market.
The Chairman of RYAF, Jean-Baptiste Hategekimana, told Saturday Times on Monday that RYAF's target is to generate about $56 million from agricultural and livestock exports by youth in agribusiness by 2021.
In the crop production cluster, RYAF targets intensified investment in spices to export, including African bird eye chili, hybrid chili, and hot pepper habanero. They also target the mushroom supply chain, provincial crop farming incubation centres, intensified investment in fruit trees such as avocadoes, mangoes, papaya, citrus, tamarillo (tree tomato) and passion fruits, and in vegetables like watermelons and French beans.
"For us to have efficient monitoring and evaluation, we need to map all youths engaged in agri-business across the country. This will enable proper coordination and ensure that they have reached intended results in what they do because in the end, decent youth employment in their own farm-related businesses, will reduce unemployment challenges for the country and will create more opportunities in crop diversification, reduce food prices and cut the cost of living," he said.
He added that they want to create between 80,000 to 100,000 jobs per annum along agriculture and livestock value chain to contribute to the government's goal to create 200,000 off-farm jobs annually.
The organisation wants every Rwandan household to grow at least three fruit trees between now and 2021, to reduce fruit imports.
The Minister for Agriculture and Animal Resources, Dr Gerardine Mukeshimana, said that it is rewarding that agriculture has been embraced by young people, especially the educated.
"The development of a country will come through smart, young farmers," she said.
However, Hategekimana expressed concern that, while women constitute about 53 per cent of the farming population in Rwanda, only less than 10 per cent are engaged in agri-business.