The Rwandan agricultural sector is largely characterised by small holder farmers most of whom operate informally and are yet to incorporate technology and innovation in their practices. Despite much of it operating informally, the sector bears much responsibility and is often looked upon to guarantee food security as well as contribute to exports. To understand the potential of the sector as well as best approaches to increase productivity, The New Times' Collins Mwai spoke to Eric Pohlman the director of One Acre Fund, a non-profit which works closely with the Ministry of Agriculture to reach over 250,000 farmers across the country. Pohlman shares experiences of working with local farmers as well as expert opinions on ways to boost the sector's productivity. Below are excerpts:
Agriculture continues to be one of the top sources of livelihood for a majority of citizens but remains largely informal and characterised by low incomes, how can this be turned around to improve sector productivity?
It all comes down to intensification. Rwanda's arable land isn't getting any bigger, so we need to focus all our efforts on figuring out how to produce more value out of the same land in a sustainable way. To do this will require people and innovation. Fortunately, with so many farmers in Rwanda the human capital needed for intensification is ready and able. We just need to equip farmers with the technologies, financing, and training they need to keep pushing agriculture forward.
The questions we should be asking ourselves are: How do we create an environment that stimulates innovation? How do we encourage farmers to experiment and try new ideas? How do we get new technologies into farmers' hands?
At One Acre Fund -dubbed TUBURA we have 200 staff working on research and development as well as agriculture innovations. Every season we test new seed varieties, new planting techniques, and new technologies for farmers. We have over 1,000 innovations with farmers who run side by side trials in their fields every season with the goal of sustainable intensification. We need more private sector research and development like this to really push the sector forward.
I'm also very encouraged by Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB) commitment to public research and innovation. If RAB's example continues to spread to the wider agriculture sector, I think Rwanda can achieve the same high productivity as the leading agriculture economies.
When I dream big about what Rwandan agriculture could become by 2050, I envision something like the Netherlands. Did you know that the Netherlands is the world's second largest food exporter after the US? Think about that for a second. The Netherlands, which has less arable land than Rwanda, exports more food than Brazil, China, or Mexico. It is the biggest global exporter of potatoes, tomatoes and onions, and it produces 1/3 of the world's vegetable seeds. I find that really inspiring. Just think what could be possible in Rwanda.
What are the characteristics of small scale holder farmers and their farming practices across the country according to your view point and experiences with them?
Well, I believe farmers have the most important job in our communities. They grow the food that we eat. They sell the surplus that drives the economy. They decide how to use the land that determines the ultimate sustainability of our planet. Farmers are at the center of our health, our economy, and our environment.
With such an important role, it's no surprise that small scale farmers are characterised by hard work and resilience. But what people don't always appreciate is that farmers are also often eager for innovations and progress. Our core programme has grown from 38 farmers to over 250,000 farmers largely due to that eagerness amongst farmers to try new techniques and innovate.
Just one quick story, about one of those 250,000 farmers. Beatrice Musabyimana is a farmer in Karongi District who in 2009 struggled to grow enough food for herself and her four children. But she was curious about new ideas and when she heard about a new farmer programme in her village she joined TUBURA in 2010. While she'd never planted with fertiliser or hybrid seed before, she said she wanted to test them to see if there was any impact. That first season she increased her maize and bean harvest so much that she was able to buy a small calf with the surplus. When her two elder sons saw that their mother had bought a cow from her harvest they decided to join TUBURA's core programme too. Now Beatrice's cow has given birth to a second. I think this is how the path to prosperity begins.
What is the evolution of small scale farming across the country in the recent five years according to your experience? What has been One Acre's intervention in the process?
Let me answer that by going back a bit further than five years. I remember in 2007, I did hundreds of farmer interviews in Southwest Rwanda to understand what services farmers wanted. Back then, almost every farmer I talked to did not have access to fertiliser or improved seeds and few had ever received a training on modern planting techniques. Today it's a completely different story. Thanks to the ministry of Agriculture's leadership and the crop Intensification programme today all farmers have access to inputs within walking distance of their home. There's now an average of two agro-dealers per sector.
Additionally, One Acre Fund - TUBURA and Agro Processing Trust Corporation (APTC) provide input deliveries directly to over 900 cells. On the training side, most farmers have access to training through their cooperative, or the 14,000 Farmer Promoters and 2,500 Farmer Field Schools in Twigire Muhinzi or the 900 TUBURA Field Officers. Modern planting practices like optimal plant spacing, using compost, lime, and fertiliser are becoming the norm instead of the exception.
Here's an impressive stat which illustrates the speed of change: from 2007 to 2012 Rwandan farmers went from less than 3 per cent adoption of hybrid maize varieties to over 40 per cent adoption. To put that accomplishment in perspective, it took U.S. farmers about fifty years to fully adopt new hybrid maize varieties. The agriculture sector is definitely improving quickly in Rwanda.
What have been the terms of One Acre's partnership and cooperation with Government over the years and what are possible avenues to continuously work together? Any targets in the coming season?
This season we are very excited about our partnership with RAB and APTC. Together we are delivering a complete package of services to farmers through One Acre Fund - TUBURA's core programme, which includes in-field training, input delivery, financing and crop insurance. We are serving over 250,000 farming households this season with this complete service package. This package proved to increase farm profit by 113% compared to control groups last year.
Looking back, TUBURA has had a long history of partnership with the Government of Rwanda. We started working here in 2007 with a small pilot serving 38 farmers in Nyamasheke District. In 2009 after our initial pilot success MINAGRI invited us to join the crop intensification programme (CIP) as an input distributor and service provider. In 2012 One Acre Fund became a founding partner of RAB's innovative Twigire Muhinzi Extention Programme which we continue to fund today. This programme is a home-grown solution Rwanda can be proud of. No other country in the region has a public extension system that gets closer to farmers and is more accountable to results than Twigire Muhinzi.
Looking ahead, I see so many avenues to work together with government. The last ten years we have just been learning to walk, the next ten years are when farmers and agriculture service providers like us will learn to run, and run fast. I'd love to work together with Government on some of the really ambitious projects taking shape in the agriculture sector like domestic seed production, optimised fertiliser blends, small-scale irrigation, agro-forestry and agro-processing. In the next ten years, I want to see every Rwandan farmer swell with pride as stores around the world stock their shelves with "Made in Rwanda" agriculture products.
Is there a missed opportunity to use the lending window to farmers to use it as an opportunity to include them into the financially included population?
I think this is a really exciting time in rural Rwanda for financial inclusion. Every day there are more and more options for farmers to take advantage of, like mobile money, retail banking agents and SACCOs. Over the past two years One Acre Fund has partnered with MTN and Tigo to create hundreds of rural agents in Nyamasheke and Karongi in an effort to help farmers have better access to digital financial tools.
Right now 25,000 farmers in our programme make all their payments through cashless technology. Our goal is to have 100 per cent of farmers in our programme using digital payment platforms by 2019. We want to be a driving force in Rwanda's ambitious goal to become a cashless economy.
Any other comments?
On a personal note, I love Rwanda. This has been my home for the last ten years and I'm deeply thankful to the inspiring leaders who have fought hard and worked hard to create this country. Rwanda is one of the most dynamic and promising places on the planet right now, and I feel lucky to be here.
Last, to end with a few words about the farmers we serve. As I said earlier, farmers have the most important jobs in our communities. It is their individual acts that have helped drive Rwanda's transformation. In the last decade, I have seen hundreds of thousands of farmers go from hungry to full. And from full to surplus. I have seen a country that was a net food importer in 2008 become a net food exporter in 2012. From food insecure to food secure. Today, Rwanda is one of the only countries in the world with a positive rate of forestation, a feat only possible when farmers produce more food on less land. Looking ahead I see a golden era for Rwanda's agricultural sector, and I can't wait for the innovations Rwandan farmers will show the world.