Her former students describe Marie Mukandahiro as a passionate teacher, who worked hard to ensure her students at Karongi Primary School passed with flying colours.
The resident of Karongi District, quit teaching after nearly 20 years of service in favour of farming. From earning less than Rwf100,000 as a primary school teacher, Mukandahiro now earns more than Rwf1 million monthly from growing onions.
Her achievements have encouraged residents of Karongi and also inspired many teachers in the area to start side businesses to supplement salaries. "This is how they will get out of poverty," she said as she took Business Times on a field tour of her onion farm in Rubengere sector. More than 10 years down the road, Mukandahiro does not regret leaving teaching for farming.
Mukandahiro started the farming project while still serving as teacher but later realised it required her full attention if she was going to make it big as a farmer.
She says the meagre teacher's salary inspired her to think outside the box and find means to achieve all her dreams. The mother of five adds that she always saw herself as a successful woman contributing to the country's economic transformation.
"Though I was at first torn between a profession I loved most and a future I dreamt of, I realised that my destiny lay in farming," she narrates. Mukandahiro adds that the death of her husband in 2006 was the determining factor for her to throw in the towel and dedicate all her time to her farming venture.
"After my husband died, it dawned on me that I had to look for another source of income to continue supporting the family," she explains, adding that being able to take care of five children was not going to be easy as a primary school teacher.
The 56-year-old widow says the beginning was not easy. "I didn't have enough experience and knew little about agriculture apart from what I had and read from the books," she noted. Mukandahiro started out with less than Rwf80,000 from her savings as a teacher. She approached a neighbour and requested to use part of his land as she prepared to buy hers.
"That was how I started my first season as an onion farmer," she says.
Taking advantage of the LWH project
In 2011, Mukandahiro was one of the lucky farmers that got support from the Land Husbandry Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation (LWH) project, a government programme supported by World Bank.
The LWH was introduced as a comprehensive land husbandry intervention to help reduce soil erosion and sustain cultivation and productivity on steep slopes. "It was this project that seeks to transform farmers' lives by embracing modern and commercial agriculture that helped sharpen my skills thus increasing my production capacity," says Mukandahiro.
She says she was able to acquire modern farming skills from the project and also learnt from more established farmers.
"The project gave me a chance to better my skills as a farmer and also gave me a platform to learn how to optimally use land through terracing, fertiliser application and irrigation."
Before joining the project, Mukandahiro used to earn less than Rwf100, 000 from mixed farming but was encouraged to specialise and grow highly commercial crops like onions to maximise on profits. In 2012, the teacher turned farmer decided concentrate on large-scale onion growing and eventually became one of the major onion farmers in Karongi.
She does not worry about dry spells, thanks to her farm's proximity to Lake Kivu.
Mukandahiro says she made loses during the first two seasons because she lacked skills and experience. In addition, she did not know how to store the onions after harvest or market them.
She also faced the challenge of transport, saying it was always difficult to access markets, which forced her to rely on middlemen.
She calls on government to continue investing in rural infrastructure, especially the feeder roads, to ease access to markets. According to Mukandahiro, it is critical for government and other stakeholders to keep supporting farmers for a desirable and more sustainable economic development.
Mukandahiro says her life has turned out for better since joining farming. The farmer earns Rwf1 million monthly from onion growing compared to her Rwf100,000 primary school teacher salary. She has also expanded her farm land acreage from less than two hectares to over 30 hectares presently.
"I have also diversified the enterprise and now grow other crops including maize and Irish potatoes," she adds, noting that she has also ventured into dairy farming.
She has constructed a decent house using proceeds from agriculture and her children have been able to complete school. The family house is also connected to the national electricity grid. Mukandahiro's farming activities have created 20 jobs for residents.
According to Mukandahiro, teachers and other salaried workers must start side generating activities to supplement their salaries, arguing that it is important to increase one's income streams to safeguard their financial future. She urges women to take advantage of the conducive business environment and start enterprises that will enable them to become financially independent.
Mukandahiro plans to continue expanding her onion farms to be able to meet the growing demand for the crop. She says the demand for onions is always increasing as more people embrace the spice.
She, however, notes that though the growing demand presents farmers a business opportunity, it challenges them to increase production and improve storage.