When exports of dried pineapple resumed at the beginning of May, Jean Damascène Hakuzimana, president of the Tuzamurane farmers' cooperative, was relieved.
The cooperative, based in the Kirehe district of Rwanda, had six tonnes of dried organic pineapple ready for export when COVID-19 struck. The various lockdown measures across the globe - the suspension of international travel, the movement restrictions in Europe that prevented their client in France from working and buying their products, the temporary closure of public activities in Rwanda - dealt the cooperative a significant blow, threatening the gains made from previous years' investments and curtailing its ambitious prospects for growth.
"The impact on our activities was very big and we were uncertain of the future of the cooperative," Jean Damascène says.
"We had to suspend temporarily some staff working in the processing unit. Farmers were still planting and harvesting but getting low prices for their pineapples. But now we are optimistic. We just exported two tonnes and [we] expect new orders."
Going organic opens up new markets
Created in 2005, the cooperative has transformed into a successful pineapple growing and processing operation over the years.
The story really got started in 2009, when a cooperative member met some potential buyers of organic pineapples at a food exhibition in Belgium. With the support of the Government of Rwanda, the cooperative switched to organic production.
In 2015, the cooperative started to process their pineapples into dried slices and export their products to France. The Government of Rwanda assisted them with building their first factory and acquiring the dryers. USAID helped them purchase some of the equipment and recruit some of the permanent staff, and also provided post-harvest training. Now, the Climate-Resilient Post-Harvest and Agribusiness Support Project (PASP) project, a joint effort by IFAD and the Government of Rwanda, is supporting the cooperative as they expand their operations.
The project has enabled the cooperative farmers to increase their incomes - and brought substantial additional benefits, too.
The cooperative pays the health insurance of its 141 members and their families. Last year, it also started to contribute to their pension.
The cooperative also looks beyond its members. It has built water tanks and shelters for the poorest community members, and regularly gives away peeling (the pineapple's outer skin) for free to feed local livestock.
Importantly, the cooperative also creates employment. Today, it employs 100 casual workers and 20 permanent staff. About 70 per cent are young people and 55 per cent are women.
Carrying on in the face of COVID-19
The cooperative doesn't want to stand still. It plans to increase their operations by about 70 percent. That means increasing production from three tonnes per year to five tonnes, hiring an additional 12 permanent staff, and doubling the number of casual workers.
Thanks to PASP funding, a second, more modern processing plant has already been built. Now that their South African supplier is able to operate again, they expect the new dryer they ordered earlier this year to arrive within a month. They've also bought a tractor, which should be delivered in June.
Rwandan silkworm farmers weave links to global markets
Forty-seven-year-old Rwandan farmer Pierre Kanyarwanda is enthusiastic. For the last five months, he has brought additional money home by applying his newly acquired skills in sericulture (silkworm rearing).
"I like it so much but it is not easy. It requires extreme caution and a lot of work to protect the worms from predators and diseases and feed them up to eight times a day. But when you want something, you make it work," explains Pierre. Previously, he had worked all his life as a subsistence farmer, trying to make ends meet growing cassava, beans and bananas.
Pierre is one of the 5,000 farmers who are benefiting from the development of sericulture under IFAD's Project for Rural Income through Exports (PRICE) in Rwanda.
A pioneer among African nations, the Government of Rwanda has begun investing in the development of silk value chains. With rising demand from Asia, the production of high-quality silk products offers strong export opportunities.
To tap into growing global markets, Rwanda's National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB) has partnered with HEWorks, a Korean silk manufacturer.
With the support of the PRICE project, HEWorks and the Government of Rwanda have built a silk processing factory in Kigali's Special Economic Zone. HEWorks manages the factory and buys cocoons directly from farmers, thus benefiting from a reliable and quality supply. The PRICE project also funded the opening of a national sericulture training centre and a silkworm egg production centre, as well as the rehabilitation of six additional provincial sericulture centres to support farmers' silkworm-rearing activities.
The national egg production centre is a critical component of the silk value chain. In addition to its research activities, it oversees the maintenance of the entire silkworm race, from establishing lineages for the parent seed crop to producing disease-free eggs and ensuring a sufficient supply of silkworms for rearing.
Over the past few months, silkworm rearing has become an attractive activity for thousands of farmers in the hills of Rwanda. To boost cocoon production, HEWorks has progressively increased the price it pays farmers for them, from US$2 per kilogram in October 2016 to nearly US$4 in October 2019.
Celestine Ruzindana, Pierre's employer, is one of many farmers who have invested in sericulture. With the help of HEWorks and the PRICE project, Celestine planted 14,000 mulberry trees to feed worms and built a rearing house. In addition to selling cocoons to HEWorks, Celestine also supplies young silkworms to other farmers. All told, silkworm rearing brings him a revenue of more than USD 1,500 a year.
Celestine's efforts also create work for his community. He employs six permanent workers in the worm nursery and 16 temporary workers in the mulberry plantation. He is investing in an additional two hectares of land to grow more trees and build an additional nursery.
Sericulture creates employment opportunities for young people in urban areas, too. The silk processing factory in Kigali has been operational since February 2019 and employs 34 permanent staff, 18 of whom are women, many of them university graduates.
"I like working here. It is very interesting because our operations are performance-based, we need to produce the best," explains Emanuel Uyisenga, a 30-year-old employee who works in the factory's testing room and holds a university diploma in chemistry.
NAEB's strategy is to produce high-quality products and fetch premium prices of US$50 to US$70 per kilogram on international markets. Already, 50% of the silk yarn produced is rated 6A, the highest-quality grade on the market, and a further 40% is rated 5A. To generate additional income, the lower-grade cocoons are also used to make silk sheets.
"We can grow many things in Rwanda but importantly we can add value," says Dative Ingabire, the 30-year-old manager of the silk factory, a law graduate from the University of Rwanda.
Dative is optimistic about the future of sericulture.
"I hope silk production will inspire other African countries to invest in sericulture as well and this will lead to locally produced silk products on the continent," she says.