When Urumuri Cooperative ventured into tomato farming in 2013, its members expected to get a huge return on their investment.
However, their efforts were not rewarded as they encountered losses when about 10 percent of their 300 tonne tomato produce rotted in the field due to lack of a ready market, according to the cooperative’s president, Sylvestre Sibomana.
Sibomana told Sunday Times that they sold the rest of their produce at a giveaway price of about Rwf50 a kilogramme.
Urumuri Cooperative engages in horticulture and mainly grows tomatoes, watermelon, cabbages and eggplants in Rukumberi Sector, Ngoma District.
But could this loss have been avoided? Experts say having processing units at community or grassroots level can help transform farmers’ fortunes.
A report by the Senatorial Standing Committee on Economic Development and Finance which assessed government’s activities aimed at promoting agriculture and livestock, indicated that post-harvest losses fell by 16 percent in 2016, down from 30 per cent in 2010, thanks to various strategies including setting up proper storage facilities.
However, while presenting the report to the Senate plenary last week, the Committee chairperson, Jacqueline Muhongayire, said the aspect of processing and transformation of perishable produce, mainly vegetables, had not improved much.
“We found that in Rubavu mainly, where they are many vegetable growers. There is urgent need for transformative systems,” she said.
Muhongayire, however, remains optimistic that part of the marshland in Rukumberi Sector that will be allocated to the Urumuri cooperative will be put to better use with a better marketing strategy.
“Tomatoes deteriorate within three days after harvest. If a tomato processing factory is set up, we can even contribute to have shares in it because that would be good news for us. Or, if we get empowered to add value to our produce such that our products can last longer, it will be a sigh of relief,” Sibomana said.
Price fluctuation, low returns
Emmanuel Kabagambe, a tomato farmer in Nyagatare District, said low prices continue to affect many farmers, especially those with perishable produce because they have no means to preserve them as they await more favorable prices.
“Last year, I invested Rwf6.4 million in tomato growing on about 4.5 hectares. But, I got only Rwf3 million from the sale of my tomato yield due to poor prices,” he said.
Kabagambe explained that his loss was due to low market prices between October and November when there was an influx of tomatoes on the market.
“On average, we were selling a basket of tomatoes or a 50-kg sack at Rwf2,000 in Nyabugogo or Kimironko markets (in Kigali) and in Gisenyi (Rubavu). It means that we were selling a kilogramme at about Rwf40,” he said.
Yet, he said, from December, the same sack shoots up to Rwf10,000.
Small-scale industries can help
Nyagatare District Agricultural Officer, Gilbert Rutayisire said farmers’ cooperatives should build more capacity so that they process products such as tomato ketchup to avoid losses.
“Farmers need advanced facilities and empowerment so that they start producing high quality products from their produce,” he said.
Dr Joseph Mungarurire, the Director-General for National Industrial Research and Development Agency (NIRDA), said various projects were in the pipeline to adding value to agricultural produce.
He cited Winnaz based in Musanze District that has started making potato crisps.
“Before reaching the level of factory which needs a sustainable supply of tonnes of tomatoes, we should support small processing units so that they buy produce from the farmers and add value to it. This will address the challenge of poor prices and post-harvest losses,” he said.
Mungarurire noted that tomato farmers can form cooperatives and get processing equipment to make tomato pulp and paste on credit from Business Development Fund (BDF), which they can pay back in manageable installments.
“Indians have mastered the system of small production units. For instance, restaurant owners take products from such units. That is how the cottage industry in India works and it is profitable,” he said.
Mungarurire said pineapple farmers in Mugesera and Sake sectors of Ngoma District, as well as in Gakenke District, have also been requesting for an agro-processing factory to add value to their harvest because they have large produce that sometimes lacks a ready market.
“In the framework community processing centres, the potential of crop to give high yields in a particular area is put into account before the establishment of a processing unit. But, a feasibility study has to be carried out first,” he said.
The Minister for Agriculture and Animal Resources, Dr Gerardine Mukeshimana, said that one of the strategies for proper post-harvest handling, especially for perishable commodities, is encouraging and facilitating the private sector to venture into processing.
“We are developing collection centres and cold rooms,” she added.