Meet the retired soldier making millions from potato growing

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Habumuremyi sells most of the potatoes he produces to schools. / Lydia Atieno

It is a beehive of activity as workers load sweet potato vines on a Fuso truck at one Jean Marie Vianney Habumuremyi’s gardens. The farmer at first did not notice me as he was busy supervising the work on his farm, something that has become a daily routine for the 40-year-old retired army officer.

The resident of Rwamagana District joined farming as a means of survival after he was retired from the army. Previously, Habumuremyi had never dreamed of doing anything else apart from serving his country in military. However, all this was to change when he retired in 2001.

Starting out

Habumuremyi says that after he was demobilised from military service, he decided to start practicing farming on his small piece of land to earn a means of living.

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Habumuremyi (left) and another farmer display their harvest. / Lydia Atieno

“I wanted to have some income-generating venture to ensure my family does not lack anything,” he adds. He started his journey into farming with tomato and sweat potato growing on his half hectare piece of land.

However, after sometime, he realised that sweet potato growing was the ‘hidden gold mine’ and hence put in more effort in the crop and expanded the area under potatoes.

“I used to see farmers supplying potatoes to nearby schools. This inspired me to grow the crop on large-scale,” he explains.

Habumuremyi says he had previously looked at sweet potatoes as for only home consumption. He was fortunate enough to receive a new variety of potatoes commonly known as Kabode from a USAID project.

The new variety, according to him, was high-yielding compared to those he was planting. The new orange-fleshed sweet potato variety can produce eight to fifteen tonnes per hectare while the previous one was yielding only two tonnes per hectare, according to the former soldier. This (new variety) proved to be his turning point as a commercial potato grower and gave him the foundation to carve out a career in agribusiness.

Market

With the increasing sweet potato output, Habumuremyi says he was able to clinch lucrative supply deals in markets and schools.

“I also got in touch with the ISAR, the former agriculture research centre for Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) where I was trained in seed multiplication to produce planting materials for other small farmers,” he says.

He adds that this was under USAID OFSP called DONATA project, under International Potato Center (CIP). There was subsequent training under SUSTAIN project, funded by DFID and implemented by CIP with YWCA and RAB as partners.

After the training, he planted the new orange-fleshed sweet potato variety on a large part of his land to kick-start the seed multiplication project and diversify his business venture.

Habumuremyi says the high-yielding variety enabled him to increase production and he could supply about three tonnes of potatoes to schools per week. This, plus sales from potato vines, gradually boosted his revenues. Besides selling the seeds to smallholder farmers, the farmer supplies planting materials to NGOs and RAB.

From one hectare, he gets about 166,000 stems, earning about Rwf500,000 per month from selling potato stems. The farmer says there is a huge market for potatoes and vines in the country and “I never fail to get where to sell my produce at any given time”.

Challenges

Like many other farmers in the country, reluctance by financial institutions to lend to the sector has been one of the main challenges Habumuremyi faces.

“My bankers are not willing to lend me Rwf380 million required to complete the construction of potato processing plant,” he says, adding that some were only willing to give little money that would not do the job.

Also, lack of trained people in agro-processing has affected his efforts to add value to the crop and boost his income.

Achievements

Habumuremyi currently grows the orange-fleshed sweet potato variety on 25 hectares he has bought using money generated from growing sweat potatoes.

He produces at least 12 tonnes per hectare, realising about Rwf1.5 million earnings after all costs. This sweet potato variety takes only three months to mature.

The farmer has been able to buy a family car and a Fuso truck worth Rwf31 million that he uses to transport sweet potatoes and vines.

“I have also built a residential house worth Rwf40 million, something I never dreamt I would ever achieve before,” he says.

Habumuremyi employs 12 workers to help him in sweet potato growing business. The farmer also adds value to the crop, making products, such as biscuits and donuts.

Advice

The agribusiness operator, who doubles as a trainer, advises farmers to embrace the potato growing, saying it brings in good returns in short period particularly for those engaged in large-scale farming.

“Farmers used to think that sweat potatoes are only for home consumption, but that kind of thinking should change. Growers also have to start growing better varieties with high productivity.”

He says that once processing plants open in the country, they will be able to sell the crop at good prices.

He adds that orange potatoes are also rich in vitamin A which helps improve nutrition. It’s very important for pregnant, lactating mothers and children less than two years. According to him, the variety has been approved that vitamin A in it is also important for cognitive development of children from conception to age of two years.

“For one to start an agribusiness, they need not to look at the amount of money they have as capital…Whatever little cash one has can make a huge difference. The key is to be passionate about the project and also seek advice from those who have been in the field,” he counsels.

Looking into the future

The farmer is building a factory in Rwamagana that will process sweet potatoes into a variety of products, including bread, mandazi, macaroni, biscuits, doughnuts, cakes and flour. The project started in 2015.

Already, the project makes biscuits and mandazi (doughnuts) manually as they await for the factory to be completed so that they can many other products from potatoes. He exhibits some of these products in different expos, he adds. Habumuremyi plans to form company under the trade name Duhange Ku By’Iwacu Limited.

For a serviceman who never dreamt of farming as a business, the sky seems to be the limit as Habumuremyi has now set his eyes on becoming an industrialist in the short-term

According to Dr Kirimi Sindi, county manager CIP, Orange flesh sweet potatoes puree can substitute between 40 to 60% of the wheat used in most baking products. If most bakeries started incorporating orange flesh sweet potato into their products, it can save the country a huge amount of foreign exchange because wheat is imported in dollars whereas orange flesh sweet potato is grown locally by small holder farmers.

Kirimi however adds that the money spent in importing wheat would be paid to local farmers, increasing their incomes and their wellbeing.Besides; the products will also be healthier because they will have vitamin A thereby contributing to the solution of one aspect of hidden hunger problem.