Birungi quit a well-paying corporate job for commercial farming

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Birungi takes officials from RAB and AGRA and reporters on a guided tour. / Olivia Muragijimana

For many a graduate, landing a government or corporate job is a dream come true. With an assured source of income and incentives that come with such a job like full medical insurance and travel opportunities, many would never want to trade the job with anything else.

Not for Martha Birungi, a former government employee and now a commercial farmer in her home district of Gatsibo, Eastern Province. The farmer says she was earning a good salary as a Rwanda Energy Group employee, but farming was her first love.

So she threw in the towel last year to focus on agriculture enterprise, growing maize and beans on a commercial basis.

She had started the farming venture the previous year in 2015. The resident of Nyamatete village in Rwimbogo sector, Gatsibo had also earlier enrolled for an agriculture management course in the UK as she prepared for a career in farming.

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Birungi’s farming project focuses on growing maize and beans from which she earns over Rwf18 million per annum. / Olivia Muragijimana

Already, the former civil servant earns millions from the agriculture enterprise that focuses on growing of maize and beans, which are some of the main food crops in the country.

The mother of one has built an agribusiness career over the past year landing big contracts from which she now earns a net income of over Rwf18 million annually from sale of produce.

The genesis

Birungi says though she had a well-paying job in public service, she always wanted to do something of her own that could provide sustainable income for her and the family.

“I had always wanted to be self-employed since my secondary school days. Because I have a passion for farming, it was natural that I would end up doing agribusiness project,” she explains her inspiration.

“My journey started in 2011 after I had acquired a business administration degree from the US. Later, I enrolled for agricultural management courses in the UK because I was interested in farming,” she adds.

When she was still living in Britain, she saved up money and acquired land in 1997. Birungi returned from the UK in 2014.

“So I had to quit the public job last year and concentrate on the business I had started a year earlier. With the skills I acquired from UK, I did not mind about picking a hoe to dig and ensure the project becomes a success,” she explains.

Birungi employs modern ways of crop production, a practice that has since been adopted by other farmers in the area.

AGRA support

The farmer says she got further training and funding from Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and receives constant advisory support from the agriculture ministry.

She says an agreement she signed with RAB enabled her to access funding from AGRA, and she used part of the money to buy 25 hectares of land to expand the enterprise.

“I heard about AGRA during a farmer training workshop organised by the National Seeds Association of Rwanda. A friend and I later did research about the organisation on the Internet and then I got in touch them. That’s how my relationship with them started, enabling me to get financial support,” she explains.

She says the organisation was interested in her vision of agriculture for empowerment and conservation, landing her funding and technical support.

The constant monitoring by AGRA has enabled Birungi to improve her farming activities and increase earnings from the project.

She now also employs 70 per cent of women in her village, as well as the area in general, a move that has helped to change the financial status of residents.

Crop production, marketing

When she came back from UK, she never had enough money to start up her dream project and, therefore, resorted to sharecropping.

She cultivated half of a hectare where she grew beans and harvested one sack of beans. The sharecroppers, she adds, just gave her a miserly 2kg of beans because their harvest was poor”.

They planted the seeds a few inches in the ground, which affected production since the crop roots were not able to penetrate the ground and get enough nutrients. Birungi notes that sharecropping enabled her to save on operations costs.

Though she faced many challenges, she persisted. Birungi’s project is rain-fed and production is dependent on prevailing weather conditions in any given season. She is lucky that it is a swampy area, though they face challenges during prolonged dry spells that are common in Eastern Province.

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The model farmer in one of the bean gardens. / Olivia Muragijimana

Currently, the farmer produces 35 tonnes of maize and 50-60 tonnes of beans but she says the production varies depending on prevailing climate conditions. She grows beans on a 10-hectare piece of land, while 12 hectares are dedicated to maize growing.

The model farmer is registered with Rwanda Agriculture Board as a seed multiplier to provide the agency improved seeds.

Agric mechanisation, embracing crop irrigation

The farmer says that though mechanised farming is ideal, most farmers including her cannot afford the equipment like tractors or harvesters and big irrigation systems.

“And our sponsors cannot provide funds for such equipment because it is expensive. Unless the government brings them at subsidised prices, it will take long for farmers to embrace mechanisation,” Birungi says.

Challenges

It is always hard to get workers during the planting season as everyone is busy on their farms, a situation Birungi says sometimes affects her production due to late planting.

“Due to lack of mechanised farming, the process of planting and harvesting always delays leading to low output and post-harvest losses, especially for maize as it gets discolored,” she adds.

Eastern Province is drought prone, facing long dry spells that the model farmer says hurt productivity leaving farmers to count losses. She says if she used machines the effect of drought would not be severe because “machines dig deep into the ground allowing crop roots to go deep down compared to when one uses hand hoes”.

The armyworm that hit the country early this year affected her crops and hence income. Birungi also lacks enough land to carry out extensive crop production, which has hindered project growth and expansion.