If you want to gauge the changes that have occurred in Rwanda, especially among ordinary citizens in the countryside, you only have to look at agriculture and livestock keeping.
All the other variables – higher incomes, better housing and improved quality of life – are hinged on changes in agriculture.
Today’s changes reflect a general shift in attitudes and outlook to agriculture, the role of the state in the daily lives of citizens and the responsibility of individuals in providing for themselves.
This was not the case twenty years ago. Then Rwanda was literally a basket case in terms of food self-sufficiency, prone to uncomfortably regular cycles of famine.
This sad state of insufficiency was the result of several things – most of them self-inflicted.
First, at the level of the state not much effort went into making food security strategies or the setting up of strategic food reserves. Things were left to the dictates of nature, but as is well-known, nature has a notorious habit of doing things in its own way, without much regard to human wishes or appeals or even cries of anguish.
Evidence for this lack of planning can be found in the absence of any national storage facilities at the time, or harvest management systems that cut waste and spoilage.
Second, and feeding into the above, was the unchanged use of traditional production methods purely for subsistence purposes.
Third, as a consequence of chronic food shortages, Rwandans became dependent on the government and do-gooders for hand-outs in times of need. In a sense, the government of the day encouraged this state of dependency by presenting itself as the reliable provider (umubyeyi) and promising the unfailing support of external benefactors. This sort of inevitable providence (through charity) whether one worked or not blunted the productive spirit.
That was then. Today the situation is different. There is more production. You don’t see long queues of people with all manner of containers holding them up for food relief hand-outs. Rwandans are producing relatively enough to feed themselves and even sell on external markets.
Yet cultivable land has not increased appreciably. Rainfall patterns remain mostly the same. Use of modern technology in agriculture is still largely negligible. So what has happened in the last twenty years?
The first major change has been the recognition that the modernisation of agriculture is key to the socio-economic transformation of the country. Considering that about 90% of the population directly or indirectly depends on agriculture for livelihood, this realisation should have come much earlier.
We have seen manifold increase in yields on the same land that has been cultivated for ages. The increase has mainly been due to the rationalised use of land following such measures as crop intensification, land consolidation, increased use of modern fertilisers as well as reclamation of certain marshlands for crop use.
Similarly, we have noticed greater use of improved seeds for increased production. Rwanda, of course, has had good research institutions for a long time. However, the result of work from such research, except in a few areas like potato production, has not been widely accessible to farmers in such a way as to make significant impact on agricultural practices and productivity.
Better harvest management and storage to minimise wastage and spoilage has also led to increased yield.
As a result, for instance where Rwanda previously imported nearly all its rice requirements, today 60% of rice consumption is met from domestic production. The remaining 40% is projected to be realised in the next few years.
In the past Rwanda imported nearly all its maize grain needs for commercial milling. Now all milling requirements are met from domestic production and a lot more left for export.
The second important change has been a shift in the attitude to agriculture – from purely a subsistence activity to a market oriented business. Even the smallest farmer now produces with the market in mind. Producing for the market has led to other developments. Cooperatives, for instance, have sprung up all over the country to enable farmers get good prices for their produce and access credit and inputs such as seeds and fertilisers.
The third change – the work ethic – is still ongoing.
Although there has been some progress in agriculture in Rwanda, nearly all of it is still done on smallholdings by small-scale farmers. For it to play a more transformative role, however, it needs to be commercialised. That in turn will require more investment from the private sector, for instance.
In Rwanda, the other key requirement for commercial agriculture – enabling land policies such as registration – that make it easy to secure ownership, transferability and access to credit already exist.
What perhaps remains is mechanisation. Even this is not very far. The Agriculture Park in the Special Economic Zone has a machinery assembling section. Farmers only need to know that this facility exists and then make use of it.
It is evident that agricultural production is beginning to have a significant impact on the lives of Rwandans and on the national economy. It has the potential for greater transformation if it continues to be modernised and commercialised.