Sisters find life-line in city farming

Tired of peasant life in the countryside, two sisters sought for ‘better life’ in the city. However, Ivan Ngoboka writes that their dream of becoming city businesswomen was shattered when the small eatery and retail shop they set up collapsed forcing the sisters back to farming, only this time, as urban farmers.
Nyiransabimana weeds her maize garden. Sunday Times/Ivan Ngoboka
Nyiransabimana weeds her maize garden. Sunday Times/Ivan Ngoboka

Tired of peasant life in the countryside, two sisters sought for ‘better life’ in the city. However, Ivan Ngoboka writes that their dream of becoming city businesswomen was shattered when the small eatery and retail shop they set up collapsed forcing the sisters back to farming, only this time, as urban farmers.

When Donatille Nyiransabimana and her elder sister arrived in Kigali City from Cyangugu in search of prosperity, their first line of business was a restaurant that was quickly followed by retail shop. 

For a couple of years, the two sisters from Rusizi District struggled to make ends meet in Rugunga. The two enterprises they ventured into were the most common in the neighbourhood and that meant that it was extremely difficult to make money and stay in business. Therefore, it was not long before they were out of business.

The months and years that followed were characterised by poverty, bouts of hunger and general misery. The very few friends they had made took flight when tables turned.

In 2006, when the Ministry of Agriculture decided to rent out some gazetted land in Rugunga, a Kigali city outskirt, to interested people for farming, Nyiransabimana and her sister acted swiftly and secured one acre. This has since proved to be the best investment choice the sisters made since they came to the city nearly 10 years ago.

Equipped with a farming background, the women embarked on what they know best, tilling the land. It was time for them to expel this misery using a hoe—after all the growing city population provided and continues to provide a ready market.

They farmed and the first season ended with a very generous harvest, from which the two sisters earned about Rwf 300,000. Part of the money was invested in expanding acreage by renting four more acres of land in the same swamp. And this is how their home became a popular food basket for that side of town.

When I found Nyiransabimana weeding her maize crop last week, she spoke with a feeling of contentment and a sense of fulfillment. 

“Though we dropped out of school, I don’t think there are so many people who work in offices who earn more money than we do from farming.”

Indeed, every morning (at least during this rainy season), while her neighbours board buses and or ride motor bikes to offices in various parts of the city centre or Nyabugogo to trade, Nyiransabimana strolls down the valley with a hoe, knife and gunny bag. 

She says that they get to the garden at dawn, carrying along packed food, then work tirelessly till evening.

“We notice that the city doesn’t accommodate lazy people, this is why we put all our energy in making this farm productive.” She says that they now earn about Rwf1 million per season from maize, beans, onions, tomatoes, yams, and various types of green vegetables.

“Our home has become a food market of sorts, people no longer want to go to market stalls because they think the food there is not fresh.” 

Nyiransabimana mentions that even when they try taking some of their produce to markets, it’s all bought before arrival.

Observing that this has solved the concern of food insufficiency at their home, since the only things they buy is rice and other cooking supplements such as oil.

Nyiransabimana reveals that their farm has also become a source of employment for some jobless slum dwellers, albeit seasonally. For instance, they employ over 35 workers during the April rains every year, to help with weeding the drainage and channeling off flood water.

She mentions that from proceeds from the farming, they have been able to acquire 6 sewing machines, and rent them out to interested people, who pay a monthly fee. They are also planning to buy a second house estimated at about 6 million.

The duo has also been able to give back to the less privileged. For instance, every Sunday they make it a point to visit financially impoverished families around Kigali, giving them food.

Nyiransabimana admits that it has not been a smooth ride all together. There are challenges here and there; one of them is flooding (the area being a wetland) especially during April and September.  She also mentions theft of crops by people suspected to be from the neighbourhood. The amount of harvest also keeps diminishing since the fertility of the soil keeps reducing over time.

She however notes that they have put in place an excellent drainage system to counter floods, and also try to harvest crops as they mature and ferry them home, so as not to give thieves a chance. They have also embarked on use of organic manure like cow dung, to restore the soil’s fertility. 

When asked whether their farming does not threaten the wetland, Nyiransabimana says that it’s a form of conservation, since plants do not only preserve water, but also hold together soil hence preventing erosion, unlike using the land for other purposes like erecting concrete structures.

Farming in City plan 

Nyiransabimana is one of the estimated 40,000 city dwellers who are currently making a living from farming in the City. Farming is a lawful economic activity in Kigali City.

According to Pascal Nahimana, an Agri-Business Expert in City of Kigali, about 65 per cent of the total land under in the City (470 km2) is completely rural and has only 20 per cent of the total population. And according to the Kigali Conceptual Master Plan (KCMP), 45 per cent of the total area is allocated to forest cover, 20 per cent to agriculture, 6 per cent to parks and green areas. Only 29 per cent of the land is meant for urbanization. 

He adds that the City of Kigali with support from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Italian Embassy, started a project known as PAPUK (Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture in Kigali) in 2004. The project aims at exploring areas that are ideal for farming, so as to not only contribute to the country’s food security and incomes of the urban population, but also add to the city’s natural beauty.

“Urban farmers are always assured of a good income, because there is always a ready market for their produce” Nahimana notes.

He mentions that the City, in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture, facilitates farmers in various ways such as providing them with fertilizers, improved seeds and other farm inputs.

“In 2008 alone, we provided 18 motor cycles to field extension officers, besides an assortment of sack sprayers and manual irrigation pumps we had given to farmers earlier on.”

Nahimana adds that city authorities in coordination with the  the Ministry of Agriculture and Rwanda Environmental Management Authority (REMA) have earmarked  about 19 more Marshlands around Kigali for Agriculture. They are Kanyinya, Mageragere in Nyarugenge District; 

Rutunga, Nduba Ndera, Rusororo, Gikomero, Bumbogo, Kinyinya, Jabana in Gasabo District a well as Gahanga, Nyarugunga, Kanombe and Masaka in Kicukiro District.

At the same time, over 3,264 heads of cattle have been given to city farmers under the national one-cow per poor family programme, Girinka.

Vegetable growing is the most dominant farming activity in the city with onions, tomatoes, leeks, pepper, cabbages and carrots as the major crops.

City authorities provide the farmers with some skills to enable them maximise yields from the small pieces of land. For example, using high quality seeds and proper crop management, a single tomato plant can yield up to 20 kgs of tomatoes.


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