The lugubrious but recurring story of farmer suicides in Asia should raise keen interest for an agrarian country like Rwanda where the agricultural sector occupies approximately 91.1% of the active population, according to a 2009 situational analysis report of the Rwandan agricultural sector.
Given agriculture’s dependency on weather patterns and to a certain extent luck, farmers everywhere relatively face the same challenges including crop failure, fluctuating prices and low incomes to mention but three.
The difference is in the solutions authorities in various countries adopt to help their farmers address pressing problems and when such solutions fail, farmers are frequently pushed into stress and desperate circumstances; what then happens?
Well, rice farmers in Thailand have resorted to committing suicide to escape their problems. This week, Beijing-based CCTV-news reported the sad story of Thongma Kaisuan, a rice farmer, who committed suicide after authorities delayed payment of farmer subsidies.
In 2011, Thai Prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra won power after promising to raise rural incomes in a scheme where rice farmers in the country are paid 50% above the market price for their rice; then the government exports the rice.
However, the scheme has come under intense criticism and has inspired massive opposition protests that have rocked the country for months now. The government has apparently run out of money to sustain the subsidy and farmers, who have been the base of its support, are now turning against the leadership.
China, one of the biggest buyers of Thai rice, announced early this week it’s cancelling orders for a million tons of Thai rice amid allegations of corruption in the subsidy scheme.
The story of farmer suicides has for a longtime been exclusive to India where farmers often end their lives as a solution to stress since the 1990s and it continues to be a subject of major interest for researchers.
In just one region, as many as 700 farmers committed suicide due to crippling debts and crop failure between January and November 2013, according to India’s Hindustan Times.
According to a 2007 study by experts who had analysed government statistics, more than 17,500 Indian farmers annually committed suicide between 2002 and 2006.
Like their Indian and Thai colleagues, farmers in Rwanda are also stressed by price drops or crop failure. They find it hard to obtain financing for agriculture with financial institutions regarding agriculture as too risky to fund.
Coffee farmers in Rwanda will attest to how unpredictable seasons have tapered their fortunes in the last two seasons. It’s always a paradox that when the harvests are high, the supply is too much hence pushing prices down yet when the production goes down, crops fail and farmers have to deal with this stress.
While organising farmers into Saccos can indeed help address farmers’ plight to an extent, these initiatives can’t protect farmers from the unpredictable crop prices or harvests.
Rwandan farmers need some kind of assurance against agriculture’s unpredictability if they’re going to deal with their stress.
In a bid to protect farmers in Rwanda, the government in 2012 launched the Hinga Urishingiwe farmers’ insurance scheme which had reportedly attracted up to 50,000 subscriptions by July last year in the Western and Southern provinces that are acting as pilots for the scheme, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Farmer insurance has also worked for Kenya where the Sygenta Foundation, UAP Insurance and the telecommunications company Safaricom run an innovative scheme that compensates farmers in kind with fertilizer and seed for losses to crops like maize, wheat, beans, and sorghum, with the aim of helping them restart farming after a loss.
In Kenya for instance, farmers can insure their seeds under the scheme so that if they don’t harvest enough, they get compensated with seeds for the new season.
For Hinga Urishingiwe initiative to succeed, it will require partnership with the private sector to ensure competition and diversity of insurance products available to farmers.
Rwanda’s scheme is in partnership with Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Development (SFSA), a Swiss-based organisation that helps promote value-addition for smallholder farmers in developing countries, the same organisation working with the Kenyan farmers.
However, in Kenya, it has managed to attract interest from private sector players such as UAP and Safaricom, a development that Rwanda would need if the project is to be sustainable.
As Rwandan farmers are increasingly embracing commercial-based farming that requires a substantial amount of investment, initiatives such as farmer insurance are vital if India’s story of farmer suicides is to be averted in Rwanda.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of The New Times.
Kenneth Agutamba is a post-graduate student at the Communication University of China