Agriculture and Animal Resources Minister Ildephonse Musafiri is a man on a mission. Buoyed by the recent re-introduction of the position of state minister for agriculture – which spoke to the significance of the sector – the 44-year-old is keen on transforming the fortunes of the industry and “bringing people back to the farm.” He firmly believes that agriculture is ripe for investment. The New Times’ James Munyaneza and Jade Natacha Iriza, on August 29, had an exclusive interview with the minister on his vision for the sector. The excerpts: Qn: At the recently concluded Golden Business Forum in Kigali, you made a passionate appeal to the private sector to invest in the agriculture sector. You seemed to suggest that the sector was on the cusp of take-off. Could you please shed more light on your perspective? Maybe before I bring up why we’re interested in the private sector, there is an issue of the scale of investment in agriculture, which is something that has been one of my priorities since I became a minister – and I realised that I even knew it before because I was born and raised here in Rwanda. Our main issue is the nature of agriculture, which is small-scale farming. Small-scale farming is associated with a number of issues. First of all, farmers don't adopt technologies because adopting new technologies means using improved seeds, and fertilizers, and it requires that people have a big land or a large farm, to be able to secure their subsistence, but also have an area where they can try new technologies. So, there's just less adoption, because in small-scale farming, people are just scared. They are mindful of trying something new because they’re thinking ‘what if it doesn't work!’ And then there's also limited productivity; because if we don’t try something new, if we don't use the fertilizers, if we don't use the right seeds, then we won’t have enough productivity. For instance, the productivity per hectare of major crops is very low, far below the global standard. This puts us in an uncomfortable situation and results in increased inflation. Most of the time the bulk of inflation comes from the lower supply of food items, the food component is a very big factor in our national inflation. We need to solve this issue; this systemic problem of small-scale farming. We need to move towards professional farming, hence we need investors. Also, because the population is growing, it requires increase in food supply. You can't feed this growing population using the usual small-scale farming. And to do professional farming we need investment. If you look across the gaps that we have, you will realise that we need approximately $1.3 billion to ensure we're a food-secure country. We need to meet all our needs, to be able to feed our growing population. Otherwise, we can’t say the country is 100% food secure. At the moment, we’re at about 80%. Qn: You’re making a strong case but it may not be enough to truly unlock the sector’s potential owing to the risks synonymous with investing in agriculture... Let me say that agriculture is the second contributor to GDP. It's very important to tell the private people that investing in a sector that contributes an average of 25% of GDP is investing in a sector that matters; it means you’re investing in a sector that has the money and that you can be sure you’ll make money. And there are obvious opportunities. For example, we’ve gaps in food crops. Rwandans are increasingly consuming more maize and ‘kawunga’ [maize meal also known as posho, ugali, and other names]. But our average production per year is around 500,000 metric tonnes of maize yet we consume between 600,000 and 800,000 metric tonnes a year. That speaks to an untapped potential. Another example is rice; we can only produce less than 100,000 metric tonnes per year yet we consume way more rice, around 400,000 metric tonnes. Why are we importing all the rice from Tanzania, Pakistan, India, or elsewhere? Also, we know Rwandans love Irish potatoes. We consume more than a million metric tonnes of Irish potatoes yet we produce around 700,000 metric tonnes a year. Why should we keep importing potatoes yet we know that potatoes can grow here, not only in the north, but also in the south and the east? Look at beans; we’re the biggest consumers of beans and on average we don't produce more than 500,000 metric tonnes but we eat around 800,000 metric tonnes of beans every year. That means that even for beans, where we are called the top consumers, we still have a gap. And we can’t say we’re constrained by land, we still have 1.4 million hectares of land, which is arable, with just 10% irrigated. So, the land is not a problem. We can produce more by using appropriate technology. That's the potential that we have in food crops. The beauty of agriculture is that there’s potential for investment at different levels of the value chain. For instance, you can do business by producing seeds, and then there's seed processing and seed distribution. You can even invest in IT systems to trade. Another example is that we import most mineral fertilizers, almost 70,000 metric tonnes a year. Why don’t the private people try to invest in the local manufacturing of fertilizers, for example? Why should we keep importing it while it's possible to have it from here? Look at the traditional cash crops; maybe people think that growing tea or coffee has disappeared. No, they’re still major foreign exchange-earners. The world likes our coffee and tea. So, it's an opportunity to grab and we need to do more in the extension of tea plantations. We still have some districts that have acidic soils, but the good thing is that tea can adapt very easily. We still have room for investment in the tea sector; tea processing and tea packaging. And we still have room to grow coffee. Most of our coffee (trees) are old, so we are encouraging the private sector to grow coffee. We need to improve both tea and coffee production in volume, but also in quality. The global market is also getting more interested in our passion fruit, and our chili. But if we can’t satisfy our own demand, how can we think of exportation? Qn: How about those who may not be attracted to primary production but may be willing to participate in some way? There is also business after harvesting. If you're not interested in the primary production, or in any inputs, you can invest in agro-processing, for instance. We need food processing, food handling, we need investors in storage and so on. You know what happened recently when we had our maize sheds falling on people and we lost lives. It’s because we haven’t looked at improved ways of doing it, we should have proper dryers. Not necessarily hanging them somewhere to wait for the sun to do the job for us. We need investment to acquire proper ways of harvesting, drying, and conveying in storage. This can be done for beans, cassava, fresh product vegetables, and fruits. There’s also another type of investment: food systems. We can talk about food production, and nutrition, but also there’s climate. You can invest in a climate resilient agriculture. For instance, the model we are trying in Gabiro where we’re providing water to investors, by urging them to provide irrigation or mechanisation services. Last, but not least, is livestock. We have more than 2 million cattle in this country. But we don’t have the capacity to process milk to meet our demand. We can only process 240,000 litres. Our capacity to process milk and cheese is still low and it presents an opportunity for investors to come and add value and to do packaging that is affordable for our people, and then think of exporting. Qn: It sounds like you’re looking to revolutionise the sector, but the challenges remain, including financing, climate change etc... We want to dismantle the myth that you can't go into farming and make a profit. Of course, climate change is a problem, and finance can be a problem. But we’re trying to bring accessible financing instruments, like low-cost loans. People can access these instruments at affordable interest rates (financing) and the government will pay up to 40 percent (for agriculture insurance). I want to bring people back to the hoe, back to the farm, but in a modern, mechanised, and smart way. There are still risks, of course; even as we're talking about insurance, the current plan doesn't cover all the value chains. In livestock, it covers only a fraction and for the major crops covered it caters for what you’ve already invested, it's always a work in progress. In financing, we have secured Rwf55 billion from the World Bank where borrowing will be an affordable rate, between 8% and 15%. We start with 15% and, as they pay back, it'll be evolving. We're trying to do an experiment because banks say it's risky. But the difference between 15% and 18% (previous standard) is too big. The project is already up and running. I think the first instalment of Rwf15 billion has been disbursed and some commercial banks and microfinances are already managing it and giving out the loans. Qn: Aside from the cost of financing, some investors have decried delays in accessing agriculture loans which affects their projects because these are seasonal investments. How are you going to address this? Since it’s the first time, delays will of course be unavoidable. But we want to spend this money as soon as possible. The request was made in January this year  and the initial installment of Rwf15 billion has been approved and transferred to banks. Qn: As the Minister in charge of agriculture, do you sometimes get frustrated that the sector is not attracting as many private investments as you’d like to see? We can’t afford to get frustrated, otherwise, we’ll end up not having food. So, we choose to be optimistic. Qn: Recently the President appointed a State Minister for Agriculture. How important is this? Having a colleague with a financial and business background, for me, is a signal from the appointing authority that we need to move more into business-oriented agriculture now more than ever. It’s time to think now we have two heads, we can think together, and see how we can leverage other sources of funding without necessarily relying on the national budget. It's time to change our mind-set. And, as I said, we need other people who are not in government to come and explore the opportunities. Even the money I said we borrowed is not enough; we need to leverage the private sector. It has a huge potential to build some projects, and there are some grants around the world, which means we can get money from different sources. Qn: How do we make the sector more attractive to the youth? Encouraging young people to invest in agriculture is very critical and timely since the current farmers, who are mostly small-scale farmers, are aging. We need to attract the youth who are dedicated, who have the skills, who can embrace new technologies, and who can be guided by research to increase productivity. We want professional farmers and there are a few key things we’re doing to achieve that. First, we’re talking to the ministry in charge of education to increase the number of students going into specialised training like the courses offered in TVET. New departments focusing on agriculture, innovation, animal health and so forth are also being rolled out in training institutions. Second, those who are finishing university are being facilitated to get good internships. We're sending some graduates to Israel where they spend a year acquiring hands-on skills and practice on the farm. So far, 1,500 of them have returned from Israel over the last five years or more. And when they come back, they try to become entrepreneurs, putting into practice what they have learned. Some have created companies providing key services in agriculture management, irrigation schemes, and doing mechanisation. So, we have good examples that are making a difference. Others are working in our key agencies and projects. Third, we’re leveraging the graduates from the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture (RICA). The institute is offering a unique hands-on training model that we believe will help reshape the industry. It’s a collaboration that is helping to train the next generation of farmers, skilled across six enterprise areas; from diary, meat and grain processing to private crop production. We want to train generations of future farmers who have clear visions, some are already practitioners and are professionals. People who can do dairy processing and everything, up to a final product. For instance, from meat processing and grain processing to harvesting and processing, conveying to transformation, to feeds and animal feeds to the final product – on the plate. We also support the Rwanda Youth in Agribusiness Forum. We host them. And we also prioritise youth and women in matching grants. Young people and women make up the majority of our population – and are mostly the ones without capital and collateral – and therefore we give their projects special facilitation. Qn: The recent national census showed that Rwandans in agriculture dropped by 5 per cent, from 72.7% in 2012 to 67% in 2022. Is this a cause for concern? The decline of Rwandans in the agriculture sector is not a problem as long as the produce and growth are there because I don't expect everybody to come into agriculture. What we need is to bring in those who can make a difference. I can bring one and remove 10, but the one I bring into agriculture produces maybe three times or even five times more. That's the principle. Qn: Any special attention to mechanisation and innovation? Gaps in these areas are a major deterrent to potential investors and particularly to young people joining agriculture. That's the new hoe I was talking about earlier. We’re trying to do our best to promote mechanisation, and modernise our farms. One example is highly subsidised machines and tractors that we provide to farmers. Qn: Don’t you think that one way of changing the mind-set is by leaders setting a good example? Let’s say, by Cabinet and other government officials investing in farming and other aspects of agriculture themselves? I’ve actually been speaking with my colleagues about this and we will continue to do so. As a matter of fact, it’s only in agriculture where Ministers are allowed to invest and do business – because we are not allowed to do business in other areas due to conflict of interest. But there is an exception when it comes to agriculture. I think it’s a great idea that, as leaders, we’re indeed seen to be leading by example. And, as we noted earlier, there is every reason for anyone to want to do business in the agriculture sector.