Inside an expansive warehouse at the National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB), it is a beehive of activity on a Wednesday morning.
Workers carry plastic crates full of vegetables and fruits, while others are sorting them before sealing them, ready for the cold room before they can be shipped off to different markets across the world.
Currently, some 11 companies are operating from this pack house where they employ up to 320 people – 80 per cent of whom women – in sorting and packing horticulture produce like avocados, French beans (also called green beans), passion fruits, snow peas, broccoli, bell pepper, chili pepper, eggplants, and banana prior to export.
Such crops have traditionally been grown for subsistence use and only coffee and tea, and most recently pyrethrum, were the known cash crops for the country for over half a century.
These traditional exports were introduced by colonialists, according to information from NAEB.
A group of farmers during a study tour on how to grow tomatoes in a greenhouse at Mulindi Agriculture Show in Gasabo District. / Sam Ngendahimana
According to information from the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources, income from horticulture produce increased from $0.300 million in 1994 to $27 million per year to date.
Pie Ntwari, NAEB’s communication officer told The New Times that before 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, there was a lack of enabling environment to expand and diversify agricultural exports.
“There were many factors including that Rwanda’s isolation from the international markets.
“We had no [developed] air transportation. In brief, the business had not yet developed, and we had no ready market which is a necessity got such produce because of perishability,” he said.
Donatille Nibagwire, the owner of Floris – a company engaged in horticulture exports – told The New Times that she started with exporting about 300 kilogrammes [of Latundan banana locally known as Kamaramasenge] per week in 2001, but currently, exports about 10 tonnes of various commodities including avocadoes, eggplants, sweet potato leaves and banana to Europe, mainly Belgium and France.
In Africa, her company exports to Congo-Brazzaville.
“The growth means that the business is performing well, and their (produce) standards are not questionable,” she said.
Tea and coffee have for long been the only cash crops for Rwanda, but, horticultural produce have also proven to be cash crops and have relatively higher returns, Nibagwire expressed.
“I think the foreign exchange generated by vegetables, flowers, and fruits [among other crops] are more than those generated from tea and coffee,” she said adding that those crops also provide income to many farmers growing them in shorter period.
According to statistics from a June 2018 report by NAEB, non- traditional exports generated over $354.7 million (about Rwf307.5 billion) from July 2017 to June 2018, representing 59.97 per cent increase compared to $221.7 million (Rwf192.2 billion) that was generated from July 2016 to June 2017.
An employee of Rwandafresh packages passion fruits at NAEB warehouse in Kigali before they are exported. / Emmanuel Kwizera
Non-traditional export commodities refer to commodities that were previously produced solely for domestic consumption in Rwanda, and have recently debuted the export market.
Those commodities include fruits, vegetables, roots and tubers, legumes and cereals, meat, eggs and dairy products as well as live animals.
Meanwhile, the three traditional exports raked in $161.2 million (over Rwf128 billion) in the 2017-2018 period compared to $134.7 million in the 2016-2017 period, an increase of 20 per cent.
Emmanuel Ndagijimana, a French bean farmer from Kinyinya Sector of Gasabo District told The New Times that he grows French beans on a half-hectare farm, from which he harvests four tonnes within two months.
He supplies first quality French beans to an export company, at Rwf550 a kilogramme, while the remaining produce is taken to the local market where it is sold at between Rwf150 and Rwf300 a kilogramme.
“I invest Rwf1.3 million and generate about Rwf2 million from the sale of about four tonnes of French beans in two months,” he said adding that such a crop gives yield in a shorter period compared to other crops.
Nibagwire said that there is need to ensure that exporters meet the demand, and called for continuous efforts to ensure the sustainability of quality produce.
Why export diversification
Realising that there was price fluctuations for the traditional agricultural exports (coffee, tea, and pyrethrum), Ntwari said that government decided to look for other ways to avert probable losses that would result from that situation – especially as such prices were determined by the international market of Rwanda had no control.
"The country adopted market-oriented agriculture – or agribusiness – vision. Then, we started by exporting the new cash crops to the regional market. The market demand increased even in Europe.
“We will continue to look for markets for the farmers, and facilitate them as well owners [of exporting firms] to have their agricultural products certified by meeting the standards that are being sought by the international market through training them, among other interventions,” he said.
Rwanda targets 46,314 tonnes of horticulture harvest and an annual export revenue of $130 million by 2024, according to projections from the Ministry of Agriculture.