In the backyard of an ordinary home in the oldest, busiest and the most populated neighborhood of Rwamagana town, Ally Ngabonzima, 37, is busy watering and generally taking care of his fruit farm.
Ngabonzima’s farm however is not your ordinary farm that you find everywhere in Rwanda. His is a special one where he nurtures fruit tree varieties that are rare or unknown on Rwandan soil.
Ngabonzima is a resident of Kigabiro Sector, Rwamagana District and for the last four years, he has been working on the introduction, multiplication and preservation of varieties of apple, fig, pomegranate, medlar and cherimoya trees.
Using a few trees, some of which a friend imported for him from a Middle Eastern country and others being the varieties that are feared to be going extinct in Rwanda, he mainly uses the layering, cutting and suckering methods to multiply to get a bigger number of seedlings.
Passion for agriculture
Ngabonzima says that originally, he didn’t think of the initiative as a business idea, but as a way to practice what he learned at agriculture school, and to pursue his passion in his free time.
“I started this as my own experiment, but when I got the first few seedlings, I started getting offers of big amounts of money to sell these trees and that is when I decided to make this my full time business.” he explained.
He finally quit his job to focus on fruits.
He started off with apples. At first, he failed because he was using the cutting method.
He later tried to use ‘suckering’ method, which involves pouring hormones of the tree on its surroundings, which makes new trees to emerge around the parent tree.
He tried grafting the tree and it worked, bearing about 12 fruits.
The idea of pomegranate was easier since the tree is adaptable to the Rwamagana climate.
This is the fig tree with fruits on it. Some of them are nearly ripe.
For the fig tree, Ngabonzima explains that his interest was aroused by the tree’s significance in many bible stories, plus how the Muslims culture considers it ‘sacred’.
Fig trees take less than a year and a half to start producing fruits.
His fruits are highly rich in antioxidants, nutrients, vitamins, minerals and are packed with anti-cancer benefits. They are also very helpful for patients of conditions like hypertension, diabetes and pancreatic issues, among others.
“When people come for apple seedlings, they see the pomegranate and ask for that too. One of my clients had been in India for medical treatment, he had high blood pressure, and he was told that the pomegranate fruit helps regularise the blood pressure,” he says.
For the medlar, or néflier in French, the trees are popularly used in making traditional medicine to relieve abdominal pain.
The medlar fruit is also popular in Japanese traditional medicine.
In order to keep the multiplication working, he sells an apple seedling for Rwf5,000.
He says that he gets at least 250 apple seedlings every month, but tries to keep about 20 for himself to avoid running out.
“Due to the love Rwandans have for apples, I can’t do this alone. I wish fruit multipliers could come to me for lessons on how it’s done so that we can increase the apple production in our country,” he suggested.
He pointed out that his wish is for the apples to be as present in homes and markets as avocadoes are.
The grafted apple bears fruits between one year and a half, to two years.
He is currently targeting acquiring modern materials and machines to multiply a larger number of the fruit varieties.
Dieudonné Mupenda, from Ngabonzima’s village, bought one apple seedling and planted it in his backyard. Almost two years later, he is already eating the fruit.
Mupenda has already acquired a piece of land and is planning to plant at least 30 trees.
“Ngabonzima did things that nobody in our area had ever done, using a very small portion of land. His innovativeness is inspiring,” he said.
The Deputy Director General of Agriculture Research and Technology Transfer at Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), Dr Charles Bucagu, says that they have a horticulture department that conducts research about some fruit species.
However, he added that their main focus is on the types that are priority and adaptable.
He noted that for apples, some species have proven to grow in high latitudes.
“First we analyse if it is a certain seed used that can be trusted, its source and if it can really be distributed at the national level. When some species arise, we put them in germplasm, keep them there, such that we first know their adaptation, and a way to multiply them, and then when we get a budget for it and people to work on it,” he clarified.
While many used to believe that apples are impossible to grow in Rwanda, there are places that share the same climate as the one in Europe which favors such fruits, he insisted.
Bucagu pointed out that farmers like Ngabonzima are valuable because their experience can be relied on for future reference.
“As RAB, we do appreciate partnership, we wish to work with the people who have their own technologies, see if they can be given certain support, check their seed, approve it and register the new seed in the RAB’s catalogue,” he said
He pointed out that while it may take longer for RAB to start the distribution of a new seed, working with farmers like him in research is allowed.
“We can work with him and use the place he grows the fruits as a research field, we can also establish many more similar places, until we get enough seedlings to distribute,” he said.