This year, Rwanda opened its first domestic seed processing plant and its farmers will harvest a homegrown maize crop that is truly ‘Made in Rwanda’.
The facility is the result of a balanced partnership that can be used as a model for similar initiatives in national development.
For years, the country has faced challenges when importing hybrid seed for farmers to plant on time. Seed imports already cost over Rwf4 billion annually, with distribution delays impacting national food security.
However, thanks to an innovative private sector partnership, endorsed by the Rwandan Agricultural Board (RAB) and the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI), the country is set to increase hybrid maize seed production by 700 metric tonnes this year, guaranteeing a consistent domestic supply of quality seeds.
The new seed facility is a major achievement in the ‘Made in Rwanda’ effort and paves the way for other private sector partnerships for national development.
Why local seed?
Just a couple of years ago, Rwandan farmers regularly received their hybrid maize seed late. Despite government efforts, the imports were disrupted by political instability in neighbouring countries, procurement challenges with foreign suppliers, and inconsistent regional delivery infrastructure.
In 2017, thousands of farmers faced severe losses after their hybrid seed arrived so late, they missed the planting window entirely. That year, the Rwanda Agricultural Board set in motion an ambitious strategy to reduce the overall seed import bill and offer farmers a reliable supply of locally produced seed, equal in quality to those purchased abroad.
Since the country began its ambitious Crop Intensification Program in 2008, it has moved from being a net importer of food to a net exporter—a definition of food security.
However, food security, in the long-term, will require more than increasing the yield per hectare.
True food security is about self-reliance; that the inputs needed to grow enough food are not subject to trade disputes or policies in far away places but, instead, are readily available within the borders of Rwanda and delivered to its farmers, on time for every season.
“We have started to develop and multiply new seed varieties,” Dr. Telesphore Ndabamenye, Head of Crop Production and Food Security at RAB, explained at the time. “There are still few seed multiplication centers, but we are working with private companies that can do it as a business.”
The strategy is now paying dividends. Last year, a partnership to produce hybrid maize seed here in Rwanda was announced by local firm, Agro-Processing Industries (API), Western Seed Company from Kenya, and One Acre Fund, an agricultural service provider operating across the region.
The tripartite agreement will enable the production, processing, and packaging of high-quality hybrid maize seed products that are truly ‘Made in Rwanda’.
A replicable model
The partnership could establish Rwanda as a net seed exporter in the next five years with a similar balance of private sector investment and public sector support.
Other private sector consortiums, across any sector, can learn from this effort to address other pressing concerns of national development.
Anywhere in the world, setting up new ventures is inherently risky. However, industry collaborations are a tried and tested way to de-risk investment while leveraging each partner’s comparative strengths.
Agro-Processing Industries (API), which oversees production, provided the land and labour for the project while One Acre Fund complemented this with investments in irrigation, processing equipment, and warehousing infrastructure.
Finally, the Western Seed Company sourced the parent material for the seed and brings to the table over two decades of expertise in hybrid maize production.
The comparative strengths of these three companies have made it possible to bring to produce significant volumes of high-quality maize seed in a relatively short amount of time.
Traditional seed programmes take, on average, at least five years to scale. However, given the experience of the partners involved, these high-performing ‘Made in Rwanda’ seeds have made it to market in just a year.
The Rwandan government, which facilitated the partnership, also played an important role in reducing key constraints to investment.
In the case of this partnership, a major barrier to investment was access to land. Under the partnership, API helped provided up to 1,200 hectares that allowed the facility to be set up.
Seed producers need public sector support to acquire the land resources needed to set up a facility that can supply the domestic seed market.
Finally, producing locally implies that there already exists consumer confidence in Rwandan products.
As part of its mandate, the Government is tasked with the critical role of building a strong domestic market for ‘Made in Rwanda’ products, especially when encouraging farmers across the country to buy locally produced seed.
After the delivery delay of imported seed in 2017, Rwandan seed dealer, Jean Nsabimana, noted that despite imports being highly erratic many farmers still preferred “hybrid seeds imported from outside to those produced locally.”
Over the last decade, local farmers have seen a dramatic increase in yields by using imported seeds and fertilizers, developing a keen loyalty for imported hybrid brands.
Nevertheless, government-led consumer education campaigns, such as the marketing efforts that complemented the launch of the ‘Smart Nkunganire’ system, can also be used to encourage farmers to plant new ‘Made in Rwanda’ seeds.
The agricultural platform was rolled out to Rwandan farmers in late 2017 as a new way to obtain credit, crop insurance, and to purchase seed and fertilizer. Starting with just over 1000 farmers, there are now more than 1.2 million registered on the system.
The Rwandan seed production partnership is a game-changer, not just for farmers, but for all Rwandans. The contributions of other private sector partnerships to national development will be exciting to follow as well as their impact on new ‘Made in Rwanda’ products.
Eric Pohlman is the Country Director for One Acre Fund Rwanda and Senior Partner at One Acre Fund. He was the winner of the 2015 Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application for his work in supporting smallholder farmers in Rwanda.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.