Agriculture drove Rwanda’s impressive growth over the past years and remains a key player of the country’s economy today, making up a third of GDP while employing 88% of the active population.
Largely due to successful transformation of agriculture, poverty dramatically decreased from 80% in 1994to less than 45% of the population today.Again thanks to agriculture, most Rwandans are now food secureand can access more balanced diets.
Agriculture in Rwanda at a crossroad
Despite these major achievements, Rwanda’s agricultureis beginning to face heavy challenges.
The “land of a thousand hills” is the second most densely populated country in sub-Saharan Africa with about 415people per sq. km and it experiences amongst thehighestpopulation growth rates (2.7% in 2013) in the world.
Rising population and income, and related changes in food habits are resulting in an ever-growing demand for food. Evidence is accumulating on serious loss of soil fertility and decline in water quantity and quality in the country – twoof the most critical natural resources on which agriculture depends.
In addition, climate change is already exerting significant negative pressure on the country’s agriculture, especially by changing the rainfall quantity and patterns. Yet, Rwanda must produce more and better to meet the sharply increasing demand for food and other products and services provided by its agricultural sector.
Rwanda is not alone in facing this predicament! Yield growth rates of food crops are declining worldwide.Average growth rates of yieldfor cereal grains (e.g. wheat, rice) have slowed from 2% per year in the 1970s-1980sto 1% per year since 1990.
Degradation of natural resources, and in particular degradation of soils and their intensive use may reflect the slowdown in yield growth. Unsustainable land use practices result in global net losses of cropland productivity of 0.2% a year.
The way forward
Rwanda can and must find solutions to these problems. By taking advantage of the best available knowledge both indigenous and external,the country can anticipate and adapt to the forthcoming challenges.
Much is already being done to increase production and conserve resources for food and agriculture in Rwanda.Nevertheless, some additional solutions that have proven successful elsewhere may support and accelerate the transition toward more productive and more sustainable agriculture, that will allow crops, forest products, livestock and fish to be produced for generations to come.
Sustainably intensifying agricultural production.Sustainable intensification of agriculture (please see Save and Grow paradigm launched by FAO in 2011) is based on a systemic approach to managing natural resources, in order to achieve greater production from fewer resources and minimize negative environmental impacts.
To do so, adapted, context-specific technologies and practices can be put in place locally. For example, large-scale irrigation schemes could be complemented by knowledge-based precision irrigation techniques.
Land degradation could be hindered through agroforestry that would allow for both environmental and economic benefits, in particular with fruit trees. Adapted associations and rotations of a wider range of plant species could be cultivated, to enhance soil fertility, crop nutrition and improve resilience.
Where the steep Rwandan slopes allow for it, conservation agriculture could be tested: minimized soil disturbance (minimized tillage) would help retaining crop residues and increasing soil fertility. Small livestock could be more widespread, thus contributing to human nutrition, fertilizing soils and providing economic benefits.
On the policy side, land consolidation (different from land-use consolidation) can significantly increase efficiency of Rwandan agriculture by facilitating mechanization, irrigation, and saving agricultural inputs including labour.
The Crop Intensification Programme (CIP) started in 2007 and contributed to sharply increase productivity of major crops. Timing is now appropriate to review CIP under the light of the latest available knowledge.
Strengthening research & extension.Successful reforms, such as the Crop Intensification Programme (CIP), have taken place and contributed to increase productivity of major crops.
Rwanda achieved amongst the highest Total Factor Productivity growth (3.5% yearly) in Africa between 1995 and 2011.
Future agricultural growth will increasingly depend on technological change, which will require greater investmentin agricultural research and development. The number of PhD-qualified researchers sharply increased over the past years, and yet the country counts less than 22 Full Time Equivalent of researchers qualified to the level of PhD.
The merger of research and extension institutions into Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB )is bringing many opportunities but also challenges.Ensuring that the education and research system is tailored to the needs of farmers will be instrumental in developing and diffusing appropriate technologies over time.
Reinforcing institutional coordination.Improving the management of natural resources is key to make Rwandan agriculture more sustainable.Considerable amounts of organic matter, nutrients and water are lost every year in Rwanda. To avoid these losses and their disastrous consequences on the country’s agricultural production potential, the Government made huge investments in major projects and programmes for improved water and land management: Land Husbandry, Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation Project (LWH), Rural Sector Support Program (RSSP), Kirehe community-based Watershed management Project (KWAMP).
To make these investments more effective and more sustainable over time coordination and collaboration should be fostered between the various stakeholders– such as MINAGRI, MINIRENA, MINALOC, development partners, and most importantly, farmers.
A partnership between Rwanda and FAO
FAO supports countries to eliminate hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition and to develop successful agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors. We learn from experiences over the world and adjust our advice to ensure greater sustainability in the many areas in which we work.
Acknowledging that successes can be enhanced through more integration, now we are also connecting all these areas to make sure that the entire system of food and agriculture is sustainable. We call this a Common Approach to Sustainable Food and Agriculture, or SFA.
Rwanda has agreed to partner with FAO as one of the first countries in which Sustainable Food and Agriculture is being applied. The aim is to ensure that there is enough nutritious and safe food for all, that agriculture as a business thrives in Rwanda and that the environment on which sustainable food production depends, and which those who grow the food also manage, is in the best possible condition for generations to come.
The writer is the FAO Representative to Rwanda