The agriculture sector has often been termed as one of the key contributors to the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and poverty alleviation. Figures from the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR) indicate that the agriculture sector contributed 1.6 per cent to the current GDP of Rwf5.4 trillion.
The New Times’ Collins Mwai spoke to Gustavo Merino, the Director of the Investment Centre Division at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), who was recently in the country, on the role of the sector in national development and how to further increase the sector’s impact on the economy. Excerpts:
It has been said that Rwanda’s economy is heavily reliant on agriculture, is that a good or bad thing?
It is not necessary to look at it as a good or a bad thing. Many countries rely heavily on agriculture as a major exchange earner. It doesn’t mean that the sector won’t be productive or economically viable. There is no problem with relying on agriculture if you employ the correct technology and link it to the whole value chain and value added production.
An important aspect of countries that rely on agriculture is ensuring sustainability, we have to increase production, we cannot produce as we have been doing in the past, it has to be in a way that is more sustainable taking into account natural resources and effects of climate change. It is already happening in some countries, where we can see climate change affecting production, so it is necessary to reduce the negative impact agriculture has on the environment.
Some of the projects that I saw in Rwanda that conform to the changes are water harvesting and proper irrigation in hilly areas using terraces. Such are the developments to carry out if we are to increase productivity and conserve the environment.
Population density is not very conducive for commercial agricultural practices, what way forward would you recommend?
Rwanda is one of the countries that have the highest population densities on the continent. The important thing is that you have to increase production using the same size through practices that increase yields. This can be achieved by using better quality inputs and better technology (fertiliser and chemicals) and should result in increased incomes of the families that use the land.
Rwanda is already warming up to the changes and promoting new ways of increasing agricultural productivity. The government has also been engaging institutions such as FAO and financial institutions in this regard. It requires provision of expertise, knowledge and financial resources to do this.
Based on what you have observed, what is your take on agricultural exports?
Agricultural exports are very important through their contribution to growth and foreign exchange but what is important is that small producers should be able to get into the value chain and getting more of the value directly. That is part of what the government has begun doing and should continue to do. There has been a trend among most African countries to consume what they produce whereas they could produce more for export or commercialisation with a little more effort.
It is also important to eradicate trade barriers that hinder trade between countries; no single country produces everything they consume, hence the need to eradicate trade barriers.
Speaking of exports, should the country stick to traditional exports or expand to new products?
I think it is important to focus on what you are good at, whatever it is and build capacity among the farmers to have better quality produce.
Rwanda has a dominance of small holder farmers but if they manage to improve their productivity and add value to their products, they will in turn have access to better markets. It may pose a challenge but it doesn’t mean that they cannot be successful and have access to markets.
Currently much of the farm work in Rwanda, just as in many African countries is done manually, it is time there was uptake of mechanisation to boost small scale farmers production.
What agricultural practices in Rwanda have you found important and should be scaled up?
The rural intensification (land intensification) programme is quite a good approach toward increasing productivity. Private investment in agriculture is also very important if the sector is to contribute more to the country’s GDP. Most investment in agriculture across the world is by farmers, but a better enabling environment will increase the opportunities for private sector investment. There are other factors that matter, such as access to finance, insurance, access to quality inputs.
It is quite interesting to note that beyond improving economic status of farmers and people taking part in agriculture, the sector has also brought about social cohesion.
Little is ever said about livestock as an industry with so much potential, what is your take on it?
There is potential for livestock in the country; what needs to be done is to improve the quality of the livestock to increase the yield and at the same time ensure that they are resilient to drought and disease.