Rwanda is urbanising at a high rate, thanks partly to government’s push for development of regional cities to ease rural-urban migration.
With increasing urban development, the demand for food is equally growing, but more and more peri-urban dwellers are abandoning farming, creating pressure on the available food resources.
However, enterprising Rwandans, like Alice Muhirwa Hirwa, have taken advantage of this situation to produce food for urban residents through backyard farming. Besides providing food for families and ensuring food security, backyard farming is a source of income that has turned around fortunes of many a household, especially in Kigali.
Hirwa, who is also the general manager of Eden Business Centre, which promotes backyard farming, says the practice is like a gold mine that Rwandans with some space in the compounds can exploit to enhance their food reserves and supplement on the current family income.
“As urbanisation increases, urban dwellers will spend more on food unless they embrace backyard farming,” she says.
According to her, expenditure on household needs could be halved (cut by 50 per cent) if people embraced backyard farming.
Why backyard farming
Hirwa, who trained in agronomic research after university, says she was introduced to backyard farming by Dr Rekeraho Emmanuel, an agro-consultant who runs Eden Memory Research Centre.
The centre promotes human development through agriculture (both crop and animal husbandry), but focuses on growing of mushrooms, bananas, vegetables, tomatoes and poultry. She says they also educate urban dwellers about backyard farming, value addition and post-harvest management.
“We wanted to encourage urban dwellers to embrace backyard farming as a source of income and healthy diets.
“We wanted people living in towns to understand that they do not have to buy everything, but use their compounds to grow food for their families and sale the surplus,” the graduate of economics from Independent University of Kigali, explains.
This initiative would, for instance, help people save the money they spend on vegetables and fruits.
Backyard farming is less costly and requires limited space. It is also a bio-diversified farming activity that is environmentally-friendly, Hirwa says.
It also has a human health component as people are able to grow a variety of vegetables and fruits to improve the family nutrition, Hirwa adds.
“If one planted carrots on a 1.5 square diameter, they will harvest 2 to 3 kilogrammes per day worth over Rwf5,000. This is the money city or town residents spend almost every day on vegetables and other groceries,” according to Hirwa.
She notes that urban dwellers with limited space can grow crops like cabbages, onions, carrots and mushrooms, among others, on ‘hanging gardens’ (sacks suspended in the air or placed in compound corners), thus saving a lot of money to invest in other ventures to widen the family’s income streams.
Lack of quality seeds and other planting materials is one of the barriers affecting growth of backyard farming.
“The cost of packaging materials is also high, which affects profitability of agribusiness in general,” Hirwa says.
It is also hard to change people’s mind-set on the practice, which is hindering the expansion of backyard farming.
“People find it hard to ‘dig up’ their beautiful compounds to grow say, vegetables. They forget vegetables and fruits can make one’s home look amazing when planned well,” she says.
Access to credit, especially for startups, is still limited as banks always ask for financial statements, which some urban dwellers don’t have.
Advice to farmers
“Farmers must also get sufficient training to learn better farming methods for different crops and animals before starting out. This reduces the risks involved, and increases farmer’s profitability in the long-run,” she points out.
They also need to conduct a feasibility study on returns before you engage yourself in any kind of faring activity, Hirwa said.
This is because sustainability of any agriculture projects depends on people’s needs and it’s obvious that people need health food to survive.
Many farmers are still not aggressive towards market penetration, and yet this is a fundamental pillar for a successful agriculture industry.
She says people should not take agriculture for granted, noting that it source of livelihood for millions of Rwandans.
How to start a backyard farm
According to Hirwa, one needs determination, and limited space to start backyard farming project.
“This could be your home compound, or use garbage containers like bottles, buckets and empty bags that can be recycled and turned into backyard farming materials.”
After securing the space, prepare the planting area and plant the seeds. In case where one is going to use containers, fill the containers with soil and manure let them rest for some time and then plant seeds or seedlings.
However, according to Hirwa, it is important that backyard farmers target high-value crops such as carrots, onions, tomatoes and cabbages to be able to earn better profits.
Irrigation is yet another important aspect that sustains backyard farming, which is done (farming) throughout the year.
Hirwa believes that most agriculture projects fail because of poor management and lack of strong networks.
“It is, therefore, critical that farmers establish strong linkages right from grassroots level to the markets for sustainability of the enterprise,” she argues.
She urges backyard farmers to create production and consumption networks to ensure a steady market to sustain the venture.
This can be achieved through formation of farming co-operatives to help keep farmers informed of any developments in the sector.
Eden Business Centre also has an incubation facility, where they train farmers, at a fee, for various short course of between four days to six.
Hirwa and Rekeraho have so far established three training centres in and outside Kigali, and churn out over 50 backyard farming graduates monthly.
The duo has demonstration farms in Kamonyi, Kicukiro and Musanze districts.