Land and population in Rwanda, a Malthusian trap?

Rwanda’s wealth is her people. The same people who have tirelessly worked to eradicate poverty and who the country counts on, to rapidly and eventually win the poverty fight.

Rwanda’s wealth is her people. The same people who have tirelessly worked to eradicate poverty and who the country counts on, to rapidly and eventually win the poverty fight.

Why the reticence? O ye people of little faith.


Well, common sense simply urges caution.


In spite of their best intentions, Rwandans are alive to the structural challenges facing their landlocked, densely populated, post conflict nation; The Rwandan Tragedy: Increasing population and land scarcity.


Yes, they like listening to their President preaching dignity and self-reliance, on this score though, they would have preferred to be sitting on oil reserves or Kimberley diamonds.

Some of us had taken a short cut: If Hong Kong, with an area of 1.104 km2, can feed 7.2 million inhabitants, there must be a way to feed 10, 20 or even 30 million Rwandans with 26,400 km2: all commonsensical then, nothing scientific.

‘We are sitting on a time bomb!’ said a local journalist recently, pointing out that we are growing in density while our land isn’t expanding. Some neighbouring countries, fearing an overflow, chose to close their boarders to, or simply expel Rwandans.

Unfortunately researchers didn’t help. Some disregarded or tortured data, but others seemed genuinely troubled.

Paul Collier, for instance, a renowned economist, explained in his book: ‘The Bottom Billion’ that landlocked territories with no natural resources, simply shouldn’t become autonomous countries. Collier adds that whatever the landlocked countries do, they cannot defy gravity. Although ironical, Collier was at least candid and in a different context.

Two French researchers were not

Catherine Andre and Jean-Philippe Platteau, in their 1998 article ‘Land Relations under unbearable stress: Rwanda caught in a Malthusian trap’ published by the Journal of Economic Behaviour & Organisation, argued that Rwanda’s demographics are growing geometrically, while their economy grows arithmetically.

The study is indeed old. Yet, it has since shaped the discourse by consistent referencing. The latest being the article ‘Land Inheritance and Market Transactions in Uganda, published in February 2016 by the Journal of Economic Literature – a quarterly publication of the American Economic Association.

Just like the commentaries, the catchy aphorism couched in common sense, bred doubt on Rwanda’s resilience.

However, thanks to research by Prof. Alfred Bizoza, we are now able to say that previous assertions; namely, the ‘Malthusian Trap and Time Bomb’, were both scientifically incorrect.

In his research, Bizoza, an expert in Agriculture Economics and Associate Professor at the University of Rwanda, shows that population growth at its current pace in Rwanda may not be a problem till the 2050’s.

Professor Bizoza, who is also the director of research at the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR) Rwanda, showed that population growth is rather an enabler for the overall economic development and the only problem would be failure to create other opportunities within the agriculture value-chains.

Bizoza’s findings reveal deep oversights in Platteau and Andre’s research methodology. The two French researchers had used land as the sole benchmark against Rwanda’s demographic growth, and omitted industry, service, entrepreneurship and other sectors that have been equally growing. The French researchers made it seem as if all Rwandans do is farm the land.

This would be little like saying that Dubai will plummet when the oil dries up, and disregard the fact that it is also a vibrant business hub, a world market with booming tourist, hotel industries and a world-class airline.

Professor Bizoza explains that current estimates show that 55 - 58 per cent of total agricultural land area remains potentially uncultivated. And, with room for increment in irrigation, fighting soil erosion, tapping into land consolidation impact, and the most critical of all, more financing in agriculture, we are still under-utilizing our land.

Rwanda isn’t caught in a Malthusian trap – or in any trap at all. Credible research has shown that Rwanda’s wealth actually lies within its people.

The writer is a Senior Research Fellow, Governance, at the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR), is a think tank that researches economic and governance issues to advise government policy.

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