[SPONSORED] How small scale irrigation has turned Rwandan farmers into multi-millionaires

The long awaited rainy season is finally with us and is a great relief to many small scale farmers around the country who depend on the rains for farming.
Small Scale Irrigation. / Courtesy.
Small Scale Irrigation. / Courtesy.

The long awaited rainy season is finally with us and is a great relief to many small scale farmers around the country who depend on the rains for farming. In the dry season, many farms are visibly dry and bare as farmers abandon them for lack of rain and seek other means of making a living for their families.

This is contrary to the new way of life for farmers in Nyagatare District, many of whom solely depend on agriculture for their daily bread. Farmers here no longer rely on seasonal rainfall for farming activities. In fact the dry season is to them the most profitable. While other farmers are lamenting the dry season for lack of rain, they are smiling all the way to the bank under the hot scorching heat.


In 2014 the government of Rwanda through the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI) embarked on a project that has seen many farmers’ lives improve by leaps and bounds. Many have seemingly been turned into over night millionaires.


The small scale irrigation technology project was set up by MINAGRI to benefit farmers having land up-to 10 ha. MINAGRI through the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) created water channels near farms by diverting rivers in the locality. According to Innocent Nzeyimana, the head of Land Husbandry, Irrigation and Mechanization Department at RAB, Rwanda has 121,000 hectares with potential to benefit from small scale irrigation. The government’s annual target for land under small scale irrigation (SSI) is 2,000 hectares. Currently 4,000 hectares are under small scale irrigation and by 2018 the number is expected to have reached 10,000 hectares and above. Since the majority of the Rwanda agriculture is rain-fed, RAB is working closely with private sector, and mobilising NGOs and projects to contribute in increasing the annual SSI target, and thus expand area under SSI technologies. In partnership with FAO, IFAD, AfDB, OXFAM, and other key partners, support to farmers on SSI equipment and training has been undertaken countrywide, particularly in Eastern and Southern Provinces.


During the dry season, as you travel by road the evidence of drought is all around. Vast bare fields with only scattered stunted dry maize crops that seem to have been forgotten from the last season by their owners. It is therefore as if one is ushered into a whole new world when you come to Nyagatare. As far as the eye can see is acreage after acreage of lush green plantations – a stern contrast of scenery.

In one of the farms, a farm manager is busy setting up a rain gun irrigation sprinkler to irrigate beds of capsicums and tomatoes that have been recently planted. Around him are trees of oranges that spread out a huge distance behind him. He says that he is not sure about the number of orange trees but they must be more than 3,000. Interspaced on the land where he is standing are numerous tree tomato trees. There is little to no fruit on them because he has just finished harvesting its last fruits and plans to uproot them and plant new ones.

The farm is five hectares and on a rotational basis throughout the year he plants water melons, eggplants, papaya, chilli and onions in addition to capsicums and tomatoes. The sprinkler is effective and does not require anyone to operate it as the water is spread through out the patch of nursery beds he needs irrigated. This has reduced on labour costs for the farm. Nonetheless, this farm has created jobs to close to one hundred youth and women. On a daily basis, there are 50 people working on the farm doing various activities from preparing land for planting, planting and tending to the various crops.


As we converse, a young man is busy surveying the pipe that is ferrying the water from a nearby canal to make sure that the water is being pumped properly. The water canal is a diversion of River Muvumba and stretches some 29Kms from the source. More than 1,085 farmers, most of whom farm tomatoes and watermelons, have access to the water canal which does not dry up during the dry season. Given the availability of water all year round, the seasons here are only distinguishable by the transition from one crop to another. The farm manager admits that “had it not been for the water, many of us would have abandoned Nyagatare in search of other means to feed ourselves and our families. We have remained here because we have water to use in our farms and many of us have found jobs in the farms so we can earn a living and look after our families well.”

In another farm, Francois Ndajimfura jovially gives a tour of his 5 hectares farm as his workers look on. Currently he has planted tomatoes on the entire piece of land and in less than two months he’s expecting to reap a great harvest. Ndajimfura also accesses water for irrigation from a nearby canal which means that throughout the year he has access to water for his farm. It is only one year since he started to access the water and during that time he has ventured into tomato and onion farming. So far he has harvested more than 300 tonnes of tomatoes. In two months time he expects to make Rwf. 5,000,000 from the tomatoes on his farm. This is in great contrast to when he only used to get Rwf. 300,000 from the same piece of land when he used to rely on rain fed irrigation for his farm.

Ndajimfura is married with 6 six children. “I can afford to pay school fees for all my children without any problem and the health insurance (mutuelle) payments is up to date for the entire family.” He happily explains.

According to Nzeyimana, farmers can easily make as much as Rwf. 600,000 to 1 million per season on every hectare from vegetables and Rwf. 2,500,000 to Rwf. 3,000,000 per hectare of banana plantations.

In addition to establishing water canals for farmers to access water throughout the year, RAB gives a 50% subsidy to vulnerable famers to purchase irrigation equipment. Ndajimfura paid Rwf. 175,000 for his irrigation kit while an equal amount was paid up by RAB to cover the total cost of the irrigation kit. RAB has partnered with 9 local distributors of irrigation to supply, install and train farmers on how to do minimal maintenance of the equipment. All equipment comes with a one year guarantee and is supplied according to the nature of the terrain of farms. RAB extension officers work closely with farmers and the suppliers to ensure that they get equipment that works for their unique terrain. RAB has partnered with Integrated Polytechnic Regional Centres in Gishari, Rwamagana and in Huye to train people on how to operate, maintain and repair irrigation kits.

Farmers have not only been able to reap more from their farms through small scale irrigation, they have also found new avenues of revenue by renting out the irrigation kits to other farmers. Once they have used the irrigation equipment to water their crops, they rent out the equipment when not in use.

Encouraging small scale irrigation is important as the Government’s target in Vision 2020 for a sustained annual GDP growth of 11.5 per cent with agriculture growing at 8.5 per cent cannot be delivered as long as the sector is dependent on rain fed irrigation. The government subsidy greatly reduces the burden for farmers to purchase the irrigation equipment and contributes to the growth of the sector as farmers are empowered to diversity crops and improve farming practices to get maximum yield from their crops.

Nzeyimana says that small scale irrigation is the answer to climate change today and crop productivity. Given that climate change is now a global issue, relying on rain-fed irrigation is hard and farmers need to be innovative not only to adopt small scale irrigation as they are adopting improved seeds and fertilizer inputs, but also harvest rain during the rainy season which they can use for irrigation during the dry seasons and also for their livestock. RAB conducts mobilization campaigns at the grass roots level to encourage farmers to buy tanks and dam sheets to store collect and store water. Both water tanks and dam sheets are bought at government subsidized prices.

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