From a distance it looks like a playground. But as we get closer, we realize it is a vast rice field located in a marshland. A middle aged man bends to pick mature rice crop. We later discover he is called Emmanuel Ntibizerwa, a resident of Rwangingo in Karanganzi, Gastibo District. It is time for the 48-year-old to reap what he sowed in Rwangingo marshland.
He is one of the many farmers that have found a niche in marshland farming in Rwanda. He harvests more than 10 tonnes of rice every season and earns more than Rwf5million.
Ntibizerwa also grows a variety of other crops including rice, maize and vegetables.
He is a model farmer and a source of inspiration to many residents in Gastibo District.
Ntibizerwa saw an opportunity where others could not to be able to make a modest living.
He spends 8 to 10 hours every day in this marshland, a dedication that has made him a successful famer.
Ntibizerwa started out as a retail shopkeeper working for his uncle, which he says was not enough to support his livelihood and that of his family.
He says he had no choice but to go into marshland farming as the only way to boost his household income.
As a shopkeeper, it was always difficult for me to meet my obligations as a man with a family, he says adding that after years of toiling as a shopkeeper, he decided to quit and join marshland farming.
Because of my poor education background, I knew it was not going to be easy for me to get a good job and so I decided to create mine in the marshland, he says as he gives us a guided tour of his rice field.
He says the decision to invest in rice farming was informed by mainly two factors; first was the high demand of the crop but most importantly was the resilience of the crop.
“Rice is a common in every home and can be grown at any time, so as a farmer you are always assured you will get the market,” he narrates as he demonstrates to his workers new skills of harvesting the crop.
He started with only 2 ha of land before expanding.
The startup capital was not enough for me to take off on a large scale, so the whole idea was to start small and expand with time.
He says lack of enough knowledge and experience about marshland farming also limited him at the start.
It was the first time I was attempting this kind of activity and the only way out was to learn from my colleagues.
The idea was to consolidate and increase production, but also market our produce as a group and not individual farmers, he says adding that the strategy worked out well and they were able to form a farming cooperative where he now acts as the chairman.
Meanwhile, the rice expert says he was fortunate enough to tap into government’s Marshlands, rehabilitation and development project being implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources.
Through the project, he was able to mobilize vast resources to boost production.
He explains that the project helped them increase the scale of production and to also plant high value crops that are more profitable. Overall the cooperative has managed to cultivate 245ha of rice and 655ha of maize, he noted.
The development of the marshland coupled with the construction of proper irrigation systems pushed productivity higher than was expected.
“For-example, I now harvest more than 10 tonnes of rice every season and 5 tonnes of maize,” he boasts.
He attributes this achievement to hard work and the Rural Sector Support Project which has been at the forefront of transforming the livelihood of farmers.
The Rural Sector Support Programme (RSSP), funded by the World Bank since 2001 is designed to support farmers with best agriculture practices including irrigation.
He also taps into the newly constructed Rwangingo dam for irrigation which has made him a competitive farmer.
With the introduction of the dam, Ntibizerwa says he has been able to diversify and bring more crop varieties into the marshland including vegetables and other horticulture produce.
He has also indulged in cattle rearing, taking advantage of the dam and fodder, which comes from rice husks.
We are being tough on how to take advantage of this buffer zone of the marshland and ensure we conserve it especially during the dry season.
Like many farmers, Ntibizerwa says his biggest challenge is prolonged drought that often affects his yields.
However, he is still grateful that government through the Land husbandry and water harvesting and hillside irrigation project, the problem is being addressed.
Most rice can only thrive in wet conditions, specifically standing puddles of water or swamp-like conditions, therefore it becomes a beat challenging during dry spells, especially when you are going to rely on irrigation which is costly.
He, however, says that once the rice grains develop, the water in which they grow must drain so that you can harvest and mill the crop, which in itself is a challenging technic.
Ntibizerwa says volatility in prices especially originating from middle men and poor storage facilities still make it difficult for farmers to become profitable.
He adds that the road network is still a challenge especially in villages which makes it difficult to transport the produce to the market. However, he is hopeful and optimistic about government’s plans to construct and upgrade more than 2500km of feeder roads across the country by the end of 2018.
He adds that most of the crops grown in marshland apart from cereals are perishable which makes it difficult when it comes to storage.
Ntibizerwa has no regrets for having chosen rice and maize farming as his main source of income.
He has turned both crops into a source of food and money.
I don’t buy food which means I save money and use it for other projects, he says adding that the marshland has generated him enough revenue to take his children to school, construct a house and open up a retail shop in his home town.
He says he earns more than Rwf5million every harvest enough to take care of his needs.
He also employs more than 20 people especially during the planting and harvesting period.
Advice to farmers
Ntibizerwa advises farmers to embrace innovation and modern farming practices for future rewards including being able to become profitable.
They should take advantage of government programmes and increase production, he says urging farmers to embrace cooperative farming and farm field schools to become more knowledgeable.
There is no doubt government and its stake holders are doing all they can to help the sector; it is therefore up to the farmers to embrace these changes to increase production and quality.
Equally he urges farmers to keep pushing banks to ensure they have more access to credit. “This is the only way you can boost the sector and its contribution to the national economy.”
He says he wants to concentrate on value addition and export market to further boost his profits.