Alphonsine Nyirabarera is engrossed in activities at her maize garden oblivious of our presence. To reach her maize garden in Rambura sector, Nyabihu District in the Western Province, we had to trek for about a kilometre in hills of Gurero cell, where she does most of her farming activities.
Nyirabarera has spent more than half of her life time as a cultivator, growing a variety of crops. When the 64-year-old Nyirabarera talks about farming, one realises what the old adage that success does not come on a sliver plate is all about. The farmer presently harvests over five tonnes of maize, as well as two tonnes of Irish and 1.5 tonnes of climbing beans during a good season.
The mother of six is also a big wheat grower and peers refer to her as a ‘wheat expert’ because of the innovative way she grows and handles the cereal, a feat that has become a source of inspiration for many in Nyabihu.
She attributes her success to the Land Husbandry Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation (LWH) project that seeks to boost agriculture production.
Nyirabarera says she previously had to endure many challenges as a hillside cultivator, including soil erosion, and is proud to have persisted as farming has enabled her improve her household income and livelihood.
Nyirabarera was orphaned at an early age. With no education, it seemed like the world was closing in on her after she lost her husband. However, as a rural dweller, she found refuge in farming and working in other people’s gardens as a casual worker.
“Life was difficult that I had to make those hard choices, including working as a casual labourer, tilling other people’s gardens and plantations before I decided to fully focus on my own farming projects,” she says.
The elderly farmer was not even sure where she would get money to buy seeds at the beginning.
She says she started with less than an acre of land, growing a number of crops, including beans, sorghum, Irish potatoes and maize. However, her harvests were very low as “I used to rely on mother nature for production, and used poor methods of farming.”
LWH project intervenes
These challenges almost made her rethink the decision to take on farming as an income-generating activity. Later, she was lucky that the Land Husbandry Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation (LWH) project was introduced in Nyabihu. She says farmers in the area were trained in modern and commercialised farming under the project.
“Our land was barren and unproductive; we only survived on maize and wheat because these are the only crops that could give some minimal yields under the conditions. But after our land was rehabilitated and transformed by the project, we started to cultivate Irish potatoes and the harvest was amazing,” she narrates.
Push for land consolidation
She says she took the initiative to champion land consolidation in the area by approaching fellow farmers and urging them to work together under the arrangement.
The idea was driven by the need to embrace modern farming to help increase crop production and hence farmers’ household incomes.
Trick behind her success
The model farmer learnt early the power of irrigation and land terracing under the Land Husbandry Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation project.
Adaption of the two modern farming practices has helped Nyirabarera address the challenge of drought and soil erosion especially during the rainy season, she explains.
She adds that hillside irrigation has the potential to transform agriculture in the country.
“First of all, Rwanda is a mountainous country which is a big challenge for farmers, especially during the rainy season as water runoffs wash away crops and soil downhill. Therefore, farmers must embrace projects like LWH to help improve crop production,” she says.
Like other hillside farmers, Nyirabarera worries about soil erosion, prolonged droughts, and access to markets. The fact that more than half of the land in Nyabihu is exposed to soil erosion during rainy season is a threat to farmers as they lose crops. The farmer says the problem became acute in the sectors of Muringa and Rwambura that many farmers abandoned farming.
“Thankfully, when the LWH project was introduced in the area in 2009, everything changed,” she notes.
She also says farmers in the area mostly grow vegetables, but lack cold chain facilities, a situation that leads to huge post-harvest losses.
She added that there is need to encourage local consumption to support farmers. “Why would the country be importing tonnes of wheat when we can actually produce it here locally,” she wonders.
Through subsides and ensuring farmers get the inputs in time, you can be assured of better agriculture output, she adds.
The model farmer is consulted by many people in the locality and she also trains farmers to sharpen their skills in growing beans, maize and potatoes.
From less than an acre of land, Nyirabarera now has more than 20 acres of land. She produces over five tonnes of Irish potatoes, wheat, and other legume crops each season compared to 200 kilogrammes of maize previously. This has seen her pocket millions from her produce sales.
She is constructing a new house estimated to cost over Rwf10 million.
“I thank the government and promoters of the Land Husbandry Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation for helping restore lands and boost production.”
Farmers have a role to play in the development of the country and, therefore, must embrace modern farming to increase the sector’s contribution to the national economy.
We also need to promote commercial production aggressively so we can enhance production and supply other markets and contribute to building the Rwanda brand.
Nyirabarera says she will continue encouraging farmers to join co-operatives, arguing it is the best alternative through which agriculture in the country can best be improved. She also dreams of exporting her produce to markets outside Rwanda.