At Donatille Nibagwire’s workplace in Kiyovu, Nyarugenge District, it is beehive activity as workers engage in preparing sweet potato leaves, and packaging them prior to being loaded on a vehicle to Kigali International Airport for subsequent export to Europe.
For some Rwandans, taking care of sweet potato leaves to such an extent is not a common, as these leaves are not consumed locally. Indeed, accounts from local residents show that they do not know whether sweet potato leaves can be eaten.
However, Nibagwire has found a niche market in Europe where the leaves of “Matembele” specie are loved as a delicious and nutritious vegetable. The kind of sweet potatoes with such leaves have tubers with reddish skin, and are yellowish inside.
Nibagwire told Sunday Times that her company, Floris, which deals in horticulture products, exports between 500 and 700 kilogrammes of sweet potato leaves per week.
The company wants to increase the leaves export volume to 1.5 tonnes per week next year (2018) as there is a ready market for the commodity in Europe.
Currently, she notes that they are exporting that quantity because being in the early stages, they didn’t know yet whether they could meet the demand.
“Rwandans have not yet known about them; but, anyone who has consumed them will testify they are vegetables like any others,” she says.
Nibagwire says they export twice a week and take the leaves to Belgium. There, customers from various European countries pick their share.
“We buy the sweet potato leaves, which normally were being thrown away, and we export them to earn money. And, that does not prevent a farmer from getting sweet potatoes (tubers). So, the farmer sells the leaves and harvest their sweet potatoes [tubers],” she says.
She notes that she sells a kilogramme at about 3 Euros in Europe, including flight transport charges, while a she buys a kilogramme at about Rwf300 from local farmers.
She says a farmer can start harvesting the leaves after two months and a half of planting.
How she joined the business
Nibagwire says many farmers grow sweet potatoes, but did not know that their leaves were a source of food.
She started horticulture exports in 2001, with Latundan banana locally known as Kamaramasenge. She was 27, then.
But, it is in May 2017 that she started engaging in the sweet potato leaves export business, after getting to know that the leaves are a nutritious vegetable.
“It is my client who told me about them, sent me a photo and requested me to look for that type of leaves,” she says.
She looked for the leaves, and one day, she got them, and the client approved of them.
Currently, the sweet potatoes that give the type of leaves are being grown in some parts of the country including Gasabo, Rulindo and Huye districts.
Jean Paul Kagina, 33, grows sweet potatoes in Rulindo District, and supplies the leaves to Floris.
The father of three says upon maturity, a farmer can harvest the leaves twice a month, and get about 200 kilogrammes per a harvest on a plot of land with 20-10 metres in dimension, which he said can earn them between Rwf100,000 and Rwf150,000.
“Such type of sweet potato gives good yield if well taken care of. It matures in a short time, and helps its grower get money in a short time,” he says.
Plans to expand the business
Nibagwire says she sees potential market in sweet potato leaves.
She says they give seeds to farmers so that they supply them with the leaves.
Nibagwire adds that farmers can also share the sweet potato cuttings as they multiply.
Overall, the company exports between five and eight tonnes of horticulture commodities per week, including vegetables, sweet potato leaves, bananas, eggplants, pepper and chillies, cassava leaves, as well as flour.
Nibagwire testifies that horticulture trade has helped her improve her livelihood and that of her family. Two of her children are joining university, while the others are still in secondary school.
According to information from National Agriculture Exports Development Board (NAEB), Rwanda targets to increase horticulture exports more than tenfold, from $11 million in 2013 to $120 million by 2018.