Mahoro smiles contentedly as she counts a bundle of brand new banknotes at a local cooperative in Gisagara District. The maize grower has just been paid for the 200kg of the grain she supplied the previous week. Unlike many other farmers in the country who complain about low prices, Mahoro gets premium rate for her produce thanks to its high quality.
The farmer, who works under Koperative Jyambere Muhinzi Gisagara (KOJYAMUGI), a cooperative of maize growers in the district, ensures the maize is properly handled and stored after harvest.
According to local leaders, maize growers’ cooperatives in Gishubi, Muganza and Mamba sectors are regularly trained in postharvest handling and proper storage which has guaranteed premium prices for their produce.
The journey started around 2015 following a campaign by the agriculture ministry encouraging farmers to adopt recommended produce handling methods and better storage facilities to ensure quality, according to Boniface Nayigiziki, the KOJYAMUGI president. Nayigiziki says strategies devised by the group to improve postharvest handling and storage facilities paid off when the group secured deals to supply World Food Programme and African Improved Foods (AIF).
The group produces over 1,200 tonnes of maize which is bought at Rwf260 a kilo by the two organisations compared to Rwf200 that buyers pay other farmers, Niyibizi adds. The coop grows maize on 500-hectare piece of land near River Akanyaru in peat-dotted Mamba Marshland and used to produce less than 1,000 tonnes of maize per season.
“We were able to increase volumes by over 200 tonnes because of the good strategies we adopted in handling the grains as we did not expand our farms or use a different type of fertilisers,” says Nayigiziki.
This season, AIF has so far bought about 800 tonnes of maize from KOJYAMUGI.
Bernard Banamwana, the firm’s senior relations manager, says they buy grain from KOJYAMUGI and a few other coops in Gisagara because it is high quality, which he attributed to proper postharvest handling. He says the fact that the cooperative does not ask for a lot of support attracts buyers.
He explains that, in many cases, maize or soya farmers ask buyers to give them incentives which “sometimes require a lot of money. “But a few cooperatives of maize or soya farmers, including KOJYAMUGI, do everything on their own and we pay them handsomely for the produce,” he says.
He adds, however, that the firm does not get all the maize and soya they need, leaving them with big deficit that might force them to source from outside the country.
“What KOJYAMUGI cooperative and the other few maize cooperatives produce is not enough. So, we resort to buying from outside which increases cost of production and the final price. Therefore, we would prefer it if more farmers produced quality maize and ensure proper storage,” he says.
According to Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) over 30 per cent of national grain was being destroyed during postharvest in 2010, which posed a big threat to food security.
Emmanuel Kayiranga, the chairperson of post-harvest handling and storage taskforce at the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources, however said this has reduced to about 10.4 per cent as of 2015.
RAB director general Dr Mark Cyubahiro Bagabe attributes the improvement in postharvest management to efforts of the National Post-Harvest Staple Crop Strategy geared at helping farmers improve produce handling and storage.
“We partnered with the private sector platers to assist with improving the harvesting process, as well as post-harvest handling, trade, storage, and marketing within staple crop value chains in Rwanda,” he says.
He adds that RAB has dispatched solar dryers in agricultural zones around the country to help dry grain below recommended 14 per cent moisture content.
Tips on postharvest handling
KOJYAMUGI chief says the corn must be let to fully mature and dry naturally in the field before harvesting.
The conduct of farmers during harvesting is also an important aspect in postharvest handling as carelessness could lead to huge losses and contamination.
KOJYAMUGI has drying racks where maize cobs are hang and suspended to allow for natural drying after they have been picked from the fields. According to Julliene Nyiraneza and Aloysia Mukamana members of the cooperative, this approach has enabled them to dry maize properly, minimising losses as well as ensure quality.
“When maize is left to dry with coatings, it stands low chances of contamination. The structure doubles as both a drying and storage facility, according to the two farmers.
Jean Paul Hanganima, the Gisagara District vice-mayor in charge of economic affairs, says authorities have mobilised other cooperatives to adopt methods used by KOJYAMUGI, which has helped to improve quality and good buyers like AIF.
“In most cases, maize is destroyed due to poor postharvest handling and lack of proper storage facilities.
“When we mobilised farmers on the issue, postharvest losses dropped significantly and quality improved and so did farmers’ incomes,” he says.
Presently, farmers in the district earn over Rwf60 billion from produce sales, mainly maize.
KOJYAMUGI did not keep all its eggs in one basket. The cooperative set up a milling plant to process some of the maize to serve the local area.
“There is high demand for maize flour in the district and we built the milling plant to ensure easy access by our community.” The move was also out of patriotism and need for self-reliance. It was disconcerting for members to buy maize flour from elsewhere at high prices, he adds.
The presence of peat in some parts of the marshland is a big challenge for farmers as it causes fire outbreaks regularly, which destroy their crops.
According to Nayigiziki, they are supposed to get five tonnes per hectare, but they have never achieved that due to the presence of peat substance in the marshland.
“Areas where there’s no peat, the yield is up to five tonnes per hectare but that’s not consistent. However, there’re sections that we can’t use due to the presence peat,” he says.