Last month, an ActionAid report ranked Rwanda among three top nations that are most prepared to deal with food challenges, in a survey that covered 28 developing countries, coming only after Brazil and Malawi.
It beat all her neighbors, including DR Congo, which came last on the ranking. The country’s performance is down to consistent policy interventions over the past few years, including the Crop Intensification Programme (CIP), irrigation schemes, terracing, among others.
The country was also found to be in a position to tackle climate change, a growing population and rising food prices, all at once – only alongside Tanzania and Mali. But the same ‘Hunger Free Scorecard’ also warned against complacency, and actually put Rwanda in the tenth position on the hunger vulnerability index.
So, why has the country fared so impressively in matters of food security yet, at the same time, it is advised to remain vigilant?
According to the Minister of Agriculture, Agnes Kalibata, the country has attained food security levels, with the focus now shifting to sustainability.
“We have been having a very ambitious programme of ensuring that we get out of issues of food insecurity that had characterized Rwanda for a long time. At least since 2009, we are on the right path in terms of food security; we now have enough food, Kalibata told The New Times in an exclusive interview in her office this week.
“Our biggest pre-occupation today are two things; how do we sustain this production that has taken us to food security, how do we keep the moment, the interest; number two, how do we deal with nutritional issues?
“When ActionAid talks about vulnerability; they are talking about nutritional issues; about those households that are on the edge in terms of being able to access adequate nutrition; you may be having enough land just to produce only so much, how do you ensure that these farmers who are living on the edge –those who are extremely vulnerable – have the right amount of knowledge and back-up to get out of vulnerability?” she explained.
Beyond food security
But vulnerability is not something you get rid of overnight. Rather it needs consistency, which is why the government has set out an elaborate plan to transform the sector, Kalibata observed. “Through local government structures, such as Vision 2020 Umurenge, we have started very serious programmes of looking for the most vulnerable families to help enhance their capacities.
“We are coming from the national-level food security picture, to looking into individual households that are affected; to ensure that some of these families that are falling through the cracks get the support they need.”
It is this family specific approach that has resulted in such initiatives as the ‘One-Pint-Per-Child’, where children from the most susceptible families, from nursery to primary three, are provided with free milk at school in particular districts. The government says it wants to extend the programme to the whole country.
But there are other family-based initiatives that have been designed to help boost food security at the micro level. Emphasis has also been put on encouraging poor households to own such small things as chicken, rabbits and kitchen gardens. The reasoning is that such things do not need a lot of land, yet are highly nutritious and have the potential to change the whole status of households.
More broadly, the government has also been involved with promoting initiatives designed to help ensure food security. One of such interventions has been to ensure that farmers are not entirely dependent on the rains, while much effort has also been invested in terracing the country’s hills.
“You know that two thirds of Rwanda is hilly, which have lots of rainfall that just washes the soil away, disappearing and causing floods. Production in these terraced lands has increased by 400 percent; because with terracing, you are increasing rain holding capacity, creating a place to farm, reducing soil erosion, and ensuring that the fertilizers that have been put in are used because, otherwise, they were being washed away,” said the agriculture minister.
But there are a number of challenges that still threaten these efforts, the main ones being lack of sufficient markets and inadequate financing.
“Farmers will always produce if they have markets; they want to be sure that when they produce they will sell their food. It is very critical that we ensure that there is buyer X who can buy from them and take this food to international markets; that is something farmers have no capacity to do,” Kalibata explained.
“Even when you organize them in cooperatives, they can only do much as cooperatives; but we need really, serious trading systems that can take this food; the more we take out, the more we bring in; if we don’t take it the system gets clogged; our food security goes back down, not because we can’t produce, but because farmers don’t see any purpose of producing. That’s one of the things that we are trying to work on with the Ministry of Trade and Industry”.
The minister said the government was in the process of constructing post-harvest infrastructure across the country, which is partly private, and partly public. She added that feeder roads are also laid in every region with “serious production”.
“We are really putting a lot of money into villages, into farmers’ hands, through building irrigation systems, terracing, and erosion control. They are earning money in terms of the work they are doing, but also in terms of production”.
But she insisted that transformation will come from value addition. To this end, she disclosed that Rwanda has registered to participate in a programme dubbed ‘Grow Africa’, which is driven by the African Union and the World Economic Forum. The programme, Kalibata said, will help the country create food baskets, which the country will then invest in to make them interesting for the private sector.
The programme is still in the early stages, but, by next year, there should be something definitive, she noted.
“Grow Africa was initiated for purposes of agricultural sustainability in African countries, just as the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), aimed to improve food security,” the minister continued.
“Now people are looking to the fact that some countries have actually achieved food security, how do we take it to the next level of sustainability? We need to develop concrete investible proposals that we can use to interest people; the private sector doesn’t come easy, so you have to have very good concrete proposals, and that’s what this programme is all about.
“Having identified these food baskets, we will then work very hard to pull private sector investments, because if you are saying, ‘look there are roads, electricity, there’s enough production going on, farmers are organized’, there’s no reason why the private sector shouldn’t be coming in.
“The whole of Rwanda can be a food basket, but we have identified four areas of highest potentials; the North, Northwest, East and the Milk Basins (areas of concentration of milk production, such as Gishwati, Nyagatare and Gatsibo), where you can tell someone, ‘look, if you go to this area, I guarantee you electricity, I guarantee you whatever appropriate infrastructure you are looking for, and I guarantee you that the farmers will be organized enough to supply you.’”
The minister, however, says that suitability can only be achieved if the private sector is fully involved, underlining the need for more agriculture financing.
“Rwanda can produce three seasons of potatoes and peas a year. When people say ‘there’s not enough produce’, it all has to do with outlets. Farmers don’t produce if they don’t have a reason to produce; they only produce what they need”.
In Rwanda, only 4 percent of the total loan portfolio goes into the agricultural sector. But, in a speech in parliament two weeks ago, Prime Minister Pierre Damien Habumuremyi, announced plans to increase the agriculture lending share to 18 percent by 2017. To achieve that, he said, the government plans to set up an exclusive agriculture development bank. Kalibata blames reluctance by most of the banks to put money into the sector on what she calls “perceived high risks”. She says the perception was largely unfounded considering that the country has three seasons a year, at least for some crops.
“In other places, three seasons a year would be every reason for you to want to give away your money. I think an agricultural bank, combined with a kind of training institution for bankers, to have them understand what agriculture is really about and how agriculture financing works would come in handy,” she said.
“When these go together, you have them (bankers) understand how financing is done for small-holder farmers, for contract farming, for big-time farmers, how the private sector gets engaged with banks, the relationship that gets built to ensure that everyone benefits.
“The problem that you mostly find in some of the young businesses in Rwanda is that they think that it’s a one-way street: that farmers will bring things to you, or you get things from farmers. But a farmer is business person; he’s an investor, he also looks at his numbers, if it doesn’t add up, he will not do it. The cost of production has to make sense to him; the cost of getting stuff to you has to make sense to him; in many other countries, it’s a relationship that starts with the farmer, and goes straight through the banks, to the private person who’s doing the transformation,” she added.
“Building these relationships is still challenging, but we need a professional private sector that understands how agriculture works, and they are there. We just have to interest them enough, to design business proposals that will interest them”.
The minister, however, could not give details about the planned agricultural bank, saying it remains more of an idea, but which has been agreed upon. But she stated that, even before the bank is established, the government will continue to encourage existing banks, particularly the Rwanda Development Bank (BRD), to avail more financing to the sector.
“The question is the volumes. Volumes need investments, whether it’s increasing the amount you are producing per tree, you need fertilizers; whether you are increasing the area of production, you need money to do that... Farmers need money to be able to invest in these things.”
“We still employ 80 percent of the population, if we can provide financing so that it becomes more productive and more interesting for people to professionalize agriculture, to go into it as a business, it would make a whole lot of difference. It would put it to an interesting scale,” she added.
“Once financing is there, people’s minds open to ideas, the sector would be more interesting for other people besides farmers. You could decide to go and build a warehouse and start collecting produce and sending it to other countries where they need food”.
“We will continue being food secure, because we are doing everything possible in terms of investments; the necessary public investments are being put in place, the farmers have seen that it’s possible to go beyond being hungry every day, we are going to continue being food-secure; the question is, can we turn this into a money-making business for our farmers, into a wealth-creating business?
“There are parts of Rwanda that will always have rains because of the nature of our country; how do you invest in those areas to make sure they are always your backups? That’s the Western and Northern provinces. In the places where you have problems, especially in the Southern and Eastern provinces, we have identified backups in the form of draught-resistant crops such as cassava. Every household needs to have that as a backup; we have made serious investments in irrigation schemes in those two provinces.
“Third, since last year, we have strategic reserves that would intervene if we had a problem. That’s why I am saying food, security-wise, I am not worried because we have programmes on the ground that would ensure that our country is secure.”
Outside the government, public opinion indeed suggests that Rwanda has moved beyond food-insecurity situations. But views differ on what the main challenge the sector faces, depending on who you ask.
Local leaders to blame?
According to the Managing Director of BRD, Jack Kayonga, the main obstacle to bank loans in agriculture is high risks that are associated with the sector, yet with low returns. But he concurs with Minister Kalibata on the capacity gap in the banking sector.
“You need people who understand the production cycle, the climatic features and other technicalities in this sector,” he said.
Kayonga added that loans into the agriculture sector account for 45 percent of the bank’s total loan portfolio (Rwf60 billion).
“BRD is a gap filler, and as long as there is a gap, we will always come in, with or without an agricultural bank”.
On his part, Herman Klaassen, the CEO of Banque Populaire de Rwanda (BPR), the main challenge they see in financing agriculture is the knowledge gap between the agriculture players on one side, and the financial institutions on the other side. He added that the management of many cooperatives can be improved in order to increase their financing opportunities.
“At this moment, Rwanda lacks third party warehouses, with a good warehouse receipt system. Putting this in place will definitely increase the finance opportunities for the sector,” Klaassen advised.
“The country is moving in the right direction, but it will take some more time. You cannot tackle all the challenges overnight…We believe that the private sector, in combination with the existing stimulation package, can achieve a lot”.
But others are also critical of grassroots leaders, insisting they do little to support the central government’s programmes.
Gerald Sina, the propriator of Urwibutso Enterprise, a food processing plant in Rulindo District, said that he is forced to import raw materials for pepper production and for other products, “because local leaders have not done enough sensitization among the population to produce what is enough to satisfy local demand”.
He also pointed at the fact that agronomists have abandoned the sector, leaving it in the hands of the largely ignorant farmers. “I think they should be conditioned to work in this sector for a particular period.”
“Considering what has been done in the recent past, it is clear that we are no longer hungry; nonetheless, we need to develop economically as a nation, and agriculture should play a key role. Banks and insurance companies are normally driven by desire to make quick money, which is why they are reluctant when it comes to financing agriculture,” he added.
Everest Mutibagirana, a model farmer in Nyabubare Cell, Karenge Sector, Rwamagana District, also accused local leaders of not helping advance the sector, saying that they hardly encourage farmers to roll up their sleeves, and till their land.
“There is too much laxity at the grassroots. People don’t even want to learn from their more successful neighbours, even local leaders do nothing to ensure that residents learn from each other,” he lamented.
“It is not understandable how local leaders simply watch as some farmers move from bar to bar in broad-day light, instead of tilling their land. There is need for local leaders, right from the district level, to do more follow-ups and make sure that we consolidate recent gains”.
Mutibagirana also blamed banks for charging high interest rates.
However, the Minister of Local Government, James Musoni, dismissed claims that local governments were not helpful in improving the food security situation.
“Evidence on the ground indicates that there’s great improvement in how local governments are involved in promoting agriculture. For instance, during this year’s Season A, figures from the Ministry of Agriculture showed that no district scored below 100 percent of their targets,” he said.
“But, obviously, there’s room for improvement, which is why, next Thursday, we have a meeting with all the district mayors and vice mayors in charge of economic affairs, together with the officials in the agriculture sector. We will be looking at how best we can move beyond just food security, particularly through making the most of every arable piece of land”.