A glimpse at what the future holds for farming

INTERVIEW: Agnes Kalibata is the new minister of state for agriculture. She spoke to FRANK KAGABO AND IGNATIUS SSUUNA on what the ministry doing to improve productivity in the agriculture sector:
In terms of quality Rwanda’s agriculture products triumph, we need to focus on productivity (File photo)
In terms of quality Rwanda’s agriculture products triumph, we need to focus on productivity (File photo)

What do you aim to achieve as the minister of state for agriculture?
A: Well, our mission is specifically to provide food, be self sufficient in food and also to increase incomes of Rwandans through surplus and export promotion.

The key things that we are addressing at this point are things that would affect our food security and export potential.
One of the things that are critical is being dependant on rain for agriculture. So we are focusing on irrigation as a key priority. Two, we are a country that has much land that is being used over and over again. This makes inputs very important. The use of crop seeds and fertilizers becomes necessary.

We are looking at improving the seed system. For example, many people grow maize for consumption and sell and use for seeds the surplus. People at this stage are using high breed seeds which you do not re-grow. But when used, the yields are so high. The output is like ten times that of traditional seed system.

Use of fertilizers is also important and we are trying to introduce it. We need to have farmers sensitised on the importance of fertilizer use.

We also have the one cow per household programme. We are targeting 600,000 households. We have over one million house holds in the country, but we are targeting 600,000 because we need to have people who are able to manage the cow. You do not give the cow to people so that it becomes a burden to them in terms of management. They have to be able to feed it. It should be part of improving their livelihoods.

What are the benefits of the one cow per household program so far?
A:  People start from real poverty and within a year they are transformed. The kids are looking healthy and they have surplus milk and even manure for their gardens just from that one cow.

We are seeing tremendous benefits. It was started to improve nutrition at household level, ensure food security and provide that extra manure that farmers need for increasing productivity.

What are the constraints and challenges you face?
A: One of the challenges we are looking at in the ministry is extension. There is even a debate on whether we should have the traditional systematic extension system that was there in some countries in the 1950s, many countries have now moved to the private extension systems.

So, we are looking at whether we can have a hybrid of the two. The traditional one was very expensive for governments. We are not yet at a level where we can have the private extension system because it is driven by the private sector.

The kind of extension we are looking at is supporting farmers through cooperatives. At the moment we have an extension system through the districts and through farmers’ cooperatives. But it’s not at the level where we want it to be so it is still a challenge.

Another challenge is in the export of crops. Coffee for example is scattered around the country. One farmer has a few trees here and another somewhere else. So we are looking at encouraging consolidation of farms. Here it becomes easy to support them.
We are doing it with pyrethrum. So we are looking at areas where we can concentrate specific crops. We want to farm in a manner that can facilitate extension and help farmers access services easily.

Another challenge is that we do not have enough inputs in the country. For fertilizers, we are trying to do bulk purchases so that it can be affordable for our farmers. For irrigation, the real challenge is resources. It needs serious infrastructure to catch water since we have a bad terrain.

In your view, do Rwandan farmers compete regionally and internationally?
A: The amazing thing about Rwanda is that when Rwandan stuff is tested versus others, Rwanda is always at the top. Our coffee is the best quality. There was a test of coffee quality in Uganda recently and our companies were the best in number one and second position. Ethiopia was third. We have an advantage in form of volcanic soils.

In terms of quality we are competitive and in terms of production we are not at a level where costs of production are high.

Vision 2020 aims to reduce dependence on agriculture from 90 per cent to 50 per cent of the population. How do you intend to achieve that?
A: That is outside my jurisdiction. The reason I am saying this is because my responsibility is to ensure that every Rwandan produces in agriculture. If the ministries concerned like MINICOM or the service sector can get them off agriculture, I would be happy. The few who remain will stay, production will be more meaningful.

Like it happened in some countries like when people started to get jobs in industry in the USA that was a very agricultural country, the few who remained there started to do corporate farming.

As people get out of agriculture it will be more important in terms of economies of scale. Every one in agriculture will have more land and better market in terms of a middle class that has other sources of income.

The pressure on land will also reduce. But as I said this is going to be national effort. Industry and service sectors more than agriculture are the ones to drive this.

Will you give subsidies to farmers like some of the developed countries do?
A: At the moment when we talk about fertilisers, we are not so much subsidising our farmers. We are trying to get fertilisers for our farmers at an affordable rate where they can compete with other farmers in the region.
But subsidies are a very sensitive topic. It is determined by many other forces. As a country it would be interesting to get subsidies for our farmers. I would love to do that but it has other implications that we would have to negotiate with other people that we work with that are stake holders in this business.

Subsidies create trade distortions that hamper you as small countries when you want to get involved in trade and people say you are involved in subsidies. We try to stay out of subsidies because it becomes hard for agriculture to be sustainable when you withdraw them.

How about on the short term?
A: In the short term, if you want to fill a gap, like Malawi did when it used to have chronic food shortages every year. They decided to inject some fertilisers in the population. But that works in the short term. Luckily for us, we haven’t reached such a crossroad. We are at a stage where when we make inputs affordable for farmers, they can compete regionally.

Given land shortage, how do you ensure environmental protection like safe guarding wetlands and also at the same time increase agriculture productivity?
 A: We are going to do what we call the watershed approach. The topmost important thing is environment other than agriculture. We look at areas and grade them. Rwanda is graded into several slope categories.

We are looking at what we can do in areas that need to be protected and you look for an economic activity that you can do there and at the same time protect the environment. So things like agro-forestry like planting mangoes and apples which are of economic value yet you protect the environment.

In terms of agriculture in Rwanda, what are the opportunities in the sector?
A: The market is huge both in Rwanda and in the region. It is easy to reach other countries. Another thing is the quality for example in horticulture. Even our flowers have what we call intense color and this gives us an advantage over other countries. Our climate also supports temperate and tropical crops. Nearly everything can grow. So there are many things that can be invested in. One can invest in dairy and in meat from our local cows. Our coffee and tea are very good quality. Business investors can also invest in fruits. The only thing is that markets out there want a sustainable supply.