At the recently concluded Fifth Kigali Agricultural Exhibition, an exemplary farmer had the audacity to request the Honourable Minister of Agriculture to consult him on how they can help other farmers to achieve the kind of yields that he was getting on his farm.
His offer, done tongue in cheek, drew laughter from the watching crowd and the VIP tent where the Honourable Minister and his cabinet colleagues otherwise watched pensively.
He had every right to say so because right in his stall was a huge 151 Kg network of cassava tuber from one plant and banana weighing over 140Kgs. Such is the importance of a participatory approach of involving farmers themselves in transferring new ideas and technologies to other farmers in agricultural extension.
Ideally, as much as Rwanda is largely an agrarian economy, in which the majority of the population (over 80%) are subsistence farmers, the agriculture sector should move slowly towards, environmentally responsive land and technology intensive methods of farming, hence reducing labour required and freeing it for involvement in other sectors such as manufacturing, mining and information technology.
In industrialized nations like the United States and Britain, 2 percent of the population is made of farmers, who are among the wealthiest people and who provide for the whole domestic portion of food produced into those countries for the remaining 98% of the population.
These farmers till large swaths of land with mechanized ploughing, harrowing, sowing, spraying, top dressing, weeding, harvesting and threshing implying that one person is capable of managing hectares of land.
Instead in our traditional agrarian economies where farmers depend on the hand hoe, it is difficult for one person to manage half an acre of land of potatoes because it takes weeks for him to do one ploughing or weeding cycle which is a full time job and leaves him or her unable to do any other economic activity.
Such is the mammoth task that faces the government in moving the country’s agriculture sector from this point to the cherished goal of food security and surplus commercial agricultural production.
One way of effecting this change is assisting farmers to expand or join together their farms to form large commercially viable units as it has been done in say, rice or tea cooperatives which is the first effective step in moving from a small subsistence vegetable garden to a large mechanized rice farm where resources are spread out efficiently to increase yields per unit area.
Also this allows for it to be commercially viable to seek for good prices for bulk product or seek ways of assisting farmers to add value to their produce locally and multiply their earnings as has been done in the coffee, tea and fruit juice sectors.
At the Agricultural show in Mulindi, there was a good show of farmer cooperatives that have found ways to add value to their produce, led by Sina Gerard’s well established Urubwitso brand.
For a small country as Rwanda, the vibrant government-supported cooperative movement which has thrived not only in the agricultural sector but in the service and craft-making industries is a good example to other East African countries even though Rwanda also needs to learn more in promoting private sector agricultural investment where firms like rice-milling ICM has taken a lead role.
The Rwanda government has taken a lead role in facilitating agricultural development in the country and that was manifested at the show by many government arms involved in the sector putting up numerous stalls at the show.
But as it is in the larger East African economies, and in many industrialized nations, agricultural development is basically a private-sector led initiative.
The annual Uganda national agricultural show at the Source of the Nile in Jinja and the Nairobi national agricultural show are such events where the private-sector basically reduces government to an organization and regulation role not only at the show but in the sector itself.
In Kenya, district agricultural shows bring agricultural technologies closer to the common farmer as opposed to the limited number of farmers that can access the national agricultural show like the one at Mulindi.
Such an idea would be good for Rwanda especially beginning at the provincial levels but such an initiative requires a strong private sector role.
All in all, in Rwanda, the government has exhibited a strong political will and put in place strategies towards agricultural development, but the challenge remains pointing out opportunities for investors to actively participate in modern agriculture as well as making it more attractive for Rwandans to invest heavily in private farms.
The writer in an agronomist with a private agricultural firm in Rwanda.