In Rwanda, and indeed in many countries in Africa, horticulture is an activity carried out on the sides of “mainstream agriculture”.
In almost all agricultural households there is a bigger banana, coffee or maize plantation and normally beside it is a small garden or a couple of a dozen trees of red pepper, onions, and tomatoes mainly for home consumption.
Carrots, French beans, garlic, green beans, mange touts, baby corns, runner beans and others are grown by a few farmers who want to “try” while the few types of fruit trees are grown “for the children”.
Many people are comfortable growing what they have always grown year after year.
The growing of flowers is limited by the initial investments, production costs and expertise, the needed skills and marketing challenges.
In a poor country like Rwanda, where subsistence agriculture, on increasingly smaller plots of land depleted of natural nutrients due to overuse, employs the majority of people, the need to diversify and apply new farming methods becomes imperative.
The argument for Rwandan farmers to be encouraged to go horticultural are compelling: horticulture is labour intensive which gives Rwanda a leg up with its abundant supply of labour; Rwandans live on and farm small plots of land which can no longer produce enough as source of livelihood for their families; and yet tomatoes for example earn three times more than maize; many people cultivate similar crops like maize and beans whose prices plummet during bumper seasons leading to increased poverty levels; Rwanda’s climate with sunshine all year round can support two or three crop seasons in a year with appropriate irrigation methods and moreover horticulture is highly flexible and dynamic meaning that farmers can respond to the market by farming what is on demand even in the middle of a year.
In a recent research, “Export Horticulture and poverty in Kenya”, by the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University in the UK, it was reported that, households which participate in horticulture industry are better off, on average, in both urban and rural areas and that non-horticulture smallholders had the highest incidence of poverty among those surveyed while pack-house worker households and horticultural smallholder households reported the lowest incidence of poverty.
Horticulture in Rwanda should be separated from the type that is practiced in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Senegal or even Egypt based on the different levels of infrastructure development, the size, mechanization, amounts of investment and the relatively developed marketing systems in those countries.
Much work will have to be done and in ways far different from what Rwanda Horticulture Development Authority (RHODA) has been doing.
Our people do not learn by sitting in classrooms but by observing what someone else has done, so district/sector demonstration farms will have to be setup so that smallholder farmers can come and “watch with their own eyes” how it is done most especially the use of appropriate farming technology like handheld irrigation tools, the right crops in terms of varieties should be identified, including what qualities the different markets demand, crop husbandry farming methods, preparing and planting periods, smallholder cooperatives nurtured, sources of farm inputs should be identified and farmers enabled to access them, processing and packaging methods identified and taught, and sustainable markets found.
The fact that farmers are encouraged to grow what they have grown for decades will not help. It must be understood that selling horticultural products, particularly on the international market requires strict adherence to farming, packaging, transportation and storage standards. Competition for markets from the different producers, many of whom are large scale producers, makes consumers particularly choosy in what they buy.
Rwanda may not be comparable to Kenya where the sector has grown over the decades and employs 1.5 million labourers and supports more than 4.5 million dependants.
There are already 240 large scale farmers and 150.000 smallholder farmers in Kenya, with the latter producing 60% of exported fruits and vegetables.
Nonetheless it is interesting to note that, in Kenya for example, revenue from horticulture produce is larger than tourism: relatively developed as it is in Kenya; in fact it is larger than Tea or Coffee.
Some efficient farmers have agreements with European importers and produce amounts to meet the available demand.
The total horticultural production in Kenya is expected to generate revenues in excess of US $ 2 billion in 2009 and the export market though accounts for 10% of horticulture produce generates half of the said revenues.
It must be understood that the rewards from producing and selling horticultural produce come at a cost and adherence to different regimes of regulations to ensure maximum human and plant health particularly in developed countries.
In addition to the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) regulations under the sanitary, phytosanitory and technical barriers to trade, there are regional such as those set by European retailers’ protocol for good agricultural practice for farms, Global Gap, country specific ones like the British retail consortium, Global Technical standard, domestic lobby/political, groups industry specific and interest group specifications such as environmental campaigners’ concern for “food miles” (referring to the carbon emissions [carbon print] in the process of transporting food by plane) which prompted UK retailers, Tesco and Marks and Spencer, to label products on their shelves with labels depicting an aeroplane to indicate they were airlifted.
Of course with extra effort and adherence to strict code of conduct Rwandan farmers can meet the requirements; after all they are small scale farmers who are eager to better their lives through better incomes in accordance with the guidance, instructions, and skills they receive.