In Rwanda it is impossible ignore the link between what we eat and the state of our environment; the dense population factor dictates the needs as opposed to nature determining our needs.
I am a part-time farmer; trying to make a living or at least break even; after months of cultivation and despite spending vast amounts of money I harvested just 3 bags of beans.
I argued with the farm manager that a whole new approach was needed; he said he agreed and assured me that things would change.
I went to UK for a course and called him only to find he’d planted beans again. I laughed about it but knew I’d wasted another several months with the same formula.
It is deeply ingrained in our thinking to grow beans; it is something we just do automatically. We never think if there is another type of crop we could grow, we all grow beans, cassava, sweet potato, matooke and that’s it.
My friend tried to plant haricot beans which are finer and fetch a better price. He delivered a sack of seed to his farm only to find months later that the old variety was growing; they said “Those beans were not as nice as the others, and they don’t get brown.” He lost thousands of dollars because a farm worker didn’t understand the value of the beans.
Agro-processing is an industry we can develop without much investment and with maximum reward. Our greatest natural resource land, is just wasting its potential with subsistence agriculture, we need to expand our food menu in order to survive as a nation.
I am sitting here in rural Oxfordshire and yet as I sit here the smell of beans is wafting in from the kitchen, it reminds me of home but the gas bill for cooking beans for 2-3 hours is punitive.
What we eat causes many social problems; some scientists even claim that our heavy starch diet was a major contributing factor in driving the genocide.
Soil degradation caused us to move to heavier starch foods like sweet potatoes but this meant that blood sugar levels are raised and young men become restless.
The beans we eat require hours of boiling and therefore millions of trees are cut just to feed our love of beans. That meant that we needed to grow varieties of trees that grow quickly and thus the eucalyptus was imported from Australia; we call it “inturusi” and it is now as native as anything Rwandan.
But this tree does more damage to our environment than anything else; it is invasive and kills other species, they leech nutrients quickly and deplete the soil but no other tree can feed our voracious need for wood.
The Chinese have a diet that would baffle anybody; it is varied for a reason and has allowed them to grow such a large population. They eat anything; and I mean anything, we all know they eat dogs, cats, birds, rats, snakes, scorpions, and indeed anything that moves.
However the Chinese daily diet is quit simple rice/noodles (starch) and vegetables but they can on occasion eat the odd animal. I am not suggesting that Rwandans start eating dogs but vegetables would solve a lot of our health problems such as ulcers, anaemia.
We need to develop a wider menu, with less starch, more vitamins, more protein and less fat. Rwandans don’t like vegetables or salads; you see avocadoes rotting in the tree.
Fruit is considered for children not for adults, even in our culture fat is considered healthy. How can we get Rwandans to eat different variety foods? We hate anything unfamiliar; we stick to what we know.
If we cannot even accept a different type of bean, then how will we develop and accept new technology? The seed banks still stock mostly beans or peas; I understand that it is not just enough to provide seeds but also know-how of how to grow them.
We need to decide what to do; because we have limited land and staple foods can be imported cheaper maybe we should devote a fraction of our land exclusively to high-end cash crops.