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How have Rwanda’s agriculture transformation goals fared in the past seven years?

For as long as documented, Rwandans have relied on farming. Agriculture has always been much more than just growing food. It was a source of livelihood for millions of Rwandan households, a source of pride and social status. Umuganura, a century-old celebration that is still reserved as a holiday today, is a historic proof of how important agriculture is for Rwandans. 

Until less than four years ago, over 70 percent of Rwandans relied on subsistence farming and farm-to-mouth agriculture. The government began reforming this with the first Vision 2020 which was set in 2003. The first poverty reduction programs, EDPRS 1 and 2, vied to turn Rwanda from an agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. 

The outgoing National Strategic Transformation, a poverty-reduction framework, running from 2017 to the current year, is the latest effort to turn the vision into a reality. The document outlays strategies to modernize agriculture. 

“Growth of Agricultural exports will be complemented by increasing the volume of traditional agriculture export crops and products. Coffee productivity per tree will be increased from 2.8kg to 4kg; and tea productivity from 7 megatone per hectare to 8 megatons per hectare. 

This will involve an expansion of cultivated area, replacement of old trees, and most importantly increased fertilizer application from 7,000 megatons to 9,000 megatons per year through the adoption of innovative systems in combating climate change. 

Coffee planted will increase from 37,500 ha (2017) to 40,000 ha by 2024 while area planted with tea will increase from 26,879 ha (2017) to 32,800 ha by 2024 working with the private sector,” the document reads in part. 

Substantial success has been recorded in many areas. Rwanda is confident it will achieve the target to generate $1 billion (approx. Rwf1.2 trillion) from agricultural exports in 2023/2024, considering the performance of the previous financial year, according to the CEO of the National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB), Claude Bizimana.

According to a June 2023 statistics report by NAEB), Rwanda’s agricultural export revenues amounted to more than $857 million (approx. Rwf1 trillion) in the fiscal year 2022-2023, against more than $640.9 million in 2021-2022, representing an increase of 33.74 percent.

Rwanda’s agriculture sector grew by five percent annually over the past 15 years as the country’s GDP rose from $441 in 2007 to $1,004 in 2022. 

Agriculture was one of the key factors that drove down poverty from 60 percent in 2000 to 38.2 percent in 2017.

For example, the cattle population has grown from one million in 2005 to around 1.5 million in 2022, with a contribution of over 450,000 cows from the Girinka program initiated by the government in 2006.

The soft underbelly of this solid success, however, is that over 20 percent of Rwanda’s population is food insecure. Food shortages, coupled with international dynamics, have seen Rwanda’s food inflation skyrocket to the third highest in the world.

Flooding, irregular rains, and poor farming methods detract from the great strides the country is making to entrench agriculture as a viable economic activity. Apart from natural disasters, some of the government’s initiatives have failed to turn yields around for many farmers.

For farmers like Jane Mutamba, who cultivates on 1.8 hectares of land in Nyagatare, Rwimiyaga sector, the increasing prices of fertilizers and seeds have been a constant headache. 

“The prices of fertilizers and seeds have been a problem for the past three years,” she says. “The prices of basic fertilizers, both industrial and manure, have more than doubled. This has translated to either loss on our end or high food prices on the market.”

Like many other small-scale farmers, Mutamba receives subsidies from the government for fertilizers and seeds. However, even with these subsidies, the cost of inputs remains a significant burden. The fertilizer is still expensive, and when the seeds are not delayed, they are often of poor quality, which further undermines her efforts to make a living from farming.

The rising prices of fertilizers have been attributed to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, which has choked the global supply chain of fertilizers.

The government has attempted to alleviate this burden by allocating funds amounting to Rwf36 billion (approximately $35 million) to cut down the prices of fertilizers and seeds in the fiscal years 2022-2023. In 2022, the government distributed over 3,430 tonnes of quality seeds, and 50,179 tonnes of fertilizers, to curb the rising costs of farm inputs.

Despite these efforts, farmers are still struggling to keep up with the rising prices of inputs. When input costs increase, some farmers are forced to resort to cheaper crops, such as vegetables, which they produce in masses. This often leads to oversupply, and losses and creates deficits for certain foods on the market.

The misfortunes were not limited to farmers. In July 2023, farmers in the eastern province lost hundreds of cattle to foot and mouth disease. The difficulty in enforcement of illegal animal movements between Tanzania and Rwanda or Rwanda and Uganda has turned farming Eastern province districts, especially Nyagatare, into animal disease hotspots.

Previous outbreaks were blamed on unchecked movement of infected cattle by farmers from Uganda to Rwanda.

Doctor Solange Uwituze, the Deputy Director, Animal Resources Development at RAB says that a holistic approach is necessary in order to explore and realize a fully sustainable agricultural sector.

“It is very important to strike the right balance between animal and crop husbandry in order to establish a self-sustainable agricultural industry. One that will live to serve the future generations,” she said.

Rwanda’s farming challenges mirror those in parts of the region, where young people shun agriculture in preference for white-collar jobs in urban areas, but they also underline the untapped potential of the sector.

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