Although a lot of progress has been made to make agriculture more efficient and productive, the focus has so far been mainly on growing, and not on transforming crops. Yet adding value is essential to turn subsistence farming into a commercial activity. Officials point out that attracting investors to agro-processing is only possible when there is sufficient supply.
Assoumani Bagara, a 62-year-old a resident of Rugarama sector, Gatsibo district, has been a farmer for most of his life, yet it was only ten years ago that he was able to transform his agriculture of subsistence into market-oriented farming. He has been growing different crops such as banana, cassava, Bagara recalls, yet lack of sustainable market and post-harvest management remained top challenges for the farmer.
“Apart from daily survival, I was gaining almost nothing,” he says. “We used to have a period called Kaneke where bananas were spoiled due to lack of market. Actually a big part of my yield at that time was lost.”
So he began thinking how he could avoid such a loss, and found that with some skills and rather simple machines, the bananas or potatoes could be dried and conserved for 6 months. They can also be made into flour that is used in making cakes, biscuits, bread, gateaux and the like.
“This has significantly stabilized and increased my income,” Bagara says. “I now get fixed, and higher, prices.”
That was not the end of it. Since 2007, Bagara has brought together around 180 neighboring farmers of his neighbors to share his experiences in a cooperative. It has a lot of advantages.
“I easily get bank loans since I present a well-planned business which ensures that I will pay back,” he explains.
From roots and tubers, cereal, banana to pulses farming among others, Bagara has made big steps not only compared to his neighbors, but also countrywide. Although the government has been making tremendous efforts to improve the agriculture sector, Bagara remains an exception. Despite its role as a major catalyst of sustainable growth and poverty reduction, plus the fact that agriculture remains the primary source of employment in the country, a large number of the farmers are still stuck in subsistence farming and ignorant of the benefits of processing their produce.
For instance, farmers from Kirehe district Eastern province say that they have no idea how they can transform their yield to add value. While they have very large banana plantations, they just use the produce for their own daily consumption, sale on the market and, it is true, making urwagwa.
As a result, the prices they fetch fluctuate heavily: from Frw 100 in periods of low supply, to Frw 50 when there is a lot of production. It even happens that they can’t find a market for their crops, and they have to let them rot.
Strengthening the value chain
Over the past decade, due to programs such as land use consolidation and crop intensification, agricultural production has increased significantly. At the same time, however, little progress has been made when it comes to setting processing facilities. Velena Ruzibuka, in charge of agribusiness at Minagri, admits the sector is still in an embryonic state, but says that a lot of prerequisite activities have been taken to encourage investors in market-oriented farming.
“We are committed to strengthen the value chain,” she says, adding that investors can only be attracted when there is sufficient supply.
According to the Minagri official, the government first and foremost put much effort in primary activities such as marshland treatment, providing improved seeds and the like in order to ensure the supply needed by investors. She further mentions that initiatives have been taken to encourage agro-processing, such as setting up an SME fund and the construction of factories – so far, three rice-processing factories have been built in Eastern province, as well as a cassava-processing plant in Ruhango.
At the same time, programs are implemented to increase the skills of farmers so as to ensure that they can be competitive when it comes to adding value. “There are extension officers that are providing farmers with skills, teaching them standards, post-harvest management and the like,” Ruzibuka explains, adding that the same services also reach the farmers through governmental institutions like the recently launched Rwanda Agriculture Board as well as NGOs.
And in addition, farmers are being encouraged to set up cooperatives, not only to make their operations more efficient, but also to improve the effectiveness of training.
They would do well to pay a visit to Assoumani Bagara farm, since he too couldteach them a few lessons. “Agro-processing has significantly changed my family’s life – I have not only improved my farming, but now I also live in a decent house and can pay my children’s school fees,” he explains. “I’ve been using only simple machines, but I found they have the potential to give a big boost to small farmers.”