While farmers have seen out put go up in the past few years, there is now need to plug gaps in post-harvest handling and market linkages to enable them reap maximum benefits from their produce.
Emmanuel Birikunzira of Cyumve Sector, Musanze district is one of the farmers whose production has significantly increased since he started planting improved seeds.
“I now harvest over 400kgs of maize where I used to get 70kgs,” he says. He adds that he can now save over Frw 700,000 per year when he gets good market for his produce.
Such increased production is not limited to Musanze district or northern Rwanda.
In Eastern province, for instance, there are large-scale maize, rice and banana producers. Big plantations of Irish potatoes can also be seen in some parts of Rutsiro and Karongi districts.
As a result of various government programs in irrigation, mechanization, land use consolidation, and use of improved seeds and fertilizers, the country now has a big surplus of maize and beans.
Agnes Kalibata, the Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources last week announced a projected surplus of 300,000 tons of maize and 200,000 tons of beans this year.
Production is no longer a problem, but surplus is. Without drying and storage facilities or a guaranteed market, the country’s bounteous yields deteriorate and are unable to command higher prices.
“We are not totally sure of getting buyers and the price of maize is still low,” said Birikunzira. Currently, a kilogram of maize is at Frw 225. He recalls with nostalgia when farmers used to sell maize at Frw 350 per kg when the former Rwanda Agriculture Development Authority, now integrated in Rwanda Agriculture Board, was engaged in maize purchase.
“For us we would be happy if we get facilities to keep our produce safe since we are not sure of get buyers immediately after harvesting,” Birikunzira said.
Kalibata, says that she understands the farmers’ concerns but called upon to private sector to exploit the opportunities available in the agricultural value chain.
“At this stage, involvement of the private sector can be one of the solutions to the development of the whole chain by processing products to add value, constructing modern grain bulking center in order to complement what small-holder farmers are doing,” the minister said.
Yet the minister also considers as crucial the engagement of the local private sector to deal with the market linkage. “Ugandans have been coming and taking our produce to South Sudan and Kenya; so why can’t our local business people do the same?” she added.
There are virtually no modern warehouses owned by private local people.
In Kirehe district of Eastern Province, the only grain bulking center in the district, Post Harvest and Handling Storage, is owned by Entreprise Nkubili Alfred & Sons (ENAS), an agricultural firm in Rwanda specializing in buying and selling agricultural products.
This center, serves more than 18,000 farmers. It links village aggregation centers to large-scale warehouses and regional markets – giving farmers access to a commercial market for maize and beans.
By offering proper storage facilities, it enables farmers sell their produce when prices are go up.
The center also provides essential drying and cleaning services to improve the quality of grain, so it can command a higher price.
Therefore, the government efforts to handle the situation, explains Kalibata, include organizing farmers to form cooperatives.
However, majority of cooperative societies in Rwanda are still young and face shortages of technical skills and finance. Many only have volunteer boards and few paid staff, hence a great need of extra support.
Kalibata promises ministry support to cooperatives that may be facing some challenges. She says that the ministry has established a post-harvest taskforce – a unit that works with cooperatives to reduce post-harvest losses, create additional storage and connect farmers to storage facilities.
The taskforce aims to reduce losses from 23% to 15 % especially for maize, rice and beans, according to information from the ministry.
“We are committed and well equipped to properly handle the yields. We can’t let our production get lost while we have enough market,” she said.
The success of this will actually impact on national development since agriculture drives the Rwandan economy and accounts for 80% of employment, 39% of GDP, and 63% of foreign exchange earnings.