Agnes Matilda Kalibata has transformed Rwanda's farms - and she's not done yet.
Rwanda’s agricultural success story continues. Despite restrictive policies (bans on plastic bags, mandatory participation in cleanup day on the fourth Saturday of every month, monocrop collectives) or because of them, the country’s farming sector has seen incredible growth, lifting a million Rwandans out of poverty. More than 400,000 families are farming coffee, now the country’s largest cash crop. There is a food surfeit and plans for expansion to horticulture.
What is Rwanda’s secret for success? The country can thank its dynamic agriculture minister, Agnes Matilda Kalibata. Since 2009, her agriculture policies have become the most effective in the world. They include smart programs connecting farmers to their neighbors, innovative cow-sharing schemes, expansion of technologies linking farmers to food buyers and localized cooperative farming programs.
Rwanda’s achievements are all the more impressive because Rwanda is not an easy landscape to farm. Severe weather conditions swing from intense rain to drought, the mountainous terrain is ill-served by roads and the bulk of the country’s 12 million citizens work as subsistence farmers, cultivating very small plots. Perhaps most significantly, the population is deeply fractured, still healing from the loss of almost a million people in the 1994 genocide.
While Kalibata’s policies have attracted criticism from human rights groups – those who do not follow the government’s land consolidation policies receive no financial support – they have worked. Kalibata is not done with her reforms, either: She plans on leading landlocked Rwanda to market-led farming and on into high-profit horticulture and floriculture, which thrive in nearby Kenya.
Modern Farmer: Rwanda’s Girinka Program has combined wealth creation with social healing in the aftermath of the genocide. How does it work?
Agnes Matilda Kalibata: Our president thought there must be something within our culture to address high levels of malnutrition and poverty, so he took advantage of the fact that Rwandans love cows. They are a symbol of wealth and everyone wants their kids to have milk, so he introduced this program that would help families to access a cow. We have given out 150,000 cows; the target is 350,000.
Besides being a source of milk and income, a cow is also a source of manure, which is important for smallholders. But they also produce more cows. And this is crucial. You pay back the government by giving the first calf, not to the government but to your neighbor. This is extremely important in Rwanda. Trust of neighbors is very low because of the genocide – nobody trusts their neighbor. To build that trust and social cohesion you need programs like this that encourage one family to pass on to the next one. And because of the significance of the cow in society this automatically builds friendships and relationships.
MF: Rwanda moved from food deficit to surfeit in five years. Subsistence farmers are now more efficient. How was this progress achieved so quickly?
AMK: We developed a policy of land consolidation, meaning that farmers in a given locality would concentrate on one crop at a given time to bulk their production. Every farmer still farms their own land but the difference is the timing, the collectiveness and the fact that they work as a group rather than individuals.
Market access, too, was key: Most of these farms were very remote so we came up with innovative ways of linking them to markets, including working with the World Food Programme and linking processors with farmers. We developed an e-surplus system where farmers can send in an SMS to the ministry saying how much surplus they have.
Importantly, we also decided that we weren’t going to grow everything. We would grow what grows best in each locality and trade. If a place is very suitable for potatoes then we prioritize potatoes in that area. If it is more suitable for maize, we prioritize maize.
MF: Rwanda is remote, densely populated and mountainous. How else did you increase yields?
AMK: We were extremely committed. We were the first to sign up to CAADP [The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme] and we committed 10 percent of our national budget to agriculture. We focused irrigation programs on areas that would allow us to secure food. And we had a huge terracing program. Two-thirds of our country is not farmable because of all these hills so we cut terraces, which slows erosion and increases the water-holding capacity. Plus you physically gain 20 percent more land.
MF: You are keen to promote horticulture but Rwanda is landlocked and has poor transport links.
AMK: That was the case but the transport rates to Europe we are being offered now are comparable with those of Kenya, which has a huge industry. The potential is huge – the whole country could be a horticultural village.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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