Rural smallholder maize farmers reaping big
Popular knowledge is that the African continent economically depends on farming or at least 80 percent of its population does. However, if one was to literally consider the term farming to describe what most people on the continent do, it is wise that subsistence farming be used. This means the farming practice in which the only targeted result is getting enough to feed oneself and family.
With majority of the population surviving on tilling the land, it is no brainer that the African economic renaissance should and is indeed beginning from this sector.
For instance, the introduction of cutting edge Information and Communication Technologies such as e-soko in Rwanda through which farmers access market information that allows market-targeted production is among what is required to transform the sector into one that not only is capable of feeding individual isolated farmers but rather a food basket to feed a big segment of the population and win a share of the global food chain.
However, such technologies and other government initiatives like credit facilities and so on for some reason end up unutilized by the smallholder farming community they stand to benefit the most.
Focusing on Rwanda, very few big entrepreneurs have ventured into the agricultural sector implying that the backbone of the economy as often highlighted in reports and essays is manned by semi-skilled smallholder farmers and thus improving the sector would mean getting in touch with these farmers and working with them to attain the sector’s envisioned progress.
True to the need, Government of Rwanda has done an enormous job improving the lives of the rural poor through various programs but as efficient as this process has been, the government cannot reach all. This among others raises need for private and civil entities to join the battlefront and support modernization of Rwanda’s agriculture.
It is within this perspective that Rwanda’s leading brewery and a member of the Heineken Group, Brasseries et Limonaderies du Rwanda (BRALIRWA) embarked on an ambitious journey to contribute to the modernization and commercialization of maize farming in the country.
The choice of investing in maize was informed by Heineken Group’s Vision 2020 that seeks to achieve a 60% local sourcing of raw materials for production in all its Africa operations. As a big consumer of maize grits in the production of beer, choosing the maize crop was natural.
The entry point was striking a partnership with yet another value chain player, MINIMEX, a leading producer of fine maize products.
This partnership gave way to the creation of the first private commercial farm of its kind, BRAMIN Maize Farm located in the Eastern Province District of Kayonza in Ndego Sector.
The modern farm was envisioned to impact Rwanda’s maize production in various aspects including; sparking an era of modern farming among rural farmers and increasing local sourcing of maize for both partners which would both result into bolstering the Rwandan economy through import substitution.
But the 360ha farm alone as envisaged can only do so much in disseminating good farming techniques to maize farmers.
Getting closer to smallholder maize farmers
To contribute to the Government’s efforts of modernizing farming, a Heineken Group sponsored project tagged “Community Revenue Enhancement through Agricultural Technology Extension (CREATE)” has been implemented on a pilot phase in the districts of Kayonza and Rwamagana since 2014 under the auspice of the European Cooperative for Rural Development (EUCORD).
The four year project is currently working with 26 cooperatives of maize growers implying over 8,500 individuals.
With the objective of extending modern farming techniques to rural maize farmers and by so doing enhance their incomes and lead to improved living standards, CREATE is already bringing smiles on farmers of all kinds, as they continue to reap big.
The project uses two main approaches; demonstration of modern farming techniques through demonstration fields constructed mostly at cell offices, and through farm extension services where agronomists are deployed to support cooperatives and individual farmers in their daily activities.
“I have witnessed the maize production cycle from clearing the land, planting all through to harvesting at our small demonstration farm. And in this observation and constant learning process, I have truly taken invaluable lessons which are already changing the way I farm and are set to benefit me and my family enormously,” 47 year old Mukaruhirwa Florida of Karitutu Cell in Muhazi Sector of Rwamagana District disclosed.
Mukaruhirwa and several others have been receiving practical demonstration of the importance of the modern farming techniques agronomists are encouraging them to adopt.
“Improving farming will require significant change in people’s mindsets and this cannot be achieved unless an understanding of where the farmer stands to benefit is struck,” Fabien Ngoga, the Project Coordinator of CREATE shares.
As she plucks the maize cob off its stem, Mukaruhirwa raises it slightly above her head and giggles, explaining later that this is from excitement after seeing how nice and of good quality the maize they are harvesting is.
“I have tilled the land all my life and have been a maize farmer for at least ten years, but to be sincere, I have never had the occasion of harvesting quality maize as this,” she raises the cob even higher.
The demonstration farm being harvested at the Karitutu Cell offices was divided into four separate blocks of 5×5 meters.
In each, a selected maize seed variety was planted and each plot treated differently, using a dissimilar combination of farming inputs.
As Ngoga explains, this is done so that at the time of harvesting, farmers can tell which maize seed variety growing in what conditions gave the best quality and quantity of produce.
“This way it is not me or another telling them what to do for instance which maize variety to plant or inputs to use; they come to the conclusion based on yields from the various plots.”
For Gakuru Jean Marie another farmer in Mukaruhirwa’s group, the time spent at the demonstration farm has left him with serious lessons some of which he and his counterparts have implemented and are already seeing results.
“I learnt the importance of proper spacing while planting, rotation, and pruning. But other than these techniques, I have learnt something else; the power of working together. Though I knew the latter, I had never witnessed it in action until I became part of this group and going forward, I will live to testify the importance of working together. We have now formed a farming cooperative of our own, thanks to knowledge shared in this demonstration farm.”
To ensure proper implementation of acquired techniques, CREATE agronomists go out to fields and work alongside farmers’ cooperatives.
“We know that transformation takes time which is why we cannot assume knowledge acquired from the demonstration farm is immediately adopted. Some people will go back to their farms and at times do the opposite,” Ngoga shared.
This close partnership is what led to successes like are recounted by members of the Maize farmers’ cooperative, Isukirakiza.
The cooperative formed in 2011 has over the past one year seen significant improvement in the quality and quantity of their maize produce.
For instance, Mama Sifa Iragaju at 67 says she only wishes she had had the facilitation and knowledge earlier. “I would have tilled all the land I can get my hands on because maize is really making wonders for many of us.”
Mama Sifa in 2014 hardly harvested 400kg from her plot in the swamp where cooperative Isukirakiza works.
In the maize season that followed during which CREATE agronomists begun to offer sustained farming advise on the field, her maize farm yielded 1.3tons, signifying an over 225% increase in productivity. Mama Sifa testifies that the quality of her maize also improved significantly in that period.
Now already harvesting for the second season since farmers of Isukirakiza begun working with CREATE, Sifa is already sure she will not harvest less than 1.5tons of quality maize.
Sifa’s enthusiasm is echoed by Ndaruhutse Edward, who is now a model farmer among the 120 who constitute Isukirakiza.
Ndaruhutse however has made such success on the backdrop of a very unpopular harvest of 2014 during which he gathered 1.3tons of maize from his 3ha piece of land.
After learning some farming techniques from CREATE agronomists and witnessing how other farmers who had planted properly and on time were reaping big, Ndaruhutse who was at the verge of giving up returned resolved to have a better season.
And indeed in the harvest of 2015, he gathered over 7tons of maize from the same piece of land. From the present harvest, all his colleagues say he will reap more than 8tons.
“Having noticed that my earlier loss was due to poor farming techniques like late planting, I determined to improve and gladly, things worked. Give me about two seasons and I will buy my own truck which will be transporting our maize to the market.”
As a result of organized farming, Isukirakiza farmers benefited government support which came in form of a harvesting facility which is helping them significantly reduce post-harvest losses incurred in the past.
With improving quality produce, farmers of Isukirakiza just like other cooperatives are enjoying a ready market at PRODEV Rwanda, a sister company of MINIMEX.
PRODEV buys the maize at a price Frw10 higher than the prevailing market price given the quality standard of the maize they accept.
Uwimana Charles, a weighbridge operator at PRODEV testifies to the improved quality of maize produce from local smallholder farmers.
“Last year a truck of maize would have only about half fulfilling required quality standards of our dryer and the rest would be sent to secondary markets. This year, almost all the maize brought meets standards. That is a big step in the right direction. The remaining block to be fit into the puzzle is ensuring high productivity for quantities remain low,” he shares.
Taking Ndaruhutse’s expected 8tons from his 3ha field, it implies 2.6tons are produced per hectare. Though this is a significant improvement, Ngoga says that CREATE’s target is to bring production from to 4.5tons/ha.
The target is not overstretched considering that harvest from demonstration farms is already at 7tons/ha.
Achieving this target however will require more than agricultural techniques; there is need for capacity building in areas such as harvest and post-harvest.
“According to Rwanda’s Ministry of Agriculture, 30% of agricultural produce is lost at these stages,” Ngoga says.
Another capacity building area is use of available financial commodities.
“Most rural farmers continue to shy away from financial services and yet there is no doubt one cannot achieve the required modern commercial farming if farmers do not access resources. We are going to put strong emphasis in demystifying these opportunities, and judging from what we have seen happen, this is bound to change maize farming in Kayonza for forever.”