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Dispatch from Kirehe, Rwanda

“We need to build warehouses! We need markets!”

Agnes Kalibata, Rwanda’s determined minister of agriculture, carried this emphatic and urgent message to the Kirehe district in the eastern part of the country. The bountiful maize harvest had overwhelmed the district’s storage capacity; bags of maize are piled up in farmers’ houses, crowding kitchens and bedrooms.

It was a good problem to have, so much food after not enough for so many years. But the minister was also seeing the dark side of the situation. Spot prices were falling below the costs of production. The potential of massive spoilage loomed. Farmers’ enthusiasm was waning. They needed markets for their produce, and, as the minister told buyers who had been called to a meeting with her, they needed them right now.

“How can I tell the farmers to plant more maize? Unless we sell this, how we can we get them to grow more?” she asked. “That’s the challenge of creating food security.”

Starting an agriculture revolution in Africa has been hard enough; keeping it going may be even more difficult.

 

This is what brought Minister Kalibata—“call me Agnes,” she says—to the fields. The farmers had done their job, increasing the country’s output of maize from about 90,000 metric tons in 2006 to more than 300,000 tons this year. Farmers in the Kirehe district have boosted maize production to about 40,000 tons from 12,000 over that same time. Across the country, harvests of other staple crops, like rice, sorghum and potatoes, have also multiplied.

Now there is a great need to tend to the other links in the agriculture value chain—storing, selling, processing—if Rwanda is to avoid the trap of other African countries, where a single-minded emphasis on production overwhelmed underdeveloped post-harvest facilities and triggered price collapses that sapped farmers’ incentive to keep growing.

That scenario played out most recently, and most glaringly, in Ethiopia, when two years of bumper harvests from 2000-2002 resulted in an 80 percent price collapse in some parts of the country, devastating many farmers. Ethiopia’s farmers reacted like farmers would anywhere: they cut back on expenses. They used less fertilizer, turned their backs on higher-quality but more-expensive seed, took land out of production. Then a drought hit, the expected lower harvests were choked back even further, and the country tipped into famine. It was an African tragedy: the farmers’ success led directly to their failure. And it didn’t have to happen.

Agnes Kalibata knows these lessons of African agriculture and wants to make sure Rwanda doesn’t become another textbook example. So she has come here to keep the momentum going.

“The farmers ask ‘Why? Why do we spend all this money?’” Agnes says. “These investments people are making, if we use them right, if they work, it makes a whole lot of difference. We need to keep moving, we need to keep the farmers interested.”

She adds: “We have the food, but we have no post-harvest network. When you talk about gaining food security without putting these other things into place, it’s wishful thinking.”

In this effort to keep moving forward, she welcomes a crucial ally: the Feed the Future initiative of the Obama administration to end hunger through agriculture development. Rwanda has become the model country because of its own efforts to make agriculture, which accounts for about one-third of the gross domestic product, the engine of poverty reduction.

In 2007, after years of food deficits, Agnes recalls, President Kagame convened a meeting and said, “Enough. I don’t ever want to see a single Rwandan starving again. What can we do? Let’s go on the agriculture sector.”

Since then, Rwanda’s spending on agriculture development has increased to about 7 percent of its budget from less than 3 percent, according to the minister. The goal is 10 percent. The government has pushed to make fertilizer and better quality seeds available to farmers, who have enthusiastically reaped bigger harvests. In 2007, Agnes reports, two-thirds of the country’s districts were below daily food requirements; today, there are none. Having met domestic needs, the government now hopes the farmers will continue to grow so that Rwanda can be an exporter to regional markets. Just this week, five east African countries, including Rwanda, created a common market to facilitate trade and the movement of people and capital.

The Future Looks Bright farmers’ cooperative in Kirehe is eager to do its part. Several years ago, many of its 1,500 members would cross the nearby border into Tanzania to search for food. This year, they harvested a 4,000-ton maize surplus and are now hungry for markets.

Upon hearing that Feed the Future would be investing in post-harvest infrastructure—post-harvest losses in Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa can run as high as 30 to 50 percent of production—the cooperative filed a request for storage warehouses, shelling equipment, drying facilities. All with the goal of getting the maize ready, and more attractive, for the markets.

Such investments would heed the minister’s passionate urging to these farmers and those around the country to keep up the momentum.

“I get this passion from knowing that we can make a difference, and that agriculture is one of the easiest ways to make a difference in our country,” she says. “When you work with the farmers, you see the trust in their eyes. They hope that a difference can be made. Not to do anything to make the difference that you know you can make is cheating them.”

Roger Thurow’s blog post appears courtesy of the Global Food for Thought blog. Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, is a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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