This is a picture of the hills around Byumba, Rwanda. Notice the large number of bench terraces on these hills. Picture from Hope International

From 1999 until recently I traveled to Rwanda two or three times per year and was able to observe the development of agriculture in that country. Rwanda has adopted many improvements that could be easily done elsewhere if there were the political well. Here I will relate only three which I have seen where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Rwanda is a small country about the size of the state of Maryland with a population of 12,187,400 and a falling fertility rate of 3.75 children per childbearing woman. Rwanda is a highly densely populated country. Much of Rwanda consists of fertile, volcanic soil with sufficient rainfall due to its high elevation. Rwanda’s slogan is “the land of a thousand hills” illustrates the fact that much of the better land is hilly.

After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in addition to the deaths and chaos, the agricultural output declined substantially and most animals were killed. When the new government took over in July 1994, one of their priorities was to resurrect agricultural production so that the country could feed itself. When I first visited in January 1999, the government claimed that they had reached that goal. They then decided that the country should focus on better nutrition for the population. As a result of this bleak beginning, the Rwandan government has given higher priority to agricultural development than the surrounding countries in eastern Africa. Here are three of the projects that have been promoted in Rwanda that have significantly increased yields.

This is a community of Rwandans building bench terraces on a steep slope. The top two benches are finished. Notice that both men and women are involved in this work. Photo by Mark Sugg

The Rwandan government has been promoting the building of bench terraces on the steep slopes of Rwanda’s hills. On the one hand bench terracing increases yields by three or four times, while on the other hand cultivating without terracing leads to soil erosion and the development of gullies. Building these terraces is hard work with only hoes and shovels to dig the dirt and throw it up to make the terrace. Rwanda has a tradition of community work (called umaganda). Since building terraces is a Herculean task that one person or family would be unable to achieve, the work is done by the community, even if the plot belongs to a family. Of course at another time the community will go to next person’s plot.

A Rwanda farmer tending her cow from the One Cow per Poor Family program. Note that the grass is brought to the cow in a system called “zero grazing.”  Photo from Marcegaglia Foundation webpage.

In 2006 Rwanda started a program to supply one cow to every poor family. Unlike Kenya, cows, goats, and sheep are not allowed to graze free range, but must be kept in a owner’s plot. This is zero grazing, meaning the grass is brought to the cow. The grass grows on the side of the road, but one can frequently see farmers with a bag and scythe cutting the grass to take home to the cow. Since this is a new method of keeping cows, the Rwandan government established a well-informed extension service to train the families on how to build the appropriate structures and to keep the cows healthy and producing substantial milk.

The first reason for the One Cow per Poor Family Program – many of the recipients are women whose husbands were killed during the genocide – was to provide milk for the family in order to cut down on malnutrition among the children. The reason for promoting zero grazing is so that the manure can be put on the crop land to enhance it fertility. As I drive through the Rwandan countryside, I often see manure heaps on the plots ready to be spread out. There is an additional benefit that when necessary the calves can be sold for cash income. Research on the system has shown that the One Cow Program gives substantial benefits in children’s health and agricultural production.

Olive Nakure, A Rwandan farmer, in her field of climbing beans. Photograph: Neil Palmer/CIAT

It is interesting to note the difference in cuisine between Kenya and Rwanda. Kenya’s main food is ugali (corn meal mush) and collard greens. Members of our family eat this at least once per day. Neither ugali or collard greens are eaten in Rwanda. Another favorite food in Kenya is githeri, a mixture of maize and beans. This is also not found in Rwanda. Rather Rwandans eat a lot of beans by themselves. Up until about seven or eight years ago, Rwandan cultivated bush beans like farmers do here in Kenya. Then the Rwandan Agricultural Research Institute with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture developed more nutritious climbing beans that produce up to three times the yield of the bush beans it replaced. I have yet to see any of these climbing beans in Kenya.

By changing from harvesting bush beans on a steep slope, to a bench terrace, cow manure, and climbing beans the Rwanda farmer will probably harvest ten or more times the yield he/she did under the old system. Regardless if the world population tops out at 9 billion, 10 billion, or even 12 billion, this example is firm evidence that under proper conditions and encouragement small-scale farmers can feed the world with sufficient, nutritious food.


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David Zarembka

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