Food Tech and Trade Fellow Sylvie Nirere strives to create an environment where smallholder farmers get better incomes from their work to sustain their livelihoods. She believes that with the right support, leveraging technology and adoption of climate smart agriculture, the changes she desires can happen. In this interview, she discusses what motivates her and the impact she wants to make.
Who is Sylvie Nirere, the food system leader?
Sylvie Nirere is food systems changemaker who holds a Master of Science degree in Agricultural and Applied Economics from the University of Nairobi.
I have worked in the government, facilitating investments in agriculture and animal resources, and ensuring that investors get the right support from access to land to basic infrastructure.
I am now the Country Manager of Stichting IDH Rwanda where I mainly work with the private sector to invest more in agriculture and addressing barriers to accessing premium markets. I ensure that their business models are inclusive of smallholder farmers in the food system.
What drives you and your passion for agriculture?
My motivation has always been to see my work contributing to strengthening the livelihoods of farmers, especially as they struggle with scarce land resources in Rwanda.
I endeavor to create an enabling environment that makes agriculture attractive to investors, banks, development partners and others to ensure that farmers enjoy agriculture as a profitable business that generate revenues to sustain their livelihoods, on top of boosting supply of healthy and nutritious foods to everyone.
You are leveraging technology to boost output and check food losses. How does that work?
In our projects in Rwanda, we deal with farmers who are producing perishable products; for them, timing is crucial, in terms of planting and harvesting. For example, late planting sometimes means missing a market window that would otherwise offer the farmers a premium market and leads to food losses.
With the right techniques and right technologies, we can avoid time-related losses and add value to fresh produce and extend their shelf life. We provide grant financing that addresses some of the challenges in the sector, such as infrastructure, logistics, technical knowledge, certifications, marketing, and market linkage to the right markets that offers premium prices for these products.
We also partner with farmers to grow the right varieties and qualities, using the right techniques to ensure customers both locally and abroad get what they want.
Your work has centered around food systems transformation towards creation of better jobs, better incomes, and better environment. Why is this so crucial in Rwanda’s context?
In Rwanda farms are small, thereby making it difficult for small scale farmers to go commercial. It has become even harder with the current challenges of climate change and soil health deterioration.
IDH uses a business-led approach to support transformation of the food value chains into economically viable, inclusive, and resilient versions that contribute to improved food and nutrition security and support increased local and regional trade. This means that farmers and other actors in the value chain get better incomes from their farming and off-farm activities as their businesses are commercialized.
Resilient value chains also include the adoption of climate adaptive and regenerative production practices which is crucial to mitigate climate change effects in Rwanda and creating a better environment.
What achievements are you proudest of so far?
So far, our impact on the ground can be seen in the horticulture sector; we have seen export volumes from Rwanda grow (in 2018, horticulture exports were between 6-10 Metric Tonnes per week and currently they are doing more than 150 Metric Tonnes per week, with our partners contributing more than 38% to this achievement).
Through our grant co-financing models, our partners have been able to build pack houses for fresh and processed produce; invest in cold trucks to collect harvest from farm to the packhouse; acquire different certifications for their farms; build recognizable brand for the European markets and reduce customer complaints. Thia is just to mention a few.
What changes would you like to see in Rwanda’s food system?
One challenge has always been a big barrier to the growth of the sector and I believe it is still pertinent; this is access to finance. Agriculture has been perceived as a risky sector for a long time and this is still a challenge farmers face today.
I would like to see changes in the mindset of the sector players. Most of the interventions in the sector have taken the value chain approach and not using a systems lens. Collective action is needed to tackle challenges in the current food systems including: agriculture productivity, finance and investments to address mainly infrastructural and logistical challenges; awareness and education to build local capacity; diet and nutrition to ensure farmers also consume what they produce and other external drivers that lead to an effective conducive environment.
These changes need to happen at all levels.
In what ways is joining the African Food Fellowship going to help in your journey?
The African Food Fellowship is very important in my journey to food systems transformation because it brings up new insights and allows me to dig deeper to understand more of what is required to achieve systemic change.
A few years back, our approach concentrated on a certain segment of the value chain and left out the other aspects like access to a healthy and nutritious diet. This Fellowship is an opportunity to interact with other actors in these other segments and get a broader picture of the food systems to better design and direct our interventions towards systems change.
This Fellowship is surprisingly also addressing other aspects that I would not have anticipated such as the development of soft skills like public speaking, proving to be worth my full attention.