Kabagambe, the food systems leader turning Rwanda’s city dwellers into farmers

With rising populations, fast urbanization and subsequent shrinking of arable land constantly sending food demand on the rise in Rwanda, Mr. Juvenal Kabagambe is helping urban dwellers to produce their own food on small spaces within municipal boundaries.

The Sustainable Land Use Fellow at the African Food Fellowship has been showcasing a wide range of urban gardening techniques he believes could cut reliance on supplies and food imports from afar, chains that have suffered recurrent bottlenecks that result in shortages and constant food inflation that affect consumers.

Kabagambe farm design
Kabagambe uses wood, trees, container materials, clay pots, and plastics, among others to design urban gardens that suit the needs of the households.

Mr. Kabagambe is the founder and managing director of Urban and Rural Farming Development Company Ltd which specializes not only in food gardening but also offers services ranging from farm planning and management to small scale irrigation services.

“If we are to keep at the pace of current and future food demand in view of projected population growth and special expansion, the time is now to bring farming to urban compounds in the capital Kigali and the six secondary cities,” he says.

He has set up farming gardens in urban homes’ backyards and apartment balconies for at least 150 clients to date. He uses wood, trees, container materials, clay pots, and plastics, among others to design models that suit the needs of the households. Some are permanent, others are moveable to cater for majority of urban families living in rented homes.

While the feedback has been positive and uptake of the systems on the rise among urban homeowners he has approached, he says he is unable to embark on mass production of the concepts for display or scale up his demonstration site located in Eastern Rwamagana District.

“It requires significant investment, and that’s where I still have a challenge,” said Kabagambe. The population living in urban areas in Rwanda has grown from a mere 4.6% to 18.4% over the past two decades, according to the ministry of infrastructure which oversees the housing and human settlement sectors. Urban population is projected to rise to 35 per cent in 2024. By the look of things, however, the capital Kigali and the six secondary cities designs have left little space for farming beyond a few marshlands and scattered arable land parcels in the outskirts.

Kabagambe farm design
Kabagambe showcases what he does best.

But Mr. Kabagambe says countless tiny spaces available around urban homes, hotels, offices, schools, hospitals, touristic parks and all the buildings in the cities could be converted into vegetables and fruits gardens. He also points to flat rooftops of urban structures and all the little spaces left around sidewalks along citywide road network. “All of these tiny spaces combined, they are more than enough to produce a huge chunk of what urban families need daily in terms of food supplies. For me I see it as an untapped business opportunity. It makes little sense to have a nice city without enough food,” said Kabagambe.

He adds that urban farming is further made possible by the fact that urban families generate enough kitchen waste that can serve as manure, while rooftop rainwater harvesting would make production of the much needed food supplies possible all year round. “It a matter of coming up with properly thought out plans to harvest rainwater into collection centres, alongside investing in waste water reuse systems,” he said, adding that similar practices made urban farming very productive in Israel, a country he visited in 2013. Being part of the African Food Fellowship has helped Mr. Kabagambe to get a broad understanding of food systems, his position as a leader, and above all inculcated in him a sense of responsibility to ensure his initiative delivers the maximum impact possible.

The Fellowship has also served as an opportunity for networking, sharing of ideas and collaboration with peers in ways, he says, that have helped him plan long-term for the impact he seeks to make. The 34-year old was awarded best performing entrepreneur in Eastern Province by Africa Management Institute (AMI) in May this year for the remarkable impact his agricultural initiatives have had. The food gardening system, in particular, was hailed for easing households’ access to food during the Covid-19 pandemic when movement restrictions obstructed food supply chains. He hopes to grow uptake of urban farming and gardening through training of youth and women under an initiative dubbed Urwengero (food gardening training lab), who will later help reach out to urban homeowners and tenants who are willing grow their own food. So far a group of 80 youth and women is undergoing a three-month training on how to set up different models of urban gardens.

I am winning awards doing what I love best; providing value for farmers