By Richard Makuza
Ernestine Musabende, a farmer in Kayonza District in Eastern Rwanda, is one of many who had misgivings about conservation agriculture. The concept, as explained to her by some people who approached her and her neighbours, seemed to go against everything she knew about agriculture.
“We thought this could not work and felt like it was a waste of time. They told us that all we needed to do was remove the top grass (guharura) then only dig planting holes. My question was how can you grow crops with out tilling the land? Will crops even germinate?” she narrated.
To her surprise, however, the maize planted under these conditions grew very well and produced close to two times more than what she had harvested under conventional agriculture.
“My harvest kept on increasing per season. I got time and money to join savings groups and access to finance has enabled me to improve my livelihood. I’ve been renting more land, paying health issurance, buying farming inputs on time and renovating our house,” she said.
Musabende’s story portrays the impact the conservation agriculture has had in the lives of over 14,000 farmers across Bugesera, Kayonza, Ruhango, Gicumbi, Burera, Musanze and Rubavu districts. These farmers are the beneficiaries of a conservation agriculture project led by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an INGO that promotes food security in vulnerable communities through local NGOs.
They have seen their yields increase by 30 to 50 per cent, making them more food secure, climate resilient and earning them decent livelihoods.
But what is conservation agriculture? Simply put, it promotes minimum disturbance of arable soil, permanent soil cover and diversification of crops. It’s less costly and time consuming because it doesn’t entail digging the land and reduces overreliance on input such as seeds and fertilizer.
As Rwanda battles challenges around low productivity and production of major crops, and with farmers in predominantly hilly topography finding it more expensive and complicated to do irrigation, this farming practice has proven to complement existing efforts to seal these gaps.
This is more so in light of intensifying effects of climate change with droughts in the east and south, flooding and landslides in the north and west, and sporadic rainfall throughout the country, which all cause severe land degradation and subsequently worsening the food security situation.
Farmers who opt for conservation agriculture are better positioned to withstand these shocks.
Given that conservation agriculture promotes minimal soil disturbance, it reduces soil erosions, and pest and desease threats. This leads to increased productivity and sustainable production for millions of small land holders who dominate Rwanda’s agricultural sector.
The Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB) and partners have been experimenting with conservation agriculture over the last two agriculture seasons 2023A and B, and are scaling up in subsequent 2024A season. This has encouraged organizations working to promote conservation and regenerative agriculture to form a coalition to support the government’s efforts.
The Regenerative and Conservation Agriculture (RCA) coalition was formed in May 2023 by 14 member organizations, and is keen on jointly developing manuals for extension of conservation agriculture and contribute to ongoing formulation of the next phase of the Strategic Plan for Agriculture Transformation (PSTA).
Experience has proven that conservation agriculture is applicable in all the ecological zones of Rwanda, and coupled with other good agronomic practices, this simple farming system could lead to food security and climate resilience.
However, the government and other stakeholders in the food system need to invest resources to address existing gaps hindering the systemic application of conservation agriculture across the country, which include a lack of knowledge and skills among farmers, and limited access to markets and fair prices for produce.
Musabende’s experience is proof that farmers are adaptable, dynamic and receptive to new ideas. We must do all we can to support them.