Climate-Smart Agriculture: Rwanda Country Profile

Agriculture plays a major role in the economy and labor market of Rwanda, as it does in many countries in Africa south of the Sahara. The agricultural sector made up one-third of the country’s GDP in 2009-2013 and employed more than 80 percent of the Rwandan population (World Bank, 2015). With a changing climate providing new production challenges and an increasing population driving greater demand for food, however, agriculture needs to adapt if it is going to continue to be a sustainable economic mainstay.

In a new series on climate-smart agriculture (CSA), the World Bank examines how various countries around the world are finding a balance between agricultural productivity, climate change adaptation, and climate change mitigation. The country profile for Rwanda takes an in-depth look at the country’s current agricultural and climate conditions and highlights several efforts that the Rwandan government has made to integrate climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies into its broader agricultural and economic development policy.

Rwanda’s agricultural sector is dominated by small-scale farmers (72.4 percent of the country’s farmers own less than 1 hectare of land) and characterized by diverse agro-ecological zones. Around 62.9 percent of the country’s land is arable, and the country’s major crops include beans, banana, cassava, and maize. While more than 90 percent of the food grown in Rwanda goes to domestic consumption, however, the country’s production of beans, maize, and rice is not enough to meet domestic food needs. Thus, Rwanda remains a net agricultural importer.

The expansion of agricultural production and productive efficiency in Rwanda is hampered by several challenges. First, Rwanda’s agriculture is mostly rain-fed and thus highly vulnerable to weather shocks. The eastern and southeastern regions of the country are highly susceptible to prolonged droughts, while the northern and western regions face erratic rains and heavy flooding. Farmers often lack the knowledge and infrastructure needed to deal with such shocks, resulting in frequent losses in agricultural production and household income. In 2008, erratic rainfall led to maize yield losses of 37 percent in the eastern provinces and 26 percent in the southern provinces of the country. According to the World Bank country profile, Rwanda’s rainfall patterns are expected to become even more unpredictable, leading to a reduction in area suitable for crops and livestock, length of the growing seasons, and potential crop yields.

Further complicating the situation is Rwanda’s growing population. In an attempt to feed more people, agricultural production has expanded into more fragile environments, such as hilly slopes and wetlands. This expansion has resulted in soil erosion, overuse of soil nutrients, and habitat loss.

Rwanda’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are lower than regional and global averages (6.5 Mt in Rwanda compared to 34 Mt regionally and 512.7 Mt in the OECD), but they have been rising since 2010. Agriculture is a major contributing factor to the country’s emissions, accounting for 45.6 percent of overall GHG emissions; of that percentage, the majority comes from livestock-related activities such as manure left on pastures (32.4 percent of total agricultural emissions).

So what role is climate-smart agriculture playing in Rwanda’s efforts to balance the dual challenges of climate change and expanded agricultural production? According to the report, Rwanda’s government has set a goal to transform the country’s agricultural sector from subsistence-based to fully commercial, sustainable farming by 2020. In 2006, Rwanda presented its first National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA) to the UN. This program highlighted six adaptation priorities: (1) integrated water resource management, (2) early warning and agro-meteorological information systems with rapid response mechanisms, (3) promotion of non-agricultural income-generating activities, (4) intensive agro-animal husbandry activities, (5) promotion of drought-resistant crop and livestock varieties, and (6) development of energy sources other than firewood.

Several initiatives have stemmed from this action plan, including the Land Husbandry, Water Harvesting, and Hillside Irrigation Project, which was launched in 2009 in 101 pilot watersheds throughout the country. This project introduced conservation and irrigation practices such as terracing and reforestation activities, the establishment of hillside water ponds for irrigation use, and the promotion of hydropower electricity and hand-operated irrigation pumps. The project also trained farmers in composting, maintaining tree nurseries and water dams, proper post-harvest handling, and product marketing and business planning.

Overall, the project covered 2,689 Rwandan households and created jobs for 22,000 farmers. According to the country report, soil fertility in the piloted areas was greatly improved, with soybean and maize yields estimated three times higher, bean yields estimated four times higher, and Irish potato yields estimated 10 times higher than pre-intervention levels. In addition to significantly increasing land productivity, investments in land husbandry, water harvesting, and improved irrigation techniques can also help increase resilience to climate change and reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss, particularly in vulnerable areas such as hillsides. Similarly, the use of terracing, the establishment and maintenance of agro-forestry nurseries, and the improvement of post-harvest activities can increase resource availability and encourage improved resource use, as well as creating new job opportunities.

However, despite such efforts to mainstream climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts, many of the country’s small-scale farmers have not adopted climate-smart technologies and practices. Thus, there is a clear need to provide more incentives in order to scale up CSA throughout the country. From a financial standpoint, existing credit, loans, and insurance programs will need to be scaled up in order to reach a larger number of farmers and a wider variety of agricultural production systems. Such financing will need to come from a variety of stakeholders, including the Rwandan government, private sector banking institutions, and international actors such as IFAD, ADB, and USAID. In addition, Rwanda’s policymakers need to continue strengthening their focus on policies and practices that will reduce agricultural GHG emissions and promote the development of climate-smart agricultural technologies. 

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Flickr: A'Melody Lee / World Bank