Family farmers grow fruit and vegetables thanks to irrigation schemes in Rwanda

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Family farmers grow fruit and vegetables thanks to irrigation schemes in Rwanda

©IFAD/Susan Beccio

Farm worker picks coffee cherries in Kigoma village, Nyanza district.

Popularly known as ‘the land of a thousand hills' – U Rwanda rw'imisozi igihumbi – Rwanda has a beautiful landscape made up of endless undulating hills and valleys stretching as far as the eye can see. The people who work the land are proud of its beauty. But the terrain poses a number of challenges to smallholder farmers – the most serious being soil erosion and land degradation.

About 77 per cent of all cultivated land in Rwanda is on slopes classified as having ‘moderate to high erosion risk soils', according to the 2004 Strategic Plan for Transformation of Agriculture in Rwanda. The Plan also shows that an estimated 40,000 people go hungry each year because of soil erosion. 
Farmers in Rwanda, like those in the rest of rural sub-Saharan Africa, depend largely on rainfed agriculture. The introduction of simple irrigation techniques and equipment can make a significant difference to their productivity. An IFAD-supported project in Kirehe district works by providing irrigation infrastructure that allows farmers to grow crops throughout the year. Where once there was limited cultivation of vegetables, farming families are now growing cabbages, tomatoes, egg plants and onions, as well as fruits such as tree tomatoes, passion fruits and pawpaws.  
The project set up valley dams and irrigation schemes, where marshlands are reclaimed and water is stored in reservoirs to irrigate the plots of rice and vegetables. Farmers can now grow rice both to feed their families and to sell in local markets. A 2013 mid-term impact assessment of the project showed that from the baseline survey at the start of the project, there has been a 50 per cent improvement in household food security and nutrition, and a 22 per cent improvement in housing across the 18 watersheds. 
The project's dams irrigate more than 1,500 hectares of land, and benefit over 5,000 households. Innovations such as simple irrigation ponds have been introduced to support farming in the dry season, which generally lasts from late May to early September. Recently, however, there is no certainty in the weather patterns and sometimes the dry season is longer than expected, making irrigation even more important.
Simple irrigation techniques

Farmers living close to the main roads dug out ponds. They received plastic dam sheets to line their ponds to ensure the water did not seep away. This method allows farmers to ‘store' water that runs off the tarmac roads and use it to irrigate their gardens using hand-operated pumps. Regular maintenance is important. Farmers are trained to keep the water trenches clean to avoid silting. 
Supporting farmer households 

Farmer Bizimana Emmanuel now has one pond. He works on the farm with his wife and children. 
"My livelihood has changed tremendously since I started growing vegetables in the dry season," Emmanuel says with a smile. "Vegetables are very expensive during the dry season, so I sell them and get a good return."   
He emphasizes that before the interaction with the Kirehe project, he didn't know the importance of including vegetables in their diet and they were beyond the family budget. 
"We could not afford them because they were like a luxury. Now, our meals include vegetables, and the children are healthy."
From their first harvest, the family made about 500,000 Rwandan francs (approximately US$700) which they used to start building a house. After the second season, they topped it up with a loan from the savings and credit union and completed the house. 
Five years since the pond was built, a visit to Emmanuel's family farm shows that it is fully functioning. The fresh cabbages, tomatoes and beans that he produces demonstrate how he is using the water to irrigate his crops. The pawpaw trees in his garden also look lush despite the fact that it is a dry season. 
Supporting farmer groups and cooperatives

Farmer groups have also been supported with motorized pumps and hand-held hoses to irrigate their crops during the dry seasons. With these tools, water is pumped from the swamp or other available water sources to the gardens on nearby slopes. 
COPAFLEMA is a cooperative that brings together some 12 farmer groups, each with about 20 members. They grow vegetables in Rwanteru village, Kigina Sector of Kirehe district. According to the COPAFLEMA president, Rudebeka Antoine, one of the biggest challenges in the village was that families were not aware of the importance of eating vegetables. Now farmer groups are training each other and raising awareness about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables.
"It is exciting that we can defy the seasons, in a way – we can grow crops even when the rains have not come or are delayed. This makes us motivated to work harder," Antoine says. With the harvest from their first crop using irrigation, the cooperative has been able to acquire more land, and now owns about 5 hectares. 
"We hope to sell our next crop at a good profit and share some of the dividends. We shall also grow a variety of vegetables next time, in addition to the tomatoes and cabbages," says Antoine.  
COPAFLEMA is a recently formed cooperative compared with other groups supported under the Kirehe project. For a young group, they have the determination and zeal that will help them achieve more.