New partnerships help farmers improve the Rwandese sugar sector

Sugar cane farmers in Rwanda gained more income and self-confidence after they better organised themselves and became a stronger partner in the sector. Key to the success of the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation project that supports them is 'putting yourself in the shoes of the farmers', says project coordinator Jean Marie Ntakirutimana.

The sugar farmers inthe Nyabarongo  and Akagera valley, Rwanda, were supported in the project 'Sugar: make it work', a public-private partnership of sugar cane farmers, the sugar factory Kabuye Sugar Works and the Rwandan government. The project was financed by the factory and the Netherlands government, with 4 million euros each. It dealt mainly with improving the drainage of the swamp, which greatly reduced the risks of crop losses and increased the available acreage for both the sugar cane plantation of the factory and for the 3000 small-scale farmers that deliver 60% of cane to the factory. Farmers also improved their agricultural practices and the functioning of the value chain, supported by Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation.

Farmer organisation

The basis for the higher income and increased yield is better farmer organisation, says Jean Marie Ntakirutimana, who coordinated the project on a day-to-day basis in Rwanda. Ntakirutimana was supported by staff from Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation on a regular basis. "The sugar sector was dormant before this project started", Ntakirutimana says. "Farmers were scattered and didn't cooperate with each other, or with other stakeholders." That changed. Farmers are now organised in nine farmer cooperatives, and seven water management organisations. In meetings, farmers themselves determined that the organisation for water management should be a separate organisation from the farmer cooperative, as the first is mandatory for all and the latter is voluntary.

Inclusive approach

The project follows an inclusive approach, which in this case means that small-scale farmers are included in project design and activities. In fact, key to success of the project is to engage fully with farmers, says Ntakirutimana. "You have to put yourself in the shoes of farmers. I have spent most of my time in the field, discussing things with farmers. And I feel really equal to farmers. Don't underestimate the knowledge and priorities of farmers,  they know what they are talking about. I learned a lot from farmers."

With an cane transport agreement of the factory, farmers of one of the cooperatives managed to get credit to buy a truck collectively. That enables them to make more money. Individual farmers can't afford a truck, but as a cooperation they could write a business plan and get a loan.

Boost of confidence

"The establishment of cooperatives boosted the confidence level and bargaining position of farmers toward the factory", says Ntakirutimana. "Unlike in the past, farmers now conduct quarterly stakeholdermeetings with the factory and the local government, where both sides discuss challenges in the business, negotiate prices and responsibilities and have a common approach towards the national government, for example on the maintenance of roads."

Ntakirutimana and staff of Wageningen Centre for Development supported the farmers in forming and registration of the cooperatives and water management organisations, and trained and coached farmers in their daily activities, on agricultural practices and entrepreneurial capacities. "Before I needed to go to all meetings, now farmers can do it themselves", Ntakirutimana says. Where needed, Ntakirutimana is still supporting farmers, through support of Agriterra, a Dutch agri-agency.