A new study of smallholder farmers in western Rwanda says the country’s agricultural policy has failed the poorest farmers, making them adapt to government policies, such as mono-cropping, or being forced to sell their land. Some 85 per cent of Rwandans work in the agriculture sector. RFI spoke to study author Dr Neil Dawson from the University of East Anglia, to find out how the Rwandan government’s much-lauded agricultural policy hurts the poorest.
Your study, Green Revolution is sub-Saharan Africa: Implications of Imposed Innovation for the Wellbeing of Rural Smallholders focuses on northwestern Rwanda. According to your study the Rwandan policies that are responsible for creating a viable agricultural society are actually bringing Rwandans down regarding socio-economic growth, culture and even well-being. Can you share some of this with us?
These policies have major implications for smallholder farmers across Africa. They have the potential to benefit the farmers of course, but the results of our study also show that there’s also the potential for negative implications as well. Really, the clue is in the title. These policies are called Green Revolution policies and they do promote revolution in the way that farmers use their land and the way they produce food. And to do that the strategy involves farming crops of approved seeds of a small number of crops that are economically viable and that there are markets for. They are also using chemical fertilizers to support using the growth of those crops. That involves risk for certain people. Some people are able to improve their income substantially. In our study, a third of the participants were able to do that, and they were primarily the wealthier participants. So changing agricultural practice for the poorer farmers involves taking on particular risks. You may have to take credit to use the fertilizers, and so you have to be confident at the end of the season that you can pay that money back, and also in the meantime that you are able to find enough food to feed your family. With that risk, it means that many farmers, instead of taking part in the scheme, end of having to sell their land, because it doesn’t work for them.
One of the issues in your piece is the lack of autonomy by this government because of imposing what crops to grow, or even only one crop to grow that actually leads to less of a feeling of well-being and nutrition problems for smallholder farmers.
Certainly in many countries these policies are being promoted and they provide choice to farmers so they can continue their traditional farming methods or they can choose to take on these modern methods as well. But in countries like Rwanda, that change is not only promoted, but imposed on people. So even if you think that growing maize or wheat is not suitable for your soil or your land, or that you have other priorities that you need to feed your family and grow a variety of other crops, you have no choice to do that, so you have to take that risk. The policies are often assessed as being successful, based on a very limited assessment criteria. And what this study shows is that we need to scrutinize these policies much more, and have a look at the potential negative outcomes of them in order to be able to refine the policies, to improve them, and to mitigate against some of these potential costs. Because where the policies are imposed, in a very top-down manner, and farmers haven’t really been consulted in the way they have been designed, that kind of thinking really needs to be brought into improving the way that they run.
The newer ways of thinking in terms of smallholder farmers is actually to speak to farmers, to consult with farmers, to find out what their results have been in the past. But the way the Rwandan government is structuring their agricultural policy is basically imposed on these people and you have some have some actual interviews within your article.
The policies are commonly assessed using economic data that the government collects, so a lot of the policies across sub-Saharan Africa are shown as being successful on the fact that these limited number of crops they yield in product ion is increasing ten-fold, twenty-fold. And that’s to be expected. Also, they show that perhaps on average the incomes of farmers are increasing. But, what we’ve done is look in a more exploratory way at the kinds of impacts, the broad range of impacts that farmers might suffer so we’ve used the smaller sample size, we had around 200 households that we spoke to and looked at the impact upon them. For a third of these households, they were having benefits and people complied with them, and their incomes were improving substantially. But for many of the other households, and particularly the poorest, their situation was deteriorating. Many of them were losing their land, partly because of these policies.
And one of the policies you point out is those who are required to grow tea. In your study, you interviewed people who had a hard time with growing tea because they couldn’t feed themselves.
Yes, certainly, particularly where a cash crop is involved, a non-edible crop such as tea. And that has an even greater risk. Tea takes three-to-four years before you can harvest it and get any income from it. So the scheme involves those households taking on a lot of credits in the meantime. So they provide funds to them to manage the land. By the time they get the first harvest, they’re in considerable debt. And for many, even from the outset, they will choose to sell their land, partly because of the risk. In Rwanda, if the farmer is not successful in managing their land with the new crop, a landlord has been introduced to show that the government has ultimate control over that land and they can choose to allocate that land to another, wealthier farmer instead. And perhaps there will be a risk of not being compensated by the government, so many people choose to sell it before that comes. Certainly in interviews people would say, “The tea is coming, we know it’s coming to our land. We could be evicted at any moment.” So they see it as a considerable risk.
In your report, you said that more than half of landless labourers (those who sold their land or the indigenous Twa people) fail to afford health insurance, despite nearly a third of households in that category being paid for by government or donors. So these are people who have fallen by the cracks even by their own government.
Again, that’s another policy where people need to pay to participate in. Universal health insurance is promoted, and government and other donors do pay for some of the poorest. But the year that we did the study the price of the health insurance had tripled, for example, and there were some prohibitive parts to that policy, whereby nobody within a household could be seen by a health professional unless everybody in that household had paid their health insurance. Even if they paid for one person and they were sick. Some of these policies do require quite a lot of investment from people to take part in.
Are you saying that basically the governments need to look at all aspects when they are creating this agricultural policy, from, as you said, the poorest of the poor? How would you characterize what needs to be done?
Some of these policies can have potential negative impacts. It’s not just like a development policy where you’re providing this mosquito net to people to combat malaria. They get something for free, it doesn’t really impact the way they live their lives. Where policies hold risk is where they can have impacts on the poor. They need to be assessed and scrutinized very carefully so that they can understand why they may not be benefitting, or even negatively impacting people, so they can be refined and improved. That’s normal, no policy is perfect. Really, it’s understanding and putting accountability onto the policies and the people, that the powerful organizations in the case of these agricultural policies who are promoting these as the major strategies to combat hunger and poverty.