Last January I attended the 4th annual research conference of the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR) in Kigali, Rwanda. The terms ‘economic transformation’ and ‘inclusive economic growth’ figured prominently in the presentations and discussions. At one level this is not surprising given that they appear in almost every development policy document and poverty reduction strategy papers since the country’s Vision 2020 (a statement of the government’s development goals and aspirations) was first introduced in 2000.
According to the dominant narrative, the ‘new vision’ of Rwanda – i.e. becoming a mid-level income country with vibrant, diversified, and innovative economic sectors – necessitates first a transformation of the agriculture sector in which a majority of rural poor are employed.
The speakers did an excellent job in presenting the past trends of agriculture sector development and offered some insights to future trends. However, they seemed to avoid the important gap between the current and the envisioned (transformed) agricultural sector, and said little about how this gap could be bridged. I develop this argument by looking at two particular sectors: agriculture and education.
Over 80% of Rwandan households are engaged in agriculture production to some degree, and for 56% of them agriculture is
their sole economic activity. What will agriculture transformation and inclusive economic growth mean for them? From the perspective of policy makers, it primarily means increased productivity through science, innovation and technology (i.e. modernisation) and commercialisation. Ideally, professionalised, tech- and market-savvy farmers will lead the current subsistence farming sector into a promised land of efficiency and profitability. In order for this to happen, policy makers believe farmers will need to be linked, engaged, skillful, well connected and informed about resources, markets and support services.
If this is the goal, let’s look at the baseline profile of an average Rwandan farmer today. According to the National Agriculture Survey (pdf), which was the last comprehensive agriculture survey conducted, the agricultural population represented 84% of the total population (among which 52% were women). Forty-five percent of the rural head of households (of which 73% were male and 27% were female head of household) were illiterate. Thus, the current agriculture population would appear to be a long way from the ideal, and will require a substantial amount of effort and resources (and time) to learn, acquire and most importantly, adopt the modern agricultural methods, knowledge, skills and practices. More likely it will take a generation of (new) farmers to achieve these goals. But is that new generation of farmers already in the making?
Education: jobs and youth aspirations
One of the presentations at the conference highlighted the school-to-work transitions of young people in Rwanda. The study revealed a number of important facts and trends in relation to youth aspirations and job expectations. For instance, the two most popular fields of studies among Rwandan youth are commerce/business (27%) and engineering (24%). Agriculture (4%) was the least popular. Shouldn’t this be a concern to policy makers and planners who envision a transformation of the agriculture sector? If young people in Rwanda are not interested in agriculture, how will the planned transformation come about? Will large commercial farms replace family farms? Perhaps this is one way to transform subsistence agriculture, but would this approach also be pro-poor?
Bridging the gap: young people, agribusiness and farming?
The Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources announced in February a new private-public initiative called “Farming is Cool Rwanda.” As the name suggests, it aims to change young people’s attitudes toward agriculture by promoting modern technology and gearing financing services towards young people. True, agriculture in Rwanda may be in need of new branding, but promoting agribusiness as the key to agricultural transformation seems to address the issue only partially. Farming may be cool, but who will (actually) farm in Rwanda?
Moreover, the government’s current approach to economic growth and transformation (through agriculture and young people) will likely miss the point if market- and technology-driven solutions alone are expected to make agriculture sector ‘sustainable.’ Agriculture is much more than optimising productivity and maximising profit. It is deeply social, cultural, historical and personal for many smallholder farmers in Rwanda, for whom farming is their main livelihood, means of survival and a way-of-life. I argue that while the market- and technology-based approach is indeed important and has a role to play, it should not be the sole (or simply assumed to be the best) policy solution.
In the current debates on sustainable agriculture in Rwanda too much emphasis is being put on economic growth and environmental productivity (e.g. land carrying capacity) and too little on social dimension of agriculture. Whist listening to different presenters’ views on ‘economic transformation’ and ‘inclusive economic growth’ I was left wondering how different the transformation process might be if it truly embraced the three dimensions of sustainability (economic, environmental and social).