Climate and Agriculture in Rwanda

Dealing with Climate Change

By Didier Bikorimana

A man in faded blue jeans cultivates his plot of land — less than an eighth of the size of a standard football pitch — alongside his  wife and son in Nyamirama village, Nyaruguru district, southern Rwanda. Fifty two year-old Bosco Nshimiyimana, a father of four, relies on this land to support his family.

He is not alone. Recent figures from Rwanda’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources state that about ninety percent of Rwanda’s estimated ten million people live on subsistence agriculture. Rwanda’s agriculture sector, reports say, accounts for up to forty-seven per cent of the nation’s domestic goods and exports.

As is his habit, Bosco Nshimiyimana would start planting his fields at the beginning of September, with rains falling abundantly. But for the last ten years or so, this has not been the case, he says. “It first rained around September 20 and after we noticed that the rain had softened the soil up a bit, we immediately started cultivating,” says Nshimiyimana, who has been waiting for the rain for about a month now to start planting.

“After one week, it stopped raining,” Nshimiyimana hastened to add, his voice turning sad, as if he were about to cry. “But yesterday it rained a bit again and that’s why we have decided to come out here and cultivate again. Even so, it requires much effort as the rain hasn’t really penetrated the soil yet. We can’t grow vegetables to eat. We have to buy them from people who have plots of land in the swamps where vegetables still grow, as people have water for their crops there. So for me to live, I also have to go and farm for wealthy people to earn some money. But goods are very expensive as well.”

Bosco’s wife, Françoise Itangishaka, is equally worried. According to Itangishaka, even though some things are still the same as always, the rains are different. “We don’t know the reason, but I personally think it’s times that have changed,” she says. “After the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, it has never rained on time as it used to in the past,” Itangishaka adds, as she gets a blend of beans and maize seeds out of a calabash and then uses her small hoe to place the seeds in the soil one by one − a traditional way of sowing such seeds, unchanged for hundreds of years.

Dr. Gaspard Rwanyiziri, professor of Environmental Geography at the National University of Rwanda, recognizes a trend – of apparently changing weather patterns. “I was born in the 1970s, and I have also noticed some changes from the beginning of the 1980s to now. I remember that when we used to start primary school at the beginning of September, for instance, we had rains and people could start cultivating,” Dr. Rwanyiziri tells me in his campus office in the university town of Butare, Southern Rwanda.

But the seasons are no longer reliable, Rwanyiziri adds, which means that people need good information about changing weather patterns. “The problem we have in Rwanda when it comes to weather forecasting is that we don’t really have data. Rwanda is a really tiny country, and for the moment we don’t have equipment to detect rain in an accurate way,” Dr. Rwanyiziri says.

Rwanda relies on weather forecasting services based in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Rwanyiziri points out. This means that even for those few rich farmers who do get access to television – the only medium which regularly broadcasts weather information − it only offers a regional perspective. The Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) corroborates professor Rwanyiziri’s analysis. “The meteorological stations that are currently operational are not representative enough to provide a true picture of climate variability,” reads a statement on REMA’s official website, providing an overview on Rwanda’s climate change status.

Still, REMA’s website points out, observations and analysis from existing data show that over the last thirty years, some parts of Rwanda have experienced unusual irregularities in climate patterns, including variability in rainfall frequencies and intensity, persistence of extremes like heavy rainfall in the northern parts of the country, and drought in the east and south.

Four seasons characterize Rwanda’s rainfall patterns, according to REMA — a short rainy season from September to November and a longer season between March and May. Between these seasons are two dry periods, a short one between December and February, and a long one from June to August. Rainfall ranges from about 900 mm in the east and southeast to 1500 mm in the north and northwest volcanic highland areas.

Sometimes rain turns deadly. At least twenty people died between August and November 2012 following heavy rains that resulted in landslides, local media reports. Dr. Rwanyiziri says Rwanda still has a chance for two rainy seasons this year, and the effects of climate change are not as intense as they are in nearby Kenya and Tanzania. And yet a 2012 Global Hunger Index report ranked Rwanda as one of the countries most hit by hunger in East Africa, in part because of changing climate.

But Rwanda’s agriculture picture is not all gloomy, and official statistics point to tourism, minerals, coffee and tea as alternative sources of foreign exchange. “In 2012, Rwandan exports grew at seventy-four percent while their value increased by twenty-two,” said Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame in his state of the nation address  on 31 December 2012. “Our imports grew by twenty-nine percent, while their value increased by close to fourteen. Although exports grew, there is still a big deficit, judging by how much we spend on imports. We must therefore increase the size and value of our exports in order to maximize benefits.”

Meanwhile, families like Françoise and Bosco’s live with daily food insecurity, doing the best they can while they wait for the rain to start falling.

(Didier Bikorimana is a Rwandan radio and print journalist. His articles have appeared in Rwanda’s New Times, Uganda’s The Independent, and Spain’s El Mundo. His radio works have been broadcast by Radio Salus, in the southern Rwandan town of Butare, by Canada’s CBC, and the BBC program Gahuza. Didier was the recipient of the 2012 Gender Award in Print Journalism, the first Development Journalism Award issued jointly by the Rwanda Governance Board and United Nations Development Program.)