Food costs rise as drought, botched irrigation schemes induce supply deficits

Food costs rise as drought, botched irrigation schemes induce supply deficits
Recurrent weather hazards and linked food shortage have yet again brought the efficiency of the country's water and irrigation access schemes under scrutiny. PHOTO | Teopista Mutesi | FAO

Erratic rains, drought and high cost of farm inputs on the local market have been blamed for food supply deficits, exposing households to mixed levels of food prices.

Food inflation in Rwanda generally shot by 28.6 per cent in July, yet another rise from 25.1 per cent on annual change in June, according to the latest inflation report by the National Institute of Statistics (NISR).

It has emerged that farmers who continue to grapple with high cost of farm inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides and seeds resort to reducing planted acreage, definitely contributing to the shortage of food supplies on the markets.

The situation is expected to become even worse in view of further rise in prices of both petrol and diesel which commercial farmers use to power machinery.

The food supply deficits are further exacerbated by recurrent erratic rains and drought that have dampened prospects of good harvets in parts of the country over the successive agriculture seasons since 2020.

According to weather forecast released this week on August 26, farmers in several parts of the country are not out of the woods yet as they will receive below normal rainfall between September-December, Rwanda’s key rainfall season.

In particular, the dry spell will hit most parts of arid Eastern and Southern Province, according to Rwanda Meteorology Agency.

Crop and livestock producers in Eastern province,  which grows half of the country’s total grain production, were yet to recover from the prolonged drought suffered during the September-December season of 2021, and the subsequent erratic rains that led to about 50 per cent loss of planted maize, beans and other crops to the scorching sun.

Government moved to distribute relief food to thousands of families across the seven Districts of Eastern Province that were affected.

Failed irrigation schemes

These recurrent weather hazards and linked food shortage have yet again put the efficiency of the country's water and irrigation access schemes under scrutiny.

With 90 percent of Rwanda's cropland located on slopes, the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI) shows only 63,742 ha were under irrigation as of 2020 — including 37,273 ha of marshlands; 8,780 ha of hillsides, and 17,689 ha of small scale irrigation.

The government missed the 2020 target of boosting land under irrigation to 100,000 ha.

This is mainly because costs associated with irrigation infrastructure acquisition, coupled with limitations around access to water sources, have seen smallholder farmers, who make up the majority of those engaged in farming in the low lying and hillside areas, continue to tie their activities to the arrival and departure of rains.

Hillside farm owners find it even more problematic as they face difficulties accessing the water sources.

The distance and topography make costs exorbitant, as it requires high capacity pumping technologies, tanks, and pipes to store water uphill, and regular fuel costs to pump water at long distance.

The alternative would be to build rainwater harvesting and storage systems. But these are costly and farmers lack the know-how.

“It would cost Rwf5 million ($4,928) in my case, and that's too much money when you consider additional spending on inputs," argues Jean Marie Vianney Ndikumukiza, a farmer in the Nyamirama sector of Kayonza district.

Low returns

He believes the main problem is because, "the market will not offer returns,” to compensate for those costs in the end.

To date, the farming business hasn't been able to offer much to afford farmers' costs associated with irrigation.

So it’s large-scale farmers and a few cooperatives with farms in the vicinity of marshlands that are doing irrigation.

Ndikumukiza indicates that the farmers' financial abilities were crippled over the years by a number of factors that left them with low returns to foot expenses under the new season.

The lockdowns and virus-induced restrictions that characterized the past two years, for instance, subjected farmers to low prices dictated by a few traders.

Many did not make enough returns to cope with high production costs now induced by the sudden change in weather.

In Kayonza, like other arid crop and livestock basket districts of Rwanda, such as Bugesera, Nyagatare, and Kirehe, farmers say it result in losses whenever rains fail or delay for the season.

Jean De Dieu Nirembere already incurred Rwf300,000 ($295) on soil preparation and purchase of seeds and fertilizer for his two-hectare piece of land in Kigufi village, Mahama sector of Kirehe district, only to wait for rains to no avail during the country’s main rainfall season of September to December last year.

No reprieve

Mr. Nirembere, like all the farmers in the drought-prone district, initially laid hopes in the Kirehe Community-based Watershed Management Project (KWAMP), a $49.3 million project to avail affordable irrigation facilities to offer a reprieve to thousands of farmers in the district exposed to increasingly erratic rains.

However, the irrigation facilities, including the dam, pumping stations, and water distribution channels, among others put up under the project, which was initiated in 2009 and completed in 2016, lie idle to date and continue to become dilapidated.

Ildephonse Nizeyimana, the Mahama sector agronomist, confirmed the facilities could not function due to lack of water to fill the dam.

"The dam was supposed to be filled with runoff water from the hills across, and there was no rain for that to happen. It is a failed project," he said.

Another irrigation project targeting farmers on 7,000 ha around Mahama, Mpanga, and Nyamugali sectors of the drought-prone Kirehe still faces challenges.

According to the auditor general's report released in May 2021, sections of the $120.05 million irrigation infrastructure project, initiated in 2011 with 15 July 2017 as the completion date, had not started or were abandoned.

Our surveys across selected areas of Kirehe, Nyagatare, and Kayonza suggest that while irrigation schemes have worked for those in the boundaries of marshlands and small distances from water sources, farmers uphill and dry low-lying lands continue to find upfront costs of irrigation machinery and accessories beyond the reach even under state-subsidized schemes.

Another spending goes to fuel costs that fluctuate yet the produce market barely offers remunerative profit margins.

Also read: AUDIT: Rwanda loses billions to projects delays, mismanagement

The situation is no different for livestock farmers.

The drought has seen most incur additional costs to cover water bills and buy grass when milk farm gate prices barely changed over the past three years.

Aloys Kamugunga, a livestock farmer in the Marongero area of Nyagatare district's Ryabega Sector with 15 cows, spends 18 jerricans of water daily at Rwf100 ($0.09) each.

The water cost has increased from Rwf50 ($0.04) previously because they are fetching it at a distance after floods covered the local dam and has not been maintained since.

"We are selling milk at Rwf194 ($0.19) a liter, yet one incurs between Rwf80,000 ($78.9) and Rwf150,000 ($147.9) on water and grass each week. You can't raise enough through milk sales to cover these expenses," he said.

The National Institute of Statistics surveys show that traditional irrigation techniques remain predominant at over 71.5 percent in Season A, 47.1 percent, and 81.3 percent in Season B and Season C of 2020, respectively. 

While acquisition and installation of pumping irrigation infrastructure appeared relatively cheaper with a 50 to 75 percent government subsidy for the low-income population, maintenance and operational costs curtail the uptake.

Despite Rwanda receiving one of the highest annual precipitation at 1,400mm per annum, it is estimated that only less than two percent of Rwanda's rain water resources is put to beneficial use.

Experts argue that harvesting the resource, coupled with rain water-based hillside irrigation systems, could ease water woes in times of droughts.

According to the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB), its teams have been monitoring the drought effects on the agriculture season.  Appropriate mitigation measures and interventions were devised.

According to the agency, the most affected were areas of the six arid Eastern Province Districts such as Kirehe, Kayonza, Ngoma, and parts of Nyagatare and Gatsibo Districts.

However, Dr. Charles Bucagu, the agency's Deputy Director in charge of Agriculture Research and Technology Transfer, allayed fears over likely crises in crop production.

"The drought is not on a nationwide scale, and we have since embarked on a mobilization campaign to ensure farmers under different irrigation schemes do the maximum possible during this season to seal gaps in yield levels," said Bucagu.

"We are working hand in hand with individual Districts to extend irrigation equipment to as many affected areas as possible. We encourage those who find the cost high to get together in groups and consolidate their land. That way, the cost is shared, and the government is willing to provide subsidies of up to 75 percent on irrigation machinery."

~ Reporting by Johnson Kanamugire

This story was supported by InfoNile with funding from IHE-Delft Water and Development Partnership Programme.