What can Rwanda learn from China’s experience in agricultural development?

On 1 September 2023 at 06:42

Rwanda and China seem like worlds apart. One is a small East African nation of just over 13 million people. The other is the biggest country in the world with a population of close to one and a half billion people. China is a global military, technological, trade and finance giant while Rwanda is still at the very beginning of its development journey.

So, the question that must be posed is, is there anything that Rwanda can learn from China’s development trajectory?

Surprisingly, yes. While China is today a power, the steps that China made to get to this position can, and should, be used for reference by other developing nations including Rwanda.

In 2022, the gross domestic product (GDP) of China amounted to around 18.1 trillion U.S. dollars where the agricultural sector contributed around 7.3 percent.

As of 2021, around 22.9 percent of the workforce in the country was employed in the agricultural sector.

Meanwhile, agriculture accounts for around 31 percent of Rwanda’s GDP and remains the main source of income for majority Rwandans occupying 70% of the labor.

To feed its people and become food secure, China made certain policy decisions that can be studied by Rwanda.

Of course, China and Rwanda have developed their agriculture under different historical conditions. However, China’s agriculture-led growth and poverty reduction and small holder based agricultural development policy can provide a useful model for African countries, such as Rwanda, to develop their own agricultural development strategies to reduce poverty.

One of its biggest policy decisions was the empowering of smallholder farmers. Today, smallholder farmers are the backbone of Rwanda’s food system. They are the majority of employed labour and, at a strategic level, for Rwanda to develop, these smallholder farmers must become more productive.

In China, agricultural development was primarily driven by smallholder farmers moving from lower to higher levels of productivity and unlike Rwanda, the origin and evolution of Chinese agricultural structure has been based on long-term experimentation over thousands of years. This has enabled Chinese smallholders to develop smallholder-based farming technology in an incremental way over a long period, and has provided a solid foundation for further agricultural development.

To make it a reality, China introduced series of policies and measures to ensure food security.

This is an addition to resolutions including clear guidelines, issued every year by Chinese Communist Party, to solve problems affecting the agriculture sector.

In 2006, China exempted smallholder farmers from agricultural taxes which significantly contributed to improved livelihoods.

Besides, agriculture is the fourth largest priority for government’s expenditures after education, social safety and health.

The Chinese agricultural system is centered on technology while farmers receive support at their doorsteps from agriculture extension stations across the country.

Fish and mushroom farming have emerged among other key areas highlighting agricultural development in China.

In response to growing demand for aquatic products, China introduced its 14th Five-Year National Fisheries Development Plan in 2022.

Under this plan, the country’s 2025 target for aquatic production is 69 million tonnes from 65.47 million in 2020.

In Rwanda, figures show that fish production slightly increased from 41,664 tonnes in 2021 to 43,560 tonnes in 2022.

As for mushrooms’ farming, China adopted Juncao mushroom technology promising to help smallholder farmers boost household income.

In this regard, China-Rwanda Agriculture Technology Demonstration Center was established to help families generate income from mushroom sales.

The question is , how are smallholder livelihoods in China maintained under small scale conditions?

Firstly, productivity is achieved through an intensive family farming system. In most parts of China, multiple-cropping is widely practiced and mixed crop-livestock systems are common.

Likewise, Rwandan farmers, due to the relatively small sizes of their landholdings, have no choice but to practice the same multi-cropping and mixed-farming systems. And while Rwandans have attempted this system, there is a lot more that can be done.

Although some agricultural work has been taken over by machines, smallholder agriculture in China is very labour intensive. In addition, Chinese smallholders widely use improved seed varieties and fertilisers. This is something that the creators of Rwanda’s agricultural policy are copying. Today, the Government of Rwanda provides improved potato, bean and maize seeds as well as subsidizing the cost of fertilizer.

Land use and settlement patterns in rural China have also contributed to agricultural development. Except in mountainous areas, villages are usually nucleated and arable land belonging to different small holders is relatively concentrated. This helps the development of large scale commercial crop clusters such as maize clusters in Northern China and rice clusters in Southern China. This also favours the economic use of joint services such as irrigation, extension, harvesting and marketing services provided by the state.

By creating the umudugudu system in rural Rwanda, the Government of Rwanda has been able to separate land for settlement and land for agriculture. This has allowed for land consolidation and increased productivity. Irrigation schemes, agricultural schemes and other Government services have followed.

In China, with an increasing labour movement out of agriculture, mechanisation has gradually taken over heavy farm work such as ploughing, planting and harvesting. Mechanisation is not normally done through individual family farms, but is provided by private services.

The lack of mechanization in Rwanda is largely due to the high cost of equipment and the lack of skills to operate this equipment. Rwandan private sector players can also use the China-model to support the country’s agricultural development. They should purchase this equipment and then rent it to rural farmers.

While Rwanda is very different from China, there are nevertheless some important lessons that could be shared between the two countries. Much of this centres on the politics of policy, and the importance of a consistent, long-term, learning approach, rooted in local contexts, avoiding sudden change and inappropriate external interventions.

In China, a consistent agriculture-centred development strategy and staple food crop-led agricultural development policy, honed through an incremental learning process, significantly shaped smallholder agriculture.

Another lesson from China stems from the steady transformation towards a market system ensured by the provision of irrigation, improved seed and fertiliser, and market facilities provided by the state, which enabled smallholders to gain access to the services at low cost.

Building a food-based agriculture system takes time and must be accompanied by comprehensive support to assist appropriate new technologies to emerge. This includes re-investing in agricultural education, research institutes and experiment stations as well as a modern extension service.