Rwanda's Radical Approach to Farming

By Morris Weintraub


Because sometimes a debunked old trend can make a surprisingly successful comeback.

Long known for its violent history of genocide and civil war, Rwanda has transformed in recent years in ways unknown to most outside of this small but densely populated country. Sure, it’s billing itself as an investment-friendly tech hub with green spaces and a budding art scene, but the reality is that 4 out of 5 Rwandans remain farmers, who’ve successfully used a little-known technique to double wheat harvests, triple cassava and bean outputs, and quintuple corn production. 

Known as land use consolidation, this radical yet controversial tactic started in Rwanda in 2008, pushing farmers to share land and plant certain crops in specific regions according to advice from government soil scientists. The goal? To ensure the country’s 11.7 million people had enough to eat, while also reversing fragmented land issues and other problems following the 1994 genocide. But some farmers have said they were forced by armed guards to cooperate in this plan, and a sister strategy known as collective farming was a key tenet under Stalin’s brutal rule in the Soviet Union. (And we all know how that turned out.) What’s more, other African countries have also tried this radical approach to farming — but most have failed. There was resistance in the beginning, says Octave Nshimiyimana, a crop protection specialist with Rwanda’s Ministry of Agriculture who notes the program was always “voluntary.”

But where others failed, experts say, Rwanda’s government has succeeded with its ruthless commitment to results and a lack of corruption. The government also provided upgraded seeds and fertilizer, which are now used by 40 percent more people than at the start of the program, says Eric Pohlman, Rwanda country director for the agricultural nonprofit One Acre Fund. The result, according to one 2014 World Bank report, is that all 30 of the districts studied had enough food to eat by 2011, up from just seven in 2008. While many Rwandans still live through “hunger seasons” in which they skip or substitute meals, Pohlman says, its government is looking to the future. Nshimiyimana says the long-term goal is to export high-quality food to other countries in the region. “We have to manage land well,” he explains.

— Reporting by Taylor Mayol

— Photography by Morris Weintraub

Click here to learn more about efforts to help build a community library in the rural village of Sunzu, Rwanda. The images pictured above are excerpted from the philanthropic book project RwandaWalk.