Rwanda’s Agricultural Growth Mirage (Part 1/2)

Three farmers working in a field in Rwanda

Rwanda’s agricultural sector stagnated for 15 years, but no one noticed. A new paper examines why the country’s agrarian reforms have failed so far. This article is the first of a two-part series.

Rwanda’s spectacular rebirth from the apocalyptic genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 and its remarkable achievements in terms of economic growth, poverty reduction, agricultural transformation, and improved health are well-known. Despite strong criticism about the country’s authoritarianism and a recent debate on whether Rwanda’s governance model can be sustainable, much of its socio-economic progress is real. But lately, compelling evidence demonstrated that one key pillar of its success story –poverty reduction– was weaker than reported and that poverty actually increased in recent years. Moreover, allegations of deliberate methodological changes in poverty accounting made to disguise this unwanted trend were raised. In a new working paper, I demonstrate that a second column of Rwanda’s success –its remarkable agricultural growth– has largely been a mirage, originating in massive overestimation of food crop production from 2008-2013 and maintained up to the present despite clear, publicly available evidence from official Rwandan and international sources illustrating agricultural output stagnation.


Narratives on Rwanda’s Agricultural Development

Look at any report or academic article on Rwanda’s agricultural sector and you will either find that output volumes of the most important food crops multiplied around the turn of the 2010 decade and thus constituted amazing macro-level success or you will learn that agrarian reforms had devastating impacts and were an utter failure on the micro-level. Some scholars tried to reconcile these seemingly robust and contradictory findings as two sides of the same coin of top-down developmentalism that characterises post-genocide Rwanda. Only one paper actually compared different datasets and concluded that “numbers [… on Rwandan agricultural growth] are too optimistic and may even be plainly wrong”. But since that paper used data up to 2013, it just missed the decisive evidence from 2014 onwards.

Person harvesting rice on a field in Rwanda


The (Un)ambiguity of Statistics

According to both FAO 1 and Rwandan statistics, roughly 7 million tons of food crops were produced in the country both in 2005 and 2018, constituting stagnation (see figure 1a). Even more intriguing is what happened during the years in between – according to the data and in reality. Apparently, production levels skyrocketed until 2013 and then fell sharply in 2014, with this hump pattern being much stronger in the Rwandan data. (Actually, FAO data was identical to Rwandan data until at least 2015, but the FAO retrospectively corrected production levels of three crops downwards, leading to a less accentuated hump.) Dissecting Rwandan statistics reveals how this data pattern evolved (see figure 1b): regular so-called crop assessments began to record high production growth from 2008 (coinciding with the start of Rwanda’s massive crop intensification programme) until 2014, while a more sophisticated seasonal agricultural survey (SAS) produced much lower output levels from 2013 onwards. Official statistics were fed by the former until 2013 and switched to the latter in 2014. 

Rwandan Food Crop Production

However, Rwandan food crop GDP (in constant 2014 prices) almost doubled from 573 bn Rwandan Francs (RWF) in 2005 to 1,118 bn RWF in 2018 (not graphed) which is incompatible with the stagnation of food crop volumes. A manual correction proportional to food output evolution results in total GDP being 7.1% smaller than officially reported, with average total GDP growth being reduced by 0.7% per year. Unfortunately, neither Rwandan nor FAO (or other international) sources ever mention these issues in any of their abundant reports. Rather, virtually all documents including academic work to this day work with the outdated growth narrative based on Rwandan numbers until 2013/14.

Three interesting puzzles arise from this: (1) Why did food crop production stagnate in the first place? (2) How and why did overestimation proliferate from 2008-2013? and (3) Why was Rwanda’s reputation of being a highly successful agricultural reformer never corrected? The first question is tackled below, while the second is debated in part 2 of this blog post (the third one is only discussed in the paper).


An Output Stagnation Hypothesis: Mineral Fertiliser Boost vs. System Disruption

Diving into the literature on Rwanda’s ambitious agricultural reform programme and its implementation on the ground sheds light on the first puzzle. On the one hand, mineral fertiliser application –according to some studies, the most effective yield driver– multiplied over the last two decades in Rwanda. In fact, regarding the technocratic part of the ‘Green Revolution’ rationale, Rwanda did almost everything right: on top of devising an effective fertiliser distribution system, it supported irrigation, mechanisation and the dissemination of improved seeds. It built rural infrastructure, established a country-wide extension services system, invested in agricultural research and formalised land tenure.

However, agrarian change is incredibly complex, and there is substantial evidence that the overzealous implementation of accompanying reform measures created much harm. This included the abrupt and rigid introduction of mono-cropping areas broadly matched with agro-ecological zones, the prohibition of popular and risk-minimising inter-cropping, as well as de-facto coerced villagisation and land use consolidation. Scholars concluded that the reforms severely disrupted rural livelihoods and farming practices, increased poverty and inequality, and disabled risk management systems. An econometric assessment found that the key reform measure of land use consolidation raised yields only on farms larger than one hectare, which excludes 96% of all peasants in land-scarce Rwanda.

Connecting these two developments with respect to the corrected food crop statistics leads to the argument that any yield-driving effects of inorganic fertiliser application and other modernization techniques were offset by the devastating consequences of thoroughly enforced provisions on farming practices. One might interject that profound structural change necessitates temporary upheaval of unproductive regimes. But this reasoning can only hold if large-scale success does emerge eventually. Otherwise, significantly adapting existing policies is crucial. While there are some signs that this is indeed happening, it appears that the transformation envisaged by the Rwandan government requires a more flexible framework that allows more discretion for local agronomists and the appreciation of farmer knowledge.    

Sebastian Heinen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Economics. His doctoral research examines the efficacy of state-led economic transformation in post-2000 Rwanda focusing on the coffee-processing, hotel, food crops, and manufacturing sector.

Share this post