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

Rwanda massively overestimated its agricultural growth, but no one noticed. A new paper provides a political economy answer for why and how this happened.

In part 1, I elaborated how all available statistics show that Rwandan food crop production stagnated for one and a half decades despite the government’s massive efforts to raise it. I argued that this was due to the detrimental effects of disrupting farming practices caused by inappropriate and rigid reform measures that neutralised any positive effects resulting from the multiplication of mineral fertiliser application and other technological improvements. In the following, I discuss the second puzzle arising from the collected evidence: why and how did massive food crop production overestimation occur from 2008-2013?

Proliferation of Overestimation

In 2008, a large agricultural baseline survey using advanced methods found that there was a moderate level of food crop production overestimation (single blue point in figure 1b) relative to official Rwandan statistics. 

However, from then on, a progressively increasing overestimation trajectory evolved until 2013 (orange line in figure 1b). This trend coincided with the start of Rwanda’s ambitious Crop Intensification Programme (CIP), and looking at disaggregated data shows that skyrocketing production growth was driven by those crops that were particularly promoted by the reforms. 

Rwandan Food Crop Production

When the FAO retrospectively corrected Rwanda’s food crop production statistics downwards, it did this by subtracting fixed amounts or percentages from three CIP priority crops (potatoes, cassava, and wheat). Therefore, it stands to reason that escalating overestimation might have been driven by government expectations of production-boosting reform effects. Looking at the methodology of official agricultural data collection from 2008-2013 reveals that biannual surveys did adopt the sampling methods of the 2008 baseline survey but kept their simplistic measurement techniques, that is simply asking farmers for their expected production a few weeks or months before harvest. Could it be that farmers accidentally or deliberately misreported their output to satisfy reform targets?  

Plants growing in a field

The Political Economy of Performance Enforcement

To assess this question, it is crucial to understand the mechanism and political economy of Rwanda’s performance monitoring system. In parallel to the seasonal surveys feeding official agricultural statistics, there exists a second agricultural data collection system administered by local agronomists (usually known as routine system), which is connected to the country’s nation-wide performance monitoring tool, its imihigo contract system

In this elaborate governance framework, annual targets are set relative to baseline values in each ministry and district, effectively making every civil servant down from the Presidency accountable to measurable objectives. Job maintenance and promotions are largely based on imihigo performance, rendering Rwanda’s bureaucracy reasonably meritocratic. 

While this system has been shown to produce impressive results in some areas and proper audits are conducted each year to double-check reported results, deliberate imihigo mis-reporting to boost one’s results was recently identified as a structural problem by Rwanda’s prime minister. This occurs because annual targets are often unrealistically ambitious, while simultaneously their actual fulfilment is hard to verify. 

Given the importance of agriculture in rural Rwanda, imihigo targets for consolidated land and crop-specific yields have been set each year in all districts. Assessing the accomplished numbers in imihigo reports reveals that these were at least as inflated as official production numbers coming from the surveys. 

Even more, imihigo numbers have not been corrected yet and continue to indicate agricultural volumes several times higher than those in official statistics. For example, the Ministry for Agriculture’s annual report 2017/18 depicts both consolidated crop area from imihigo contracts and total crop area from seasonal surveys, where the former surpasses the latter by 38%, while it has to be smaller by definition.

Channels of Farmer Overreporting  

Coming back to the question of the genesis of escalating overestimation, there exist a few possible explanations. As shown in my paper, the existing evidence makes data fabrication highly unlikely. Also, an amalgamation of seasonal surveys and routine system data or accidental farmer overreporting can be practically dismissed. Rather, it is very likely that farmers did report unrealistically high output growth to fieldwork enumerators, which was not questioned or double-checked by anyone, as these numbers fulfilled imihigo targets. This deliberate overreporting, it is argued, occurred via two channels. 

First, farmers, who are widely affected by various government actions, might have mitigated state interference by telling officials what they wanted to hear. As farmers were aware of the government’s high interest in the CIP’s success, they might have ‘played along’ by reporting strong food crop growth. 

Second, local agronomists, who were reporting to have achieved enormous production growth each year in the distinct imihigo system, obviously knew about the independent agricultural surveys, and were keen to have them capture this largely imaginative growth trend as well. Thus, they might have used their ‘expert status’ to inform farmers about their expected upcoming harvest volume. 

Then, both the well-known tendency in Rwanda to not question authority and farmers’ self-interest in telling the government what it expects to be told would result in them strongly overreporting agricultural production. 

Detection and Correction

Eventually, the introduction of sophisticated seasonal agricultural surveys (SAS) in 2013 revealed massive overestimation and official statistics were silently corrected downwards from 2014, meaning that grossly false numbers proliferated for ‘only’ six years. Hence, the pursuit of technocratic excellence endogenously discovered massive food crop overreporting, which, however, was an endogenous product of the Rwandan governance system itself. Unfortunately, it was this short period of ostensible success that has been widely reported in academia and the media up to the present.

The evidence summarised here is in line with case studies on failed Rwandan industrial development. Therefore, it appears that regarding complex processes of economic transformation, the current imihigo system does not constitute a political economy where organisations and individuals are encouraged or compelled to learn through failure, but rather to pretend to have succeeded. This highlights a dire need for a structural reform of Rwanda’s performance contract system that would entail a more effective policy correction mechanism, including the possibility to criticise processes and goals and to follow entrepreneurial trial-and-error approaches.

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, and food crops sector.

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