Rwanda’s economy relies heavily on agriculture, with the sector employing 70% of the country’s workforce, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Agriculture accounts for almost a third of the country’s economy, and 75% of Rwanda’s agricultural production comes from smallholder farmers, according to the Rwanda Development Board (RDB).

However, climate change has become a significant threat to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Rwanda. Increased droughts, unpredictable rainfall patterns, strong winds, and changes in seasonal temperatures pose a real risk and impact the nation’s food security. 

Left unattended, this climate variability threatens to impose substantial economic costs on the country, underscoring the need for immediate action. 

According to a report by the World Food Programme (WFP), currently, almost 38.2% of the Rwandan population lives below the poverty line, and nearly one-fifth suffers from food insecurity. The situation has been worsened by increased food prices, rising energy and fertilizer costs, the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and persistent disruptions in cross-border trade with neighboring countries, such as Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Burundi.

In May 2023, severe floods and landslides hit the northern, western, and southern provinces of Rwanda, causing over 130 fatalities, destroying more than 3,000 hectares of arable land, and displacing more than 18,000 people. The floods also led to significant crop losses.

To transform Rwandan agriculture in the long term, young agricultural entrepreneurs are leading the way. One of those people is Jean-Claude Niyomugabo, a passionate entrepreneur and social media influencer who advocates for sustainable agriculture and climate adaptation in Rwanda. In 2021, at the age of 22, Niyomugabo founded Agirite. This social enterprise uses digital technology to connect smallholder farmers to markets, training, and financial advisory services while promoting sustainable agriculture practices.

Niyomugabo was named Youth Agrichampion for Climate Actions by the Ban Ki-Moon Center for Global Citizens in 2022 for advocating for small-scale farmers in Africa at COP27. His demand paper emphasized the need for funding for climate-resilient training and support, access to finance for climate adaptation, and universal agriculture insurance for disaster recovery.

Global Citizen spoke with Niyomugabo about his activism journey as a champion for sustainable agriculture in Rwanda and how his organization, Agirite, is empowering the next generation of young people and women in the agriculture sector to change the sector's narrative and use innovative tools to adapt to the climate crisis. 

How did your upbringing in Rwanda and growing up with parents who were farmers influence your decision to become an advocate for smallholder farmers?

Image of Jean-Claude Niyomugabo taking care of crops at one of his farms, in Rwanda.
Image: Image provided by Jean-Claude Niyomugabo

When I was seven, I used to go with my parents because we had a farm and we were growing maize and beans. I would walk 20 kilometers. We went to the farm to prepare the land, to do fertilizer application, and then we would go to the market to sell our produce, but when it comes to selling produce to the market, we [only] got [a little] money. The price was very low. And sometimes, my parents would complain and say that we are not getting what we’re supposed to get.

When I was in primary school, I aimed to become a doctor or engineer. But now, I find myself working as a farmer. In high school, I had a chance to study physics, chemistry, and biology. I was good at those courses, but my ambition was [still] to be a doctor. When I finished high school, I was admitted to study medicine, which was incredible. [However], when I went to the rural areas in Rwanda, I saw that most people in the rural areas were facing hunger and needed medicine from hospitals. [I thought] that if I [went] into agriculture, I could make an impact in the community. So, from there, I decided to apply for agricultural science.

From doing the [course], I told myself that maybe I should start thinking about how I can impact more people.

What motivated you to start Agirite, and how did you identify the need for climate-smart agricultural assistance among smallholder farmers in Rwanda?

Image of Jean-Claude Niyomugabo taking care of tomatoes or peppers at one of his farms.
Image: Image provided by Jean-Claude Niyomugabo

When I was [at] university, I noticed that most people who were doing agriculture were doing it just to survive. While they could get enough food, they weren't interested in marketing their produce. Also, climate change has affected smallholder farmers in Africa, causing floods and landslides. Seeing these issues, I decided to focus on young people who are often disinterested in agriculture. By showing them that agriculture can be profitable, I want to change the narrative and encourage them to pursue it as a career.

Additionally, using the knowledge I gained from my Bachelor of Science degree in Conservation Agriculture, I want to help farmers adopt sustainable practices such as climate-smart agriculture, irrigation, and organic farming. This is how I developed the idea for Agirite, which I founded in 2021. The organization focuses on helping young people and women see agriculture as a profitable business venture while addressing the effects of climate change.

We wanted to create demonstration farms where young people could come and learn about the industry and how they could start their own agribusinesses. Additionally, we used social media to showcase the opportunities available in agriculture and change the negative narratives of agriculture among African young people. As a result, we have been able to grow and work with over 3,000 young farmers across Rwanda, and that was a milestone. 

Can you share any first-hand experiences on how the climate crisis has impacted the farming community in Rwanda?

Last year, we were growing potatoes in northern Rwanda when there was heavy rainfall. Unfortunately, we couldn't keep any potatoes because they were washed away by the water from the rainfall, resulting in a huge loss. More than 1,000 farmers in the area faced similar challenges due to the heavy rain. These are just some of the effects of climate change on a personal level, especially for those of us in the agribusiness industry. In the eastern part of Rwanda, farmers sometimes face the impact of droughts. 

Outside of the impacts of climate change, what other challenges do smallholder farmers in Rwanda face? 

In Rwanda, most smallholder farmers have less than one hectare of land, and they struggle to access stable markets for their crops. This lack of access can lead to losses and hinder their success in agricultural business. 

Additionally, many farmers need help to use modern and sustainable agricultural practices, and the price of maize, which is the main crop for most farmers, is very low, making it difficult for them to diversify and increase profits. Finally, smallholder farmers often face a lack of access to finance, as banks consider them “unbankable.”

Can you explain why it’s essential for Agirite to empower young people and women in Rwanda’s agricultural sector?

Image: Image provided by Jean-Claude Niyomugabo

When you look at Rwanda's population, you'll see that young people and women make up the majority. However, men generally own the land and profit from agricultural activities. Women, in particular, face daily challenges when working on farms. Although they contribute significantly to the primary production of agricultural goods, men often earn money from processing and selling those goods. Women are the ones who produce the most agricultural goods in Rwanda. However, they are often neglected in the value chain. Empowering women is essential to achieving food security in the country. By including women in our efforts, we are bringing more energy to the economy and transforming agriculture for the better.

Young people quickly adapt to innovative technologies such as AI and mechanization. That's why we focus on empowering them first. When we bring emerging technologies to young people, they are more likely to adopt them quickly. On the other hand, older people may be hesitant to use these technologies. Mechanization, in particular, is an engaging way to attract young people to the sector. They love driving tractors and using machines. By engaging with young people, we are bringing in a new generation of farmers excited about the possibilities of emerging technologies in the sector. 

How did it feel to be recognized as a Youth Agrichampion for Climate Actions by the Ban Ki-Moon Center for your climate advocacy work with smallholder farmers in Rwanda?

Being acknowledged as a Youth Agrichampion for Climate Actions by the Ban Ki-Moon Center was deeply gratifying and validating. It symbolized our dedication to supporting farmers through hands-on experiential learning, market and training access, and advocating for sustainable agriculture and climate resilience among over 3,000 smallholder farmers in Rwanda. At Agirite, our mission has been to inspire and empower youth, women, and farmers to adopt practices like conservation agriculture and agroecology, which mitigate climate change effects and foster long-term sustainability. This recognition underscores the significance of our efforts and reinforces our commitment to advocating for tangible solutions to address the pressing climate challenges confronting farmers globally.

While the recognition is a milestone, it also serves as a catalyst for further action. We are steadfast in our advocacy for increased funding for climate resilience training, improved access to grants and loans, and establishing universal agricultural insurance schemes for small-scale farmers across Africa. These interventions are vital for farmers to adapt to escalating climate impacts and safeguard their livelihoods. Our journey is far from over, but being recognized as Youth Agrichampions fuels our determination to advocate for a more sustainable and resilient future for smallholder farmers worldwide.

What hopes do you have for Rwanda's agriculture community and Africa?

Our aspirations for the agriculture community in Rwanda and across Africa revolve around ensuring small-scale farmers have access to critical resources and technologies. We aim to facilitate access to weather forecasting technologies, establish cool storage facilities for produce preservation, and create accessible markets for farmers to sell their products to more than 40,000 social networks. At Agirite, we provide information on cover crops and soil maintenance and distribute climate-resilient seeds. 

We envision transitioning towards climate-smart agriculture, increased production of high-demand crops, enhanced climate resilience among farmers, and thriving agribusiness ventures. Moreover, we hope to see farmers collaborate to leverage opportunities for exporting their produce, thus contributing to economic growth and food security. Achieving these goals necessitates robust multisector partnerships with entities such as the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Health, and FAO Rwanda.

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Defeat Poverty

Rwandan Smallholder Farmers Are at Risk From Climate Change. This Founder Uses Tech to Promote Climate Resilience

By Fadeke Banjo