Farmers in rural Rwanda know a good idea when they see one. When a Canadian development project aiming to increase food security among smallholder farmers introduced a mechanism for drying maize three years ago, no one anticipated the level of interest it would spark.
"Dried maize sells for twice the price of undried maize," explains Fresnel Devalon, who manages the project for the
Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA)
. "We had the means to build just 12 drying facilities in five co-operatives. When farmers saw the financial and time-saving benefits of grouping their crops and drying them before selling to market, the idea really took off."
A building frenzy took hold within weeks of installing the drying facilities. A number of co-ops have since erected 16 similar dryers on their own initiative and with funds they garnered from local authorities and other donors. "Even more dryers are being built as we speak," says Devalon.
Mukankusi Alphonsine, President of the IAMB co-operative near Muhanga, grows maize on her small family farm. She says the results from the crop dryer the CCA project built for her co-op spoke for themselves. "If we consider that each drying facility can hold 4.5 tons, the co-op can recuperate as much as 40.5 tons with the nine additional drying facilities we built ourselves. That's the equivalent of $10,800."
"Before, when we dried our maize at home or in poorly built sheds, we lost a lot to rot, animals and theft," says Ibrahim Habuhazi, who credits the drying and storage services and training his co-op provides for the growth of his harvest and income. Benefits like this are incentives for younger farmers to resist the pull to seek better paying jobs in Kigali, jobs that Habuhazi says seldom materialize.
Back at IAMB Co-operative, Mukankusi says drying maize properly greatly reduces the crop losses associated with traditional home-based drying methods. "The co-op now recuperates 15% of crop loss that would have occurred using traditional drying facilities. The dryers built by the project can each hold 30 tons of maize. If the same amount of product were to be dried using a traditional method, the co-operative would lose 4.5 tons, or the equivalent of $1200." Devalon says this recovered income helps smallholder farm families to better afford the food and goods they need.
As well as reducing loss and improving income, farmers say using the dryers enhances the look and quality of their maize. It's cleaner and has no rot or discolouration from moisture. Farmers no longer have to move their maize outside each day to dry in the sun - a significant time-saver, nor buy plastic sheeting and trees for traditional drying. This benefits the environment. Theft in the co-op's centralized drying facilities is minimized, and there is the convenience of weighing crops at the dryer before being transported by the co-op to its storage facility.
A trained agronomist, Devalon says he knows something is working well when farmers take it upon themselves to replicate an idea without outside influence or encouragement. "This particular idea has gone viral among co-ops in rural Rwanda."