Cassava farmers in Ruhango District in Southern Province have appealed to Parliament and the Prime Minister’s office to support their negotiations for debt relief from what they term as a “reluctant” Rwanda Development Bank (BRD).
The Rwf400 million debt woes were triggered by crop failure due to Cassava Brown Streak Disease that struck the crop in 2013/2014 farming season.
The farmers had acquired the loan at 15 per cent interest rate that was to be repaid within 18 months after harvest.
Since then farmers have engaged in protracted negotiations with the bank for debt relief. However, the bank is reluctant to make the debt relief part of the conversation, at least according to the farmers.
The bank is instead offering an extended repayment schedule than originally agreed.
The New Times understands the farmers now fear their property will be auctioned to service the debt.
Leonard Ndagijimana had grown cassava on 14-hectare piece of land with Rwf19 million investments. He managed to harvest some produce on six hectares. The remaining cassava plants and tubers rot away.
“One day I loaded two trucks with 14 tonnes of cassava to the factory for sale but it was rejected as ‘spoilt,’” Ndagijimana said.
François Hitimana, another cassava farmer, said he had grown cassava on 17 hectares of land in which he invested about Rwf20 million. Of the amount, Rwf17 million was a loan he acquired from BRD.
The 59-year-old resident of Kinazi Sector told The New Times that he harvested only about 50 tonnes that he sold to the cassava factory.
“I lost 90 per cent of the investment I had made in farming. It was a disaster,” he said.
The farmers had been encouraged to grow cassava on large scale following the opening of Kinazi Cassava Plant, which provides ready market for their produce.
The plant has capacity to process 120 tonnes of cassava per day.
A farmer who got the lowest loan received Rwf9 million, while the highest received Rwf35.5 million.
François Hitimana, the secretary of KOAIMA, a cassava farmers’ cooperative in Ruhango District’s Kinazi Sector, said they have sought help from several government institutions for debt relief.
At one time, he claimed, they petitioned the Prime Minister’s office and on December 20, 2015, they petitioned Parliament.
The cooperatives’ 22 members had invested bank loan in cassava cultivation.
Hitimana said: “We invested the entire loan in cassava farming. The Ministry of Agriculture followed up and can bear us witness. What we want is for Parliament to support a proposal that would let the Development Bank of Rwanda waive the debt because; our [agriculture] project definitely failed and we have no capital for re-investment.
“Another alternative is to give us money, quality cassava plants to invest again and if need be, we pay the loan over an extended period.”
Farmers contend that the devastation of their crop by the disease left them worried about their welfare.
The Speaker of Parliament, Donatille Mukabalisa, acknowledged receipt of the petition in an interview with The New Times last week.
Mukabalisa said the farmers’ petition was still being considered by the Committee on Trade and Investment.
“A citizen’s petition to Parliament is referred to the committee, which analyses it and it reaches conclusions that it presents to plenary for discussion,” Mukabalisa said, adding that she could not comment further on the issue before it reaches the Plenary.
Leonard Ndagijimana, the president of the farmers’ cooperative, also made the case for total debt relief.
“As farmers affected by the disease, locally known as ‘Kabore’, debt relief would be good news or at least they should waive interest,” he said.
Dieudonné Irizabimbuto, the public request officer at the Prime Minister’s office, told The New Times, yesterday, that they received the farmers’ petition in February and the issue is being discussed by relevant organs, including the Ministry of Agriculture and that of Trade and Industry.
“Because Prime Minister’s office is in charge of coordination of ministries, the concerned ministries are considering the issue,” Irizabimbuto said.
He said, in their letter, the farmers requested advocacy for agriculture insurance against disasters threatening the sector, waiving of loan interest, among others.
Whether BRD will eventually give in to the request is yet to be known.
Alex Kanyankole, the BRD chief executive, said they have offered farmers an option of servicing the loan over a long-term basis and would help them in this regard.
However, farmers expressed concern that the proposal to extend the loan repayment period would not help much because they do not have capital to re-invest to service the loan.
On total debt relief or scrapping of interest for farmers, Kanyankole noted that “we are discussing all the options with them together with the Ministry of Agriculture to come to a definitive answer,” he said.