Less than a decade ago, most Rwandans experienced hunger three months of the year. Now, most of the country is food secure, in part because farmers can access yield-enhancing fertilisers and profitable markets to sell their produce.

In 2006, Rwandan farmers did not have the tools needed to boost food production. As a small landlocked country in central Africa, most fertiliser companies would not even consider exporting their product to the nation beyond a small quantity for tea and coffee estates. While more than 80% of Rwandans were farmers, only a small fraction were able to access fertilisers.

Recognising the need to produce more food, we worked across time zones on a strategy enticing the private sector to bring fertilisers and seeds into the country. The centrepiece became the Rwandan government’s flagship crop intensification programme – reducing seed and fertiliser costs for farmers and increasing access to productivity-enriching supplies. These interventions helped shelter Rwanda from the effects of the 2008 world food crisis by keeping food prices and availability stable.

We travelled across the outskirts of Kigali after the first year of the programme and saw first-hand how local farmers doubled the amount of food produced. Many even tripled their yields. The farmers said their neighbourhood shops were now stocked with fertiliser and improved seeds.

This policy environment became the driving force behind a new era of agriculture for Rwanda. According to 2012 government statistics (pdf), fertiliser use more than doubled, from 18% in 2005-06 to 38% in 2010-11. Farmers now had excess produce to sell. “In 2005-06, households sold around 18% of their agricultural output on average; by 2010-11 the average proportion of output sold had risen to 25%,” said the survey. And perhaps more staggering, per capita GDP grew by 62% from $333 to $540.

In some countries, such increases do not always benefit poor people. Yet in Rwanda, the poverty rate decreased from 57% to 45%. The nation’s per capita GDP now stands at $730. According to the World Bank, 45% of poverty reduction can be attributed directly to agriculture.

Today, Rwandans are focusing not only on growing more food, but more nutritious food. As a result of a partnership between HarvestPlus and the government, a third of the nation’s households are producing healthier crops using improved bean seeds fortified with micronutrients. But improved seeds are not enough. Fertilisers containing micronutrients are also necessary. Recent field trials show that productivity increases by 40% when fertiliser nutrients match soil characteristics. In Rwanda, micronutrient trials are doubling maize yields and sky-rocketing potato production.

Rwanda’s agricultural revolution can serve as a model for other nations to unlock policy and market constraints. Fertiliser initiatives that open markets, strengthen nutrition and spur partnerships will empower farmers towards improved livelihoods.

The first steps to building farmers’ access to fertiliser and other technologies are an enabling policy environment and strong leadership. Rwanda’s significant strides in economic growth would not have been possible without the revitalised input markets brought about by the 2006 Africa fertiliser summit and resulting Abuja declaration on fertiliser for an African green revolution. This momentum began when African heads of states endorsed the 2003 Maputo declaration on agriculture and food security (pdf).

The Abuja declaration declared fertiliser “a strategic commodity without borders” and listed concrete actions to improve its access for smallholders. The Maputo declaration committed governments to spend at least 10% of their budget on agriculture, allowing new policies to be financed. Today, both declarations are the markers that African Union member countries use to measure progress towards food security.

For these policies to have ground-level impact, farmers must access timely market opportunities to prevent post-harvest losses. Public-private partnerships are generating greater market participation and boosting agribusiness. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and its partners, including the International Fertiliser Development Centre, are investing in better links among governments, the private sector and smallholder organisations, and encouraging governments to develop private-sector friendly policies. The African Green Revolution Forum brings all players together to address industry opportunities and challenges.

In his Nobel lecture the late Norman Borlaug said fertilisers fuelled the green revolution in Asia of the 1960s. As the world population increases to a predicted 9.6 billion (pdf) in the next 35 years, farmers must grow 60% (pdf) more food on the same amount of land, with food demand increasing by 178% in sub-Saharan Africa. Rwandan farmers have demonstrated that dramatic yield increases are possible, and there has been similar growth in several sub-Saharan countries.

There is no doubt that effective fertiliser policies, innovative technologies and market-building partnerships can power a green revolution in Africa. The question is no longer how but when. And it will take all of us working together to make it happen.

Dr Agnes Kalibata served as Rwanda’s minister of agriculture and animal resources from 2008-14. She is now president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Dr Amit Roy is president and CEO of the International Fertiliser Development Centre

– The Guardian