Young agripreneurs are changing the face of agriculture

Early this year, 22-year-old Ernest Mugisha, a student at the private Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture, was nominated for a global award for his work in agriculture. The award of US$100,000 is annually given to an excellent student who has made a tangible impact on learning, the lives of their cohorts and society in general.

Mugisha, an entrepreneur and youth advocate, aims to improve the living standards of people from underprivileged communities. He is among the 50 nominees shortlisted for the Global Student Prize 2022. Chegg is an American education technology company based in Santa Clara, California. Mugisha was selected from 17,000 applicants from 150 countries.

Mugisha, who co-founded a company called INFIM AG-TRANSFORM AFRICA, a professional consultancy and prospective agricultural machinery manufacturer, told University World News his company provides consultancy services to individuals and businesses aspiring to undertake any agribusiness projects. It currently seasonally employs 500 people who benefit from the company’s activities.

He initiated different life-changing projects, including Modern Home Farm, a project that came as a direct response to mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on food systems.

“This is an integrated, home-based farm that allows the growing of fresh vegetables and keeping chickens in the same cage at home. This enables people to produce fresh, sufficient and nutritious foods without leaving the house,” Mugisha said.

Innovative solutions for local farmers

Apart from his direct involvement in agriculture by producing products like tomatoes, onions, coltan beans and chilli that have been exported to China, he also engineered a system to help farmers manage their finances.

“The system provides digital farm management, automatically releases weekly and monthly reports, and real-time information to make decisions from,” explained the young man whose company has been recognised by FOYA (Founder of the Year Awards) as the best youth-led agricultural company of the year 2021 in Africa. He was also recognised as the best agripreneur in 2021.

Although still at university, Mugisha expects to use acquired knowledge to manufacture affordable greenhouses for local farmers. His long-term outcomes are aimed at making Rwanda the hub of horticulture around the world and cultivating a shift from subsistence farming to commercial farming to create sustainable communities.

“Our mission is to create sustainable communities through transforming agricultural innovative ideas into life-changing ventures by the deployment of technology,” he said. “We want to become the leading organisation in Africa in the war against hunger.”

And for Mugisha and his co-founders, whatever is done is informed by research. “Research is the key in every single activity undertaken by the company,” he said. “We never start anything before conducting research about what it is, its impacts, completing a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, an environmental-impact assessment, feasibility assessment and financial forecasting,” he added.

Agriculture is not just for old, rural people

At the University of Rwanda, Sylvie Nkundizanye, a final-year student in food science and technology, started her own business in 2020. She produces juice and jam from different fruits, and she is doing research on banana peels.

Nkundizanye attended Rwanda’s national agriculture exhibition where she exhibited different products, but attendees liked the juice she made using lemon juice, sugar and a flavour of banana peels. She wants to own a big agriculture company.

“I like this thing. And it was my decision to join this faculty. The reasons were to change the mindset of the young generation who say that agriculture is for old and rural people. It is an important sector in our daily life,” she said. “I want to show my peers that they can do modern agriculture and generate more income.”

Despite challenges like people calling her names because she is a farmer, she perseveres with the help of the University of Rwanda.

“The university helps us very much because, now that we are still students, we use the university laboratory to do our research to be able to produce our products. They do encourage us. For instance, they bought packaging materials for me, and they helped me get exhibition opportunities,” she said.

“I am determined to use this opportunity to help other little sisters and brothers to get into the agriculture sector and to become self-employed,” she added.

Students help farmers modernise methods

In 2017, the university’s College of Agriculture, Animal Sciences and Veterinary Medicine (UR-CAVM) created agri-research clubs as an impetus to breed a group of future bright young farmers. The overall target is to make Rwanda’s agriculture less climate-sensitive, more environment-friendly, and a leading economic sector while accelerating agricultural development.

Eric Usengimana, a level-three student in horticulture production, said he studied physics, chemistry, and biology in high school because he wanted to become a doctor. “After high school, I was sent here to UR-CAVM, and I immediately joined the club which helped me to understand and love agriculture. And, as I study horticulture, I thought about producing juice from cabbages.”

These students help farmers practise modern agriculture but also protect the environment and, so far, 30 farmers in the northern and southern parts of Rwanda have been helped to create modern, exemplary farms.

Their club is called AgriResearch Unguka Ltd and has 19 shareholders with student Abdu Usanase as the leader. The club has been praised for innovative tech solutions for agriculture.

“The best technology we have, which amuses people, is automatic irrigation. We put a sensor device in the soil, and it shows us the humidity the crop needs. Because it is automatic, it does what is needed by the crop and this system can be controlled remotely, even when at home using your phone,” Usengimana said.

Building trust is a challenge

Because of prolonged dry seasons or fluctuating patterns of the rainy season, the group came up with a tech system that tackles the effects of climate change by using solar power to irrigate with stored rainwater.

“Every start is hard because people can’t trust you immediately. Even our college staff laughed at us, saying that we had lost our minds. We started without enough resources, and few people believed us. But, by now, we are glad of what we have achieved. It requires resilience,” Usanase said.

For Alphonsine Dushiminana Mukayisenga, a career guidance officer at UR-CAVM, the youth are supported to understand their role in modernising agriculture. “At first, students feel offended to be offered agriculture as an option to follow at university but, the more they are involved in practice and research, the more they get to love it and practise it proudly,” she said.

“Students get to know that it is a viable business and use acquired skills, especially ICT, to modernise agriculture,” she said, emphasising that the university also ensures that students are motivated.

“We do motivate them by inviting older students who succeeded in life to share testimonies. We also help them to come up with quality ideas and research projects which are implemented with the support of the university, either in a laboratory or availing a small budget,” she explained.