Rwanda's Failed 'Green Revolution'

Fields of maize
Fields of maize
Fulgence Niyonagize and Venant Nshimyumurwa

MUSANZE - The agricultural reform launched in 2007 has boosted the country's agricultural output. Yet not all farmers are benefiting from the situation. Some struggle to sell their crops while others suffer from an unbalanced diet. They have become so desperate that they have decided to ignore governmental directives.

A group of north Rwandan farmers have announced that they are going to stop growing wheat after they weren’t able to sell their last crop at the expected price ($0.8 per kilo): "We brought the crops to the cooperative. A week later, they asked us to take back our crops, which they hadn’t been able to sell," they complain.

Desperate, they have now decided to ignore government directives: "Once we have sold our wheat, at whatever price necessary, we will start to grow more profitable crops."

Since the Rwandan government launched its new agricultural policy in 2007, some crops have become too abundant and no longer sell. The new policy has given more power to regional authorities, which are encouraging farmers to grow only one kind of crop on a very large scale. According to the government, the goal is to "boost agricultural output and help farmers go from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture."

Boosting production

The government has focused on "boosting and developing sustainable means of production." This new policy accounts for 80% of the agriculture budget, which itself represents 6% of Rwanda’s total budget. It promotes the draining of swamps and wetlands, the development of new irrigation systems, motorization as well as new sustainable practices in regards to natural resources and soil conservation. It is a huge overhaul of the farming industry.

The program also aims at improving food security through the increase in food production. The remaining 20% of the budget is devoted to training programs for farmers and affiliates as well as developing horticulture and agri-business.

To reach such ambitious goals, each province must grow a certain kind of crop, which has been determined by the Ministry of Agriculture in regards to the specificities of the region's soil and climate. Farmers must form cooperatives in which they cultivate together and are able to obtain subsidized seeds (sold for half the price).

"We have almost managed to triple the production of corn, wheat and manioc over the past three years. This has led to a 14% annual increase of the national agricultural output. We no longer face scarcity," praises Agnés Kability, Rwanda's Minister of Agriculture.

Unbalanced diets

Yet some of these crops, such as corn and wheat, end up rotting in the cooperatives' attics, unsold, creating much discontent among farmers.

"Choosing one crop over another is not enough. We should be told why the government makes such decisions," says a farmer from Kinigi, in the Musanze District. He still does not understand why sorghum was taken off the government's list. It had proved to be a very profitable crop for years and protected families against malnutrition. Nowadays, sorghum is rare and expensive.

This sorghum shortage has had unexpected consequences – in some bars, beer has been turned into a weird and dangerous mixture. Since the reforms, Umurahanyoni, an adulterated beer made from sorghum, chemical fertilizer and strong alcohol has replaced banana beer. Less sorghum means more fertilizer and alcohol. “It gets people as drunk as hell around here," says Ujeneza Aloys from Gitare in the North Burera District.

A more serious consequence is the growing issue of unbalanced diets in some parts of the country. "In every household in this area, people only eat potatoes. Before, they all used to grow vegetables and beans. But now, they have to walk long distances to buy them," says one resident from the Musanze district. And these vegetables and beans are expensive. "We have noticed a price hike for imported products that are no longer grown in the area," notes Jean Pierre Mpakaniye from the Imbaraga trade union, a federation of farmers and cattle breeders in Rwanda.

Corn, which is now grown in the swamps and is a hugely successful crop, has driven the prices of other vegetables way up, since they have become scarce in the region. Merchants come here to buy the few remaining vegetables to sell them in Kigali's large markets and supermarkets.

While this green revolution has succeeded in boosting Rwanda's agricultural output, it has also had a terrible effect on the revenues and the diets of the farmers and their families. They now seem to all want the same thing: since they can’t grow their own food, they would like to be able to sell them at the price they want, which would enable them to cover their labor expenses.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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