May 21, 2024

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The Rwanda-SNS Innovation Expansion: Tailored Fertilizer Recommendations for Smart and Sustainable Farming

Rwanda has made significant headway in boosting its agricultural production in recent years. The Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB) working together with the International Potato Center (CIP) and other key partnerships operating under the Excellence in Agronomy (EIA) initiative of the CGIAR and the Rwanda Soil Information Service (RwaSIS) organized an Innovation Packaging and Scaling Readiness (IPSR) workshop for the Rwanda-Smart Nkunganire System (SNS) fertilizer recommendation tool.

The workshop’s main objective was to co-design context-specific innovation packages for the Rwanda SNS Fertilizer recommendation tool to facilitate responsible scaling. The main thrust of the workshop was to promote responsible scaling through innovation, scientific rigour, collaboration, and total inclusion.

The fertilizer recommendation tool that was presented in the workshop leveraged the Rwanda government’s innovative Smart Nkunganire System (SNS) that has been in existence and used since 2017 as a joint effort to digitize local farmers’ input subsidy programs under a public-private partnership arrangement between BKTechouse and RAB.

This innovation delivers tailored fertilizer recommendations for six high-priority crops—cassava, maize, wheat, potato, rice, and bean—to extension agents and smallholder farmers in Rwanda through an existing digital supply chain management i.e., the SNS, which allocates agricultural subsidies to farmers for purchasing seeds and fertilizers.

Following the successful validation phase of two of the targeted crops (rice and potato) in Rwanda with the remaining four crops expected to be finalized by the end of 2024, the International Potato Center (CIP) secured one-year scaling funding to cover an evaluation of the scaling readiness of the tool and the development of an all-inclusive and gender-sensitive scaling strategy for the period January–December 2024 supported by the Ukama Ustawi initiative of the CGIAR. The Ukama Ustawi Initiative is a groundbreaking research and innovation effort by CGIAR, aiming to transform agriculture in East and Southern Africa for sustainability and resilience.

CIP is one of the CGIAR centres working in Rwanda, under the Excellence in Agronomy Initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Excellence in Agronomy Initiative is a global effort under the CGIAR system that aims to accelerate the adoption of advanced, data-driven agronomy practices to boost productivity, sustainability, and resilience in agriculture. The initiative focuses on providing farmers with actionable insights and innovative approaches to improve crop yields, enhance soil health, and adapt to climate change.

In Rwanda, this project is a collaboration between RAB, CGIAR, and BKTechouse to co-build the products to bring smart agronomy to the farmer’s doorstep. BKTecHouse is a leading technology company in Rwanda that specializes in developing innovative digital solutions across various sectors. One of its notable projects is the Smart Nkunganire System (SNS), a digital platform that plays a key role in modernizing Rwanda’s agricultural sector.

The success of SNS in Rwanda serves as an example of how technology and digital innovation can drive positive change in agriculture and improve the lives of smallholder farmers. BKTecHouse’s commitment to continuous improvement and collaboration with stakeholders ensures the ongoing development and scalability and expansion of the SNS for the benefit of Rwanda’s agricultural community.

One of the workshop organizers and project lead, Dr. Bester Mudereri, a Data Science Agronomist at International Potato (CIP), highlighted the workshop’s purpose, which was to demonstrate innovations for better crop management, quality seed production, storage, and sound agricultural practices to farmers and other stakeholders.

He emphasized that, “The target that we have is to work with RAB through their RwaSIS project (Rwanda Soil Information Services), which is also funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop a tool that provides fertilizer recommendation at scale to farmers in Rwanda and shift from using the blanket recommendation across the entire country.”

He reiterated that using site-specific fertilizers improves crop yield and quality, results in resource use efficiency, ensures environmental sustainability, promotes enhanced soil health and adaptation to local conditions. Furthermore, he highlighted socioeconomically, that if the tool is adopted properly would result in significant improvements in the return on investment for farmers and increase knowledge and empowerment of farmers.

He added, “Administratively, this is the successful public-private partnership and an excellent representation of the success where the government is working hand in glove with the private sector together with research institutes like the CGIAR to foster impactful change for farmers.”

He continued that technically they have been able to run convincing validation of two crops out of the six crops that they’re targeting that are needed by their demand partner (the Government of Rwanda), and the two crops are potato and rice.

“The validation analysis has demonstrated that when we use the fertilizer recommendation tool, we get efficient and cost-effective usage of the fertilizer, and concurrently get a higher yield of reduced fertilizer rather than the yield and profit obtained from the blanket recommendation,” he said.

Regarding one of the challenges identified in the workshop which related to some farmers lacking access to technology and some steps in using digital systems confusing them, Bester said that it’s it is something they have already considered and they would solve by increasing awareness and training for farmers and farmer facilitators across the entire agriculture extension service in Rwanda.

He said, “We understand the access challenge to the Smart Nkunganire System (SNS), farmers order their inputs and fertilizer, hence we are taking calculated steps in the project, to be able to increase awareness of how to use the system, how to access it, and how to manipulate it, and it is in this regard we’ve identified that awareness is very key and multiple trainings are inevitable.”

The workshop brought together various stakeholders from across Rwanda and other African countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. The participants spanned an array of experts from information, software development, scaling champions, youth and gender experts, and experienced people who have successfully scaled similar products before, to put their heads together and identify the challenges that are likely to arise and hinder the scaling of the Rwanda SNS fertilizer recommendation tool. By scaling, the product must be delivered to its intended users (the farmers) and the extension service.

In general, scaling innovations refers to the process of expanding the reach and impact of successful innovations beyond their initial implementation to benefit a larger population or region. Therefore, by scaling innovations, organizations can amplify their impact and address challenges on a larger scale, leading to transformative change and lasting benefits for communities, and the entire value chain.

One of the participants Dr. Sartas Murat, a scientist and advisor for impactful innovations at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), also revealed that their institution generates agricultural innovations to meet Africa’s most pressing challenges of hunger, malnutrition, poverty, and natural resource degradation, they work with various partners across sub-Saharan Africa, including Rwanda, to improve livelihoods, enhance food and nutrition security, increase employment, and preserve natural resource integrity.

He said, “We work internationally, and we are hoping to bring and contribute to something sustainable to Rwanda. We have a good example of how the system already works very well in Africa and other countries in the world, and it’s very successful, but we are still learning to complement the project in Rwanda. We’re here hoping to help Rwanda go further by bringing learning from around the world, as well as learning from Rwanda for the benefit of the continent.”

He added that, “We want to do excellent agronomy in global programs by lifting millions out of poverty and improving their nutrition and income while minimizing the contribution of agriculture to climate change.”

Athanase Rusanganwa Cyamweshi, Soil Health and Crop Nutrition Researcher at Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB), and also the RwaSIS’s project coordinator, accentuated that the purpose of this meeting was to bring together different researchers to discuss how to bring the latest technologies to farmers to ensure high yields.

He said, “The system comes at the right time as it will help to develop robust strategies and approaches that will arm our farmers against risks, increase the productivity of their farms, and enhance the achievement of national food security.”

Athanase commended the support from stakeholders, noting that, as a further step in this technology, they realized these systems scaled to include other functions.

He said, “Through the RwaSIS project, we believe that access to seed and fertilizer is not the only factor in increasing agricultural productivity. A combination of other factors, such as various services, disease, and pest control, access to weather conditions, weather data, soil data, and other factors that play a major role in a more integrated way to increase productivity, are also believed to be important.”

In this workshop, participants identified bottlenecks, potential solutions, and the major stakeholders who can help solve the particular challenges. Some challenges they highlighted were that the SNS system is not user-friendly enough to adopt more items hence needed improvement.

Questions were also tabled that related to how often the SNS is upgraded; and that it involved too many steps making it harder for farmers to engage with it, resulting in late or no access to fertilizer. Additionally, the availability of inputs was influenced by the factor that SNS requires farmers to register before agro-dealers can order. This leads to late delivery of the fertilizer and hence could affect the adoption of the tool.

Regarding the potential solutions discussed, it was clear that sustainability is needed beyond government involvement. The overarching question was if the agro-dealers take up the cost of running the SNS since they also are key beneficiaries of the system. However, it was clear after the deliberations that the system is relatively costly, and would likely face data privacy challenges. Therefore, there is a dire need to continuously improve the system to make it user-friendly, reduce the steps, have a smartphone option for the tool, improve the registration and networking, and make the SNS non-seasonal hence, have fertilizer available all year.

In addition, the other key solution was to integrate compliance procedures via packaging into sensitization or training on the use of the SNS fertilizer recommendation tool. Thereby improving awareness.

As a scaling ambition, they highlighted that by 2024, CGIAR and partners will work together with RAB, BKTecHouse, One Acre Fund (OAF), and farmer cooperatives such as the Imbaraga to accomplish the use of the fertilizer recommendation tool for an initial two of the six priority crops through the Smart Nkunganire System (SNS), supported by at least 10 sector agronomists, 200 farmer facilitators, and a total of 10, 000 farmers in Rwanda contributing to achieving the end-of-initiative outcome for the Ukama Ustawi initiative. And 10, 000 farmers shall be selected for the piloting phase of the scaling using standardized scientific methods. The piloting phase will prepare the roll-out to the over 1.5 million SNS-registered farmers. Thus, assuming a 20% adoption rate, at least 300,000 farmers will benefit from the fertilizer recommendation tool by 2025.

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