Inside sterile rooms of Tuzamurane Cooperative’s processing plant in Gahara, Kirehe District, fresh pineapples are peeled, sliced, and placed in two huge driers, where they are kept for at least 16 hours.
This process involves teams of 20 permanent workers and more than 100 casual workers who work in shifts 24 hours a day to make sure two tonnes of dry organic pineapples reach their customers in France.
This market alone rakes in for the cooperative Rwf300m in revenues every year.
The dried pineapples are supplied ready to eat, and can be kept for between 12 and 18 months, and are packaged in two different forms; one of 100 grammes and a much bigger one of two kilogrammes.
The idea of the cooperative dates back in 2005 when a few farmers in Gahara were tired of low prices and lack of markets for their pineapples especially during bumper harvests.
Their produce would actually at times go to waste for lack of preservation technology.
As it turned out, the demand for organic produce was very high, locally and internationally and they decided to go organic.
Organic farming is a time of farming where non-chemical fertilisers are exclusively used.
Back to the starting point of the food supply chain, Seraphine Mukangamije, mother of three from Gahara, is busy monitoring her 2.5 hectares of pineapple plantation near her home, to make sure the produce she will supply to her cooperative is of good quality.
She is one of the 80 members of Tuzamurane, whose plant also works with more than 100 other certified farmers (non-members) as suppliers of pineapples.
Five years ago, Mukangamije’s family grew a few pineapples that they could only sell for as low a price as Rwf30 each.
After joining the cooperative, anytime of the year, she sells one kilo of pineapple for Rwf130, with one of her pineapples weighing above three kilos.
An organic pineapple costs triple the price of conventional pineapple, said Mukangamije, who employs five permanent workers.
“Physically, you cannot tell an organic pineapple from an ordinary one, but in taste there is a huge difference,” she explained.
“I avoid chemical products on my farm, I monitor my own farm and that of my neighbours, I do not control them, but I try to maintain a buffer between our farms to avoid contamination in case they use chemicals,” she added.
At the plant, Tuzamurane only accepts organically grown pineapples, be it for members or any other supplier.
When a supplier learns that a neighbouring farmer has sprayed their crops, they inform the cooperative, and it takes some days for the produce to be accepted by the plant again.
According to Jean Marie Irakabaho, a consultant at Rwanda Organic Agriculture Movement (ROAM), to ensure the produce supplied to the plant are purely organic, there is a certification system.
“In the certification system, you do not sell any pineapples from any place, they must come from known farms, with names, surface area of the farm, because if you bring a pineapple and the laboratory finds it contains components of NPK fertilisers, you lose the entire market.”
Irakabaho said that using mulch on the surface of the soil around the pineapples helps the soil retain the moisture in the dry season, and with time, the mulches become rich fertilisers.
Mulches also encourage worms that add nutrients to the soil, he added.
It takes three years of ‘transitional period’ to completely shift from conventional to organic farming.
According to Albert Kamana, agronomist of the cooperative, monitoring and traceability are ensured in the management of organic farming.
When the pineapples are received by the processing plant, each lot is marked with the farm and the owner it came from, he said.
Before the start of the season, the cooperative dispatches its workers to the farms to assess the yield.
There are field officers paid by the cooperative who come to the farmer on the day of harvest, to make sure no yield is sneaked in from any other farm.
Besides, the field officers visit farms on weekly basis, and the famers get training sessions twice a year.
The fertilisers used in the pineapples are manure from cattle and pigs, which feed they mostly know where they came from.
As time passes, there is a steady increase of people who want organic food and who are prepared to pay a higher price than conventional products, but the supply remains low.
Anatole Uwiragiye, works for Action Aid Rwanda, as head of a project aiming to tip rural smallholder farmers, especially women, on opportunities lying in organic farming, since traditional farming can easily shift into an organic one.
This is part of their general promotion of ‘agroecology’ farming, which is a ‘resilient farming that is in harmony with nature and planet.’
“There is a high demand for organic produce, and smallholder farmers should stick together to get something out of that opportunity,” he says.
“To date, in Kigali, you cannot find a shop that sells exclusively organic food, it is mixed. This is not to say that Rwandans cannot buy organic if they find it.”
Uwiragiye calls for farmers to do both conventional and organic farming, and make a comparative advantage.
Uwiragiye, however, admits that the Government was right to promote chemical fertilisers since last few years to ensure food security in terms of quantity, but he believes it is time for the diversification, and the customer to have to choose whether they buy conventional or organic.
Journey to certification
Jean Damascene Hakuzimana, president of Tuzamurane, said that although they formed the cooperative in 2005 with 35 members, it was not until 2009 that they started the journey of organic farming, for which they were eventually certified at the international level in 2013.
In January 2015, they exported their first 500kg of dried pineapples, and in 2016, they signed a one-year deal to export 10 metric tonnes of their products to a French company.
In 2017, they bought the second processing machine, signed a three-year deal, and ever since, they export 2 tonnes every month.
One kilo of dried pineapples is produced from 20 kilos of fresh pineapples, and the former is sold for $15.
Their next year’s target is to increase their exports from 24 tonnes to 36 tonnes a year.
They have expanded planted area from 36ha to 188.2ha, and every year, they get 20ha more as farmers willing to join increase.
Today, the share required to be a member is Rwf209,200, up from rwf5,000 back in 2005.