The Rwanda Standards Board (RSB) and the Health Ministry, both charged with certifying new agro-processing factories, have ignored pleas for operating licenses by at least 10 business ventures in Ngoma district alone.
The result, as The Chronicles and Izuba Radio/TV report, the businesspeople who set up these factories have lost millions of Francs in the process, in addition to hundreds of youth remaining unemployed. This is also happening to a district that President Paul Kagame promised a new dawn during the 2017 presidential campaigns.
Data obtained from the Ngoma district, eastern province, shows that since 2015, a total of 15 mini factories were setup by private individuals which were to produce different alcoholic drinks from bananas. Each employed between 20 and 40 workers.
For starters there are six different major banana varieties. Four of them are grown nearly everywhere globally: lady finger bananas (Gros Michel), Cavendish bananas (Kamaramasenge), plantains or cooking bananas (ibitoki) and FIA.
The variety FIA is the main raw material in the production of banana wines, including one locally known as Urwagwa. Various other products can also be produced from this banana variety.
From the total mini factories set up in Ngoma district over the years, only 5 are operational today. The other 10 were either closed by RSB when they were operating or were not allowed to open at all.
The reason there is this many such factories is because Ngoma district produces large quantities of FIA banana variety. In general, the eastern region is the biggest producer of bananas in different varieties.
Between May 2017 and mid 2018, RSB conducted operations in which nearly all banana wine factories were closed, leaving only Coproviba factory owned by businessman Karasira Camille.
A few months later, 4 other factories qualified to reopen after obtaining certification from RSB.
The operation was conducted countrywide not just targeting Ngoma, according to RSB, in its defense when we inquired. Any factory, for it to be allowed to operate, must have RSB’s so called S-MARK. All manufactured products must have the mark.
Businessman loses Rwf 50m cash investment
The problem however, the businesspeople behind the other closed banana factories have been crying fowl. They accuse RSB of double standards, with some even alleging they suspect bribery may have been involved.
There is the case of Walter Nkurunziza who set up Coprobiba employing 40 staff. He had business certificate from RBD registered as producing banana wine. “I was paying taxes promptly and paying workers via the bank,” he told us.
“While my factory was closed, you see here and there others given certification. You wonder why. Could it be that RSB staff are too busy to look into our concerns? Maybe there is a special criteria they follow when handling others.”
Ndayambaje Jean Chrysostome invested his own Rwf 50m to upgrade a factory that was producing a drink call ‘Agahebuzo’. It was on the market for a short period and then disappeared. Now we know the factory had been closed.
Nsayambaje told us that he established a new unique production line, whereby there was very minimal human interaction with the bananas up until the final stage.
Despite spending 2 years doing the upgrades, RSB has not visited his factory to review its production line and give it certification. He was last at RSB in June.
At the last meeting, RSB officials told him that it is the Ministry of Heath that is supposed to tour his factory. “It is them (health ministry) am still waiting for up to now,” said Ndayambaje, all frustration visible in his expressions.
The frustration with the state of affairs is not among businesspeople who have lost money. We established that since January this year, at different times, growers of FIA bananas have been uprooting them because it is no longer a viable business to engage in.
Cases were reported in Mutenderi sector, where most of the closed factories were located. Local resident Manirareba Didas, also head of banana growers cooperative said they used to sell 65 tonnes of FIA bananas to 9 factories every month.
The price was Rwf 120 per kilo of FIA bananas before the factories were closed. Today, the cooperative supplies to only 3 factories.
“Right now the factories are paying Rwf 30 per kilo. Can you imagine the loss there,” said Manirareba.
Strangely, Government, through a Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB) subsidy program, is the one that initiated the FIA project. It distributed thousands of FIA banana suckers (stems for planting) in Ngoma district and other regions. For each banana sucker, farmers paid only Rwf 500. Within months, the were producing en-mass, at the same time as factories were being set up, that were to buy the FIA bananas.
Ngoma district officer in charge of cooperatives Furaha Yvette said the fall in prices is not permanent. “We linked the cooperatives with operating factories and there have been no other complaints of lack of markets for their produce,” she said, ignoring the facts on the ground.
Two years ago, a small FIA banana stem (the full bunches and tiers) cost Rwf 6,000, but today the same size is attracting less than Rwf 1,000. It is one of the various indications that the situation for farmers is dire.
A program that was supposed to help tackles extreme poverty, is slowly turning into a nightmare for the farmer involved.
Enters President Kagame
The issue facing banana factories and the banana sector in the district are just a tip of a large iceberg of problems facing Ngoma district. Its sleepy main town lays on the highway from Kirehe district. This highway is the transit route for imports coming through the Rusumo one stop border post with Tanzania.
By virtual of Ngoma town route being after Kirehe, one would expect a vibrant region bustling with business. It is not!
President Paul Kagame himself witnessed first hand the dormant nature of Ngoma district during the presidential campaigns in July 2017. He said the town had been left behind.
In the campaign speech on July 23, 2017, Kagame took personal responsibility for the low development in the area, and committed to take it upon himself to revive Ngoma town. Already signs are emerging, like a new regional stadium under construction there.
Whether Kagame was aware during the campaigns that such many banana wine factories had been closed, and those responsible were not dealing with the issue, may never be known. What is clear is that the socio-economic conditions of hundreds of families have turned for the worst due to lapses in the factory certification process.
When contacted, RSB did not address the specific issues concerning banana wine factories in Ngoma district. Instead, the agency preferred to speak about the industry as a whole in the country.
In lengthy email, RSB Spokesman Simeon Kwizera outlined the process and requirements an agro-processing factory must have before it is allowed to operate. The person setting up a factory handling agricultural produce is supposed to work with RSB all throughout the establishment. It provides its own food scientists to work with the factory’s employees.
The official said: “After all processes of setting up are completed, the factory signs agreement with RSB to maintain the standards set. The factory is cleared to commence production. RSB follows up by conducting secret samples on products on the market as well as unannounced visits to the factory. RSB also depends of consumer feedback about a given product.”
A factory found to contravene the production standards or human consumption standards, the factory is closed and the S-MARK is withdrawn.
Back to businesspeople Ndayambaje Jean Chrysostome, Walter Nkurunziza and others whose banana wine factories were closed, they are still waiting for concrete answers from RSB and the Health Ministry.
Ndayambaje said: “They gave me 45 days within which they would have solved my concerns. That period elapsed months ago. Our wish is that they give all of us fair attention such a factory is either opened or not and you know why in concrete terms.”
By Nkuyemuruge Yves
This story was produced as a joint report by The Chronicles and Izuba Radio/TV, a community broadcaster based in Ngoma district