Nicholas Hitimana

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2012
This description of Nicholas Hitimana's work was prepared when Nicholas Hitimana was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012 .


Nicholas is using new crop types, production methods and support systems to empower farmers with the skills and knowledge needed to shift from subsistence to commercial farming and build a competitive agricultural economy in Rwanda.

The New Idea

Nicholas is working to build a vibrant and competitive agricultural sector in Rwanda by providing subsistence farmers with the skills and support needed to become viable commercial farmers with a unique competitive advantage in both crop type and production method. Nicholas- through his organization, Ikirezi- has introduced essential oil crops to the market, which generate a higher return than the more commonly grown colonial cash crops of tea and coffee.

Nicholas is also providing farmers with hands-on training in organic farming practices, a farming method that drives up the premium of this new cash crop in the marketplace. Ikirezi’s model farms serve as both an example of successful commercial organic farming and a learning hub for farmers looking to improve their productivity and livelihoods. Nicholas has created support systems that focus on improving individual productive capacity without removing the farmers’ ability to pursue matters of collective interest. Nicholas has, as a part of this system, created an extension service that employs agricultural experts to help these farmers eventually make the transition from subsistence to commercial farming at the household level.

The Problem

The 1994 genocide destroyed Rwanda’s economy and saw its population sink into unprecedented levels of poverty. The country’s private and foreign investment cash flow was literally cut off due to political instability and civil unrest. Although the country has made great strides in rebuilding its economy over the last seventeen years, most of this growth has been seeded by foreign aid and has yet to benefit many Rwandans. Over 60% of Rwandans still live in poverty and about 70% of the population is engaged in rural agriculture. This sector is predominantly composed of subsistence, rain-fed farming that is carried out on small, fragmented parcels of land (averaging about 0.6 hectares per family). Moreover, Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa with a population growth rate of 3% per annum and a density of 450 people per square kilometer of arable land. Increasing population size and density threaten to further reduce plot sizes; and thus also threaten to reduce the (already low) productivity of farming activities. The predominance of subsistence farming among Rwanda’s rural population, and the lack of knowledge about alternative farming methods and other economic opportunities, result in stagnant income levels.

Rwanda has few other natural resources to capitalize on besides farming, and only a very small and uncompetitive industrial sector. Agribusiness, the mainstay of the economy, accounts for 33.6% of Rwanda’s GDP and 45% of all exports. Despite its importance, the agricultural sector faces many structural challenges that reduce its profitability and ability to compete in regional and international markets. The government has encouraged the commercial farming of colonial cash crops (most commonly, tea and coffee), which are well suited to the steep slopes and cool climate of Rwanda but whose viability is also threatened by the decreasing size of farmland per family due to rapid population growth.

Although the government has established an extension service to support commercial farming, these efforts are limited to the distribution of free seeds for cash crops and do not provide information or training on modern farming methods that could increase productivity and profits. For example, organic farming is largely recognized as a farming method that increases the premium of agricultural produce but there is no framework to either educate farmers about this method or regulate organic products that are introduced to the market. Farmers have also been encouraged to form cooperatives so as to take advantage of economies of scale as they access regional and international markets. However, participation in a cooperative comes at the expense of individual performance and, thus, the value returned to an individual farmer is low. Without support that focuses on increasing the productive capacity of an individual farmer, few farmers can survive outside the cooperative structure or escape poverty.

Additionally, Rwanda’s landlocked status and underdeveloped transportation infrastructure has left it unable to favorably compete in its nearest market, The Common Market for East and Southern Africa. It is difficult to move bulky goods, such as tea and coffee, across the region without a railway system providing port access to Tanzania or Kenya. Rwanda’s landlocked status and the heavy transportation costs associated with bulky goods, pose a serious challenge to profits from trade. While agriculture accounts for much of the country’s exports, it is still outweighed by the volume of imports entering the country, most of which originates from East Africa. The weakness of exports and low domestic savings rates in Rwanda continues to suppress the country’s growth potential.

In short, Rwanda lacks a competitive advantage in both the types of crops it grows and the methods of farming employed. Farmers, especially subsistence farmers, lack the information and structural support needed to improve their own productivity and income levels and contribute toward a vibrant and regionally competitive agricultural sector. Nicholas sees that the strategies being promoted by the government are not suited to the unique challenges that this sector and the country face.

The Strategy

Nicholas started his work with a simple idea: to use a series of model farms (Ikerezi Farms) to demonstrate an alternative route to creating a competitive and prosperous agricultural economy. There are three main tenets to his approach. First, Rwanda needs to create a competitive advantage for itself by introducing a unique agricultural product to the market (regional and international) that other countries have not yet dominated. Second, farmers need to be empowered to adopt modern agricultural practices. Third, farmers’ mindsets need to change so that they see themselves as productive commercial farmers rather than subsistence farmers. Working off these three ideas, Nicholas essentially set out to create a new value chain in agriculture, and develop a cadre of skilled rural commercial farmers around it.

His first order of business was to find an indigenous crop around which there was no existing value chain in the region. His search led him to high-value essential oil crops such as geranium, patchouli and lemon grass. No other country in East Africa grows or sells these crops or their processed oils. More importantly, they are high-value and low-volume commodities, which is particularly suited to Rwanda’s landlocked geography. Unlike high volume cash crops like tea and coffee, essential oil crops and their products can be transported for a fraction of the cost that would otherwise be incurred. The only other countries in Africa that engaged in commercial farming of essential oils are South Africa and Egypt. Nicholas knew that, if well-developed, this value chain could establish Rwanda as another major producer of essential oils and would uniquely position the country within the regional market.

His next challenge would be to create a farm-based system for transforming subsistence farmers into skilled and productive commercial farmers. To do this, Nicholas chose to situate his model farms close to the rural farmers that he was targeting. He invited them to work on the farms for a wage so that they earned a decent living while they received their practical training on modern farming methods and commercial agriculture. Nicholas elected to practice organic farming on his own farms, so as to provide the farmers with the training and tools needed to replicate this higher-premium method on their own farms. Nicholas employed a team of agricultural specialists with highly advanced skills in organic farming to work with the farmers and conduct the training.

The farmers are discouraged from relying on cooperatives but trained to enhance their individual productivity. Therefore, a new form of organization (known as a Farmer Association) was established at the Ikerezi farms. Unlike cooperatives, the farmer associations were designed to focus on, and drive up, individual productivity while still providing the opportunity for farmers to pursue matters of collective interest. Nicholas set up all steps of the value chain within the context of the farms so that farmers can be exposed to aspects of production, processing, packaging and marketing. The idea was to empower farmers with all the information and skills needed to set up their own commercial farms around essential oil crops, or any other type of fast growing crop.

Nicholas started Ikirezi in 2006 and has since set up two 100 hectare model farms. He has worked with 300 farmers but plans to increase this number to 1,500 within the next three to five years. During the same timeframe, he plans on setting up another two to three farms so that there is one in each of Rwanda’s six provinces. The farmers at Ikirezi have the freedom to leave and start up their own commercial farms at will and many have gone on to start their own essential oil crop farms and supply Ikirezi later on. Others have started commercial farms specializing in crops like tomatoes, cabbages, pineapples. The adoption of modern organic farming practices has allowed these farmers to command a higher premium for their produce. Farmers’ incomes and knowledge on modern farming methods have increased, and their attitude toward commercial agriculture has shifted. Nicholas has demonstrated a successful way of building a prosperous rural agricultural economy.

Looking ahead, he is setting up a fund into which the profits from Ikirezi will be ploughed. The Fund will invest in community development projects such as schools, hospitals, housing and markets for the farm communities surrounding Ikirezi. Nicholas is a member of ASNAP, a leading Research and Crop Identification body, and he will use his membership to advocate ideas and disseminate lessons gleaned from his model farms. He is also the chairman for Rwanda’s National Agricultural Board which is a regulatory and policy advocacy organ in the field of agriculture. He is a member of a number of Labor Associations, and is using this as a platform to call attention to the inefficiencies of the cooperative model and advocate for the use of the new Farmer Association model instead.

The Person

Nicholas was born into a large rural family of nine children. He remembers watching his parents and others in the village rush at the prospect of getting rich from growing cash crops (like tea and coffee) in vain. The hard work that his family put into their farm generated little in rewards beyond the family’s most basic needs Nicholas was lucky to be among the few in his family and community to receive a full education; and the responsibility that came with this achievement, has come to define him.

While in school- both secondary and university- Nicholas was involved in leading the Red Cross Association, and in both instances created a first aid care system that was adopted and continues to be a core part of the association at both levels to date. During his time at university, Nicholas also founded the Organization of Christian Students (GBU) with the goal of mobilizing Christian students to participate in social change activities. In the years that followed, GBU went on to grow into the single largest student organization in Rwanda.

When Nicholas finished his doctoral thesis in Scotland in 2001, Rwanda was still fresh from the ravages of the genocide. As one of the very few Rwandans that had attained his level of education in agriculture, Nicholas was keenly aware of the responsibility that he had to contribute to rebuilding his home country. Going back to Rwanda and working to transform the agricultural sector was therefore an easy decision for Nicholas to make. Surrounded by evidence of the failure of the coffee and tea cash crop revolution, he established Ikirezi in 2006.
He continues to be involved in other voluntary charitable initiatives in education and housing, including a model village of 30 households that he set up called the Village of Hope for orphans and widows. This model is being replicated countrywide by other institutions and the government.