Oct 23, 2021

Mawazo Writing Africa

Writing about the main

In Burundi’s hills, red hot pepper leads to a farming revolution

The mist covered the hills and a soft wind blew gently over the fragmented fields of Rwanyege village.

It would have been a normal morning in this rural part of Burundi’s Ngozi Province in Busiga commune, the day where almost everyone goes to farm, but that day in February 2018, was different. Emmanuel Niyibizi had an outside-the-box idea for Busiga – to grow chilli pepper. He shared it with his parents, but they were lukewarm. Except for having one or two plants in the backyard that would yield a dozen chilli peppers to spice up their food, no one had done it before at scale. The other known use of chilli pepper for the people here was told in legend; that their ancestors used it to ward off evil spirits.

“I told [my parents], give me that piece of land in the valley please. I want to farm chilli peppers,” recalls Mr Niyibizi, who at the time thought that it would be easy.

The seeds were ready but Mr Niyibizi’s parents said chilli farming was a waste of time. For generations, the family had farmed beans, corn, bananas and mostly coffee, a symbol of wealth in Burundi’s rural areas.

Holding the chilli seeds, Mr Niyibizi was anxious, but he had already made up his mind. He planted the seeds in two raised beds, expecting 10 days later to transplant the chilli in the Nyamugerera valley that separates Burundi and Rwanda.

No longer a crazy idea

Today, when you arrive in Busiga commune you see plantations of coffee and bananas. On both sides of the dusty road, are all kinds of crops, and it is easy to tell that farming is central to this northern part of Burundi.

Mr Niyibizi, 29, lives in Zone Mihigo, a commune of Busiga in Ngozi Province. I visited him in July, and he took me to Nyamugerera valley near his village where he farms chilli pepper. The idea to grow chilli peppers had come to him while he was visiting Ngozi city (the third city of Burundi) and realised that in restaurants every dish is served with chilli pepper.

He was convinced that there was an opportunity to make money from farming and selling pepper to restaurants, hotels, pubs and grilled meat shops. His first harvest was 80 plants. He sold almost all of it, estimated at 50 kilogrammes.

He decided to expand his chilli pepper farm, and realised that he would need fertiliser and some help to increase his produce.

“I convinced my former classmates and told them that there was a huge opportunity in chilli farming,” said Mr Niyibizi, introducing me to Egide, one of the 40 young people who turned to chilli farming following his example.

“We always thought that coffee was the big thing, but after selling one kilogramme of chilli for 3,500 Burundian francs ($1.76), we realised that it was way better than selling one kilogramme of coffee for 800 Burundian francs ($0.4),” said Egide pointing to his chilli farm.

Chillies grow well in hot weather with a lot of sunlight. Like most plants, chillies are prone to pests and diseases. The most common pests are thrips, mites, aphids and whiteflies. These however can be prevented by soil treating and weeding around the host plants.

“My first yield was 50kg, but after optimising my farming techniques, the next season I harvested 100kg. Now I am at 300kg per month and my target is 1,000 kg per month by next year,” said Mr Niyibizi.

As his ambitions grew, he decided to learn about the business side of chilli farming. He attended entrepreneurial training courses, and one that made the difference for him was organised by Adisco (Appui au Développement Intégral et à la Solidarité sur les Collines), a local NGO that launched an agribusiness incubation programme called Maison de l’Entrepreneur, to support young entrepreneurs.

Equipping entrepreneurs

“At Maison de l’Entrepreneur we work with all kinds of entrepreneurs, particularly those in the agriculture sector. Every year we call for applications, looking for dynamic young people who have ideas, the potential and the will to go through our pre-incubation programme. We train them, connect them to funding opportunities and offer them acceleration services,” said Chantal Ntima, the co-ordinator of Maison de l’Entrepreneur.

Since its creation in 2015, the Maison de l’Entrepreneur programme has facilitated many businesses owned by young people.

“The most beautiful success stories we have are projects in chilli pepper,” she added.

At the end of the programme, in 2019, inspired by the Akabanga chilli oil hot sauce made in Rwanda, Mr Niyibizi launched his own brand called Karababa.

“The main challenge that I faced when starting my business was the packaging, we outsourced packaging in Uganda, it was not easy,” said Mr Niyibizi.

Here comes chilli lotion

In August, at the Festival Culturel Panafricain de Bujumbura, an African Culture festival and Business Fair based in Bujumbura, there was a stand sponsored by Adisco-Maison de l’entrepreneur, where I met Twagirayezu Muganwa Salvator and Nahimana Voltair, two entrepreneurs who came through the incubation programme and launched their chilli brand “Akarundi”.

They said that they plan to use chilli pepper not to spice up food but to produce a cream, ointment, gel, lotion, transdermal skin patch and capsaicin, a pain reliever.

In Busiga commune villagers use chilli as insecticide to preserve their bean harvest. In Burundi after Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) an insecticide used in agriculture was banned in 2003, farmers turned to chilli pepper to protect their harvest from dangerous insects.

Mr Niyibizi and Mr Egide introduced me to Louis Ndizeye, Busiga’s official agronomist.

“Villagers noticed that their maize fields were being attacked by insects known as ‘corn armyworms’. They were afraid to lose their harvest because they couldn’t use insecticide. They mixed water and chilli powder and poured it on corn plants. Days later there were no armyworms and the harvest was great,” Mr Ndizeye said.

He says chilli farming has given employment opportunities to young people from all the hills of the commune.

Maize is one of the most consumed cereals in all regions of Burundi. It plays an essential role in the country’s food security. According to the Burundi statistics bureau Isteebu, maize production decreased in 2014 mainly due to the effects of climate change. In 2019, the World Food Programme provided emergency food assistance in response to the urgent needs of 134,000 people affected by severe food insecurity in Burundi’s northern province of Kirundo.

A Rwandan example

As in the rest of East Africa, drought and floods due to climate change are the great challenges that agriculture ventures are facing.

“I believe that chilli farming will be more developed in the years to come. I know that it can be an alternative to support families during drought in the northern provinces of Burundi like Ngozi and Kirundo,” said Mr Niyibizi. He envisioned the future with “Feed Me”, a company he created to commercialise his transformed chilli peppers.

“When I consider what I have achieved in just three years, I believe that the future is brighter. I built a house, I organised my wedding, I even won an entrepreneurship contest in Ngozi city,” said the visibly proud man as he introduced me to his wife Claudine, and his one-year-old son Don Pepino.

In 2019, 30-year-old Rwandan agribusiness entrepreneur Dieudonné Twahirwa landed a deal to supply 50,000 tonnes of dried chilli worth $100 million every year to China.

“In the future, I would like to get all required accreditations and export my product to other East African countries and beyond,” said Mr Niyibizi, who revealed that he is inspired by Mr Twahirwa.

For now, Mr Niyibizi has impacted his village, and in the hills of Burundi a silent chilli revolution is underway. When the story is told in the fullness of time, chilli pepper will have done a lot more than just spicing up Burundi’s dishes.

It would have been a normal morning in this rural part of Burundi’s Ngozi Province in Busiga commune, the day where almost everyone goes to farm.

That day in February 2018, was a different morning. Emmanuel Niyibizi had what was an outside-the-box idea for Busiga – to grow chilli pepper. He shared it with his parents, but they were lukewarm at best. Chilli pepper farming was a strange farming ambition. Except for having one or two plants in the backyard that would yield a dozen chilli peppers to spice up food, no one had done it before at scale. The other known use of chilli pepper for the people here was told in legend; that in the past ancestors used it to ward off evil spirits.

“I told [my parents], ‘give me that piece of land in the valley please, I want to farm chilli peppers’,” recalls Niyibizi, who at the time thought naively that it would be easy.

The seeds were ready but for Niyibizi’s parents, chilli farming was a waste of time. For generations, the family farmed beans, corn, bananas but most importantly coffee, a symbol of wealth held in high esteem in Burundi’s rural areas.

Holding the chilli seeds in his hand, he was nervous, but he had already made up his mind. He sowed the seeds in two raised beds, expecting 10 days later to transplant the chilli in the Nyamugerera valley that separates Burundi and Rwanda.

No Longer A Crazy Idea

Today, when you arrive in Busiga commune you are welcomed by plantations of coffee and bananas. On both sides of the dusty road, you see all kinds of crops, and it is easy to tell that farming is central to this northern part of Burundi.

Niyibizi, 29 years old, lives in Rwanyege Village, in Zone Mihigo, the commune of Busiga in Ngozi Province. I visited him in July and he took me to Nyamugerera valley near his village where he has a field of chilli pepper. The Idea to grow chilli peppers had come to him while he was visiting Ngozi city (the third city of Burundi) and realised that in restaurants every dish is served with chilli pepper on top. He was convinced that there was an opportunity to make money farming and selling chilli to restaurants, hotels, pubs and grilled meat shops. His first attempt was with 80 plants. He sold almost all his harvest that he estimated at 50 kilogrammes.

With that, he decided to expand his chilli pepper field, but he soon realised he would need fertilisers and some help to produce more.

“I convinced my former classmates and I told them that there is a huge opportunity with chilli farming,” said, Niyibizi introducing me to Egide, one among 40 young people who turned to Chili farming following his example.

“We always thought that coffee was the big thing, but after selling one Kg of Chili for 3500 Burundi Francs, we realised that it was way better than selling One Kg of coffee for 800 Burundi Francs,” explained Egide pointing his chilli field.

Chillies do well in hot weather. The warmer it gets the hotter and better the growing conditions for the spice. The important requirement for chilli growth is enough sunlight. Chillies, like any type of plant, are prone to pests and diseases. The most common types of pests are thrips, mites, aphids and whiteflies. These however can be prevented by soil treating and weeding out the host plants. It took time for Niyibizi to understand this and to optimise his farming techniques to yield more chilli per acre.

“My first yield was 50 Kg but after optimising the farming techniques, the next season I harvested 100kg, now I am at 300kg per month and my target is 1000 kg by next year,” said Niyibizi.

His ambitions grew, and he decided to needed to learn how to handle the business side of chilli farming. He attended many entrepreneurial training courses. One that truly made the difference for him was organised by ADISCO (Appui au Développement Intégral et à la Solidarité sur les Collines), a local NGO that launched an Agribusiness Incubation programme to support young entrepreneurs. The programme is called “Maison de l’Entrepreneur”.

The More, The Merrier

“At Maison de l’Entrepreneur we work with all kinds of entrepreneurs but, particularly, with those in the agriculture sector. Every year we do call for applications, we look for very dynamic young people who have Ideas, the potential and the will to go through our pre-incubation program. We train them, later on, we connect them to funding opportunities, and we offer them acceleration services,” said Chantal Ntima, the Coordinator of Maison de l’Entrepreneur.

Since its creation in 2015, the Maison de l’Entrepreneur programme has facilitated the creation of many businesses owned by young people, the most successful ventures have been projects around agriculture.

“One of the most beautiful success stories we have are projects around chilli pepper,” she added.

At the end of the programme, in 2019, inspired by the Akabanga chilli oil hot sauce made in Rwanda,” Niyibizi launched his own chilli brand called “Karababa”.

“The main challenge that I faced when starting my business was the packaging, we outsourced packaging in Uganda, it was not easy,” said Niyibizi.

There is a new twist in the chilli story. In August for example during the FescPabu (Festival Culturel Panafricain de Bujumbura), an African Culture festival and Business Fair based in Bujumbura, there was a stand sponsored by ADISCO-Maison de l’entrepreneur, where I met Twagirayezu Muganwa Salvator and Nahimana Voltair, two other entrepreneurs who came through the incubation programme and launched their chilli brand called “Akarundi”.

Here Comes Chili Body Lotion

They told that in the coming days they plan to use chilli pepper not to spice up dishes but to produce in the form of cream, ointment, gel, lotion, a transdermal skin patch, and capsaicin that are thought to provide pain relief by temporarily changing the way a body processes pain.

Derived products and use of chilli pepper can be many, In Busiga commune villagers use chilli as insecticide to preserve bean harvest.

In Burundi after the Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) an insecticide used in agriculture was banned in 2003, farmers turned to chilli pepper as a way to protect their harvest from being destroyed by insects

Niyibizi and Egide introduced me to Louis Ndizeye, Busiga’s Official agronomist. He pointed out an interesting fact he discovered while working with villagers in maize fields.

“Villagers one time noticed that cornfields were attacked by insects known as ‘corn armyworms’, they were afraid to lose their harvest because they couldn’t use insecticide. They mixed water and chilli powder and poured it on corn plants. Days later there were no armyworms; the harvest was great,” Ndizeye said.

According to him, chilli farming has given employment opportunities to young people in all the hills of the commune.

Chili, then, protects one of Burundi’s most critical foods. Maize is one of the most consumed cereals in all regions of Burundi. It plays an essential role in the country’s food security. According to the Burundi Statistic Bureau (ISTEEBU) maize production decreased in 2014, mainly due to the effects of climate change. In 2019 the World Food Programme (WFP) provided emergency food assistance in response to the urgent needs of 134,000 people affected by severe food insecurity in Burundi’s northern province of Kirundo.

A Rwandan Jackpot

As in the rest of East Africa, drought and floods due to climate change are the great challenges that agriculture ventures are facing.

“I believe that chilli farming will be developed, in years to come. I know that it can be an alternative to support families during drought in the northern provinces of Burundi like Ngozi and Kirundo” said Niyibizi, and how he envisioned his future with “Feed Me”, the company he created to commercialise his transformed chilli peppers.

“When I consider what I have achieved in just 3 years, I believe that the future is brighter. Imagine I built a house, I organised my wedding, I even won an entrepreneurship contest in Ngozi city,” boasted a visibly proud as he introduced me to his wife Claudine, and his one-year-old son Don Pepino.

The most flavourful story in the regional chilli business that still rings in Burundi, was told in 2019, when 30-year-old Rwandan agribusiness entrepreneur, Dieudonné Twahirwa, landed a deal to supply 50,000 tonnes of dried chilli worth $100 million (about Rwf100 billion) every year to China.

“In the future, I would like to get all required accreditations, and export my product to other East African countries and beyond”, said Niyibizi who revealed that he is inspired by how Twahirwa is making waves with his chilli business.

There is no reason he shouldn’t come close to Twahirwa’s feat. For now, he has already impacted his village, and in the hills of Burundi, a silent chilli revolution is underway. When the story is told in the fullness of time, chilli pepper could have done a lot more than spicing Burundi’s dishes.