Sowing the Future
FOR MANY inhabitants of Northern Province, Rwanda, life is bleak. The most vulnerable families are single mothers or widows with a high number of dependent children, no steady employment, no home vegetable garden or poultry, and with no or little means to start productive micro-activities for self-consumption or sale. Food access is determined by significant variables: scarcity of land available for cultivation, proximity of the market, income level, availability of local produce, and price trends. Food prices in Rwanda have more than doubled in nominal terms over the past decade, and inflation affects food prices more than non-food items. Families that depend on the markets for access to food are affected more heavily by inflation. Added to the problems of food access and poverty, there is progressive loss of biodiversity and soil deterioration due to the widespread use of chemicals in intensive agriculture, and the increasing use of hybrid and sterile seeds for reseeding at the expense of local seed varieties.
The ‘Sowing For The Future’ project, supported by St. Anthony’s Charities and other charities active in the region, aims to alleviate some of these problems and provide a model for future development and sustainability.
Very poor country
Rwanda is a very small sub-Saharan state (26,338 km2) and has one of the highest population densities in Africa (416 inhabitants/km2). It has an annual population growth rate of 2.6 percent and 36 percent of the population live in households headed by women or orphans. 44.9 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and life-expectancy is 64.4 years. Although 90 percent of the workforce is engaged in agriculture, this contributes only 33 percent to the national GDP. In spite of rapid economic growth, there is wealth inequality and widespread food insecurity: according to the World Food Program, 43 percent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition, with peaks of 60 percent in some parts of the northwest of Rwanda, where the problem is more accentuated.
“There needs to be a decrease in the dependence on purchased food by the poorest households, and in particular of imported cereals which are subject to high price variations,” explains Abbé Théoneste Munyankindi, Director of Caritas in the Ruhengeri Diocese and project supervisor. “This can be achieved through interventions which combine the promotion of domestic agriculture, sustainable agricultural practices and biodiversity.” For the ‘Sowing For The Future’ project, it was determined that there needed to be resources available to start or strengthen micro-activities aimed at raising the standards of living of the most vulnerable groups, valuing local knowledge and skills, and promoting community experiences such as micro-credit, associative groups and cooperatives. The project involves the districts of Musanze, Burera and Gakenke with activities divided into two main areas, each linked to a specific goal.
The first project area is the ‘Sustainable Garden Programme’. “It was evident that in the target group of beneficiaries there was a high number of vulnerable households headed by women who were widows with several dependent children and a low income” says Munyankindi. Sixty female heads of households were identified for inclusion, each with a high number of dependent children (an average of 5), low income, and poor feeding (one course meal per day): 30 in the Gakenke and 30 in the Burera districts. The programme provided training, conducted by two specialists in sustainable agriculture, aimed at preserving the environment and biodiversity, this included: use of natural fertilizers and natural insecticides, crop rotation, and the use of local seeds at risk of extinction. Six socio-health workers were assigned to work alongside the beneficiaries during the implementation of the activities. “Six collective gardens, three in each district, covering a total of 3,600 m2 act as ‘laboratories’ where theoretical teaching can be put into practice, but at the same time allow the group to produce vegetables for self-consumption and the rest for sale,” explains Munyankindi. The project provided each group with the equipment and means to apply the environmentally sustainable methods learned in the course: local seeds (varieties of potatoes, beans, corn, pumpkins, peas), equipment, pesticides and natural fertilizers, material to make compost (manure and waste plant material) in the vicinity of the new collective vegetable gardens in order to improve soil fertility, and a cistern for each pilot garden to collect rain water. “The programme is designed primarily for self-consumption of horticultural products to improve the social, health and nutritional status of the people involved in the programme, but also the marketing of the products to generate an economic benefit,” continues Munyankindi.
Marketing and sale
The second part of the project provided support and stimulus to the marketing and sale of produce to the women involved in the project from Gakenke and Burera, but also 30 from the district of Musanze, who were already active from a pilot project initiated in 2015. “These women sell part of their home garden produce in local markets, and this provides some individual revenue,” explains Munyankindi. “Proceeds from the sale of products from the collective gardens remains with the groups that manage them, and who then decide how to use these revenues, for example, for common needs or to provide loans to members of the collective in case of urgent needs.” The project covered necessary costs which included duties, notary fees and consultancy. The costs also covered a cooperative mill to grind corn and other local cereals so that some of the goods could be transformed to sell in markets not only to the local population, but also to tourists in Ruhengeri, one of the towns which acts as a gateway to the national park which hosts the last of the mountain gorillas. The women of the cooperative had access to micro-credit at the start of the activities, and attended a course on micro-credit management and management of a cooperative. Nurses also make house calls to provide basic nutritional education and to monitor the health of the women and their children.
The total cost of the project was € 67,580 and covered human resource costs; purchase of goods: educational materials, seeds, tools, poultry and medications, six cisterns to collect rainwater, insecticides, a mill; provision of services (including establishment of funds for microcredit; travel and transport; and on-site project management fees). St. Anthonys Charities was asked for and approved a grant of €20,000 in March 2016.
So far 90 families in extreme poverty consisting of women with approximately 450 dependent children, have benefited from this project. Future autonomy and continuity is ensured, secured by the assets of the project, animal breeding, cultivation of the pilot collective gardens and home vegetable plots, and work at the mill. “This will ensure self-sustaining households, and there will be an increase in produce intended for sale which will create wealth destined to help family health and educational needs,” says Munyankindi. “The microcredit activities and the establishment and growth of the cooperative will be a further guarantee of support to the continuity and development of the project.”
Young from the animals provided by the project (including sheep, goats, pigs and poultry) will be sold to other women to generate further income. These first cooperatives will also serve as an example for others who want to join the cooperative later or for other groups who want to create co-operatives, drawing on the proceeds from the sale of the products of collective gardens.
“I would like to express my sincere thanks to St. Anthony’s Charities and the readers of the Messenger of Saint Anthony for your continued and important support for various projects in favour of the people of our diocese,” writes Vincent Harolimana, Bishop of Ruhegeri. “Your interventions are a welcome response to the differing needs of people in difficulty. We guarantee you, on our part, good collaboration, and we remain with you in the union of prayer.”