Rwandan women farmers fight malnutrition

By Annonciata Byukusenge

Women in Rwanda are embracing kitchen gardens, known as “Akarima k’Igikoni,” to address malnutrition and enhance food security. These gardens, filled with various fruits and vegetables, have become a vital tool for women in the Southern Province Huye district, specifically in the Ruhashya Sector and Mara Cell, to adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

Through comprehensive training provided by CorpsAfrica volunteers, these women have gained valuable knowledge on smart climate agriculture practices, with a particular focus on kitchen gardens. The gardens enable smallholder farmers to cultivate a diverse range of resilient and nutritious crops, ultimately improving productivity and ensuring food security in their communities.

Kamaliza Pauline, a resident at Gashikiri village in Huye District, said she fully embraced the training she received from the CorpsAfrica volunteers, and the project significantly transformed her life. Her kitchen garden now thrives with a vibrant array of vegetables, including beets, carrots, leafy greens, indigenous vegetables, and eggplants.

“Previously, I cultivated my vegetables on the traditional garden “Imirambararo” or a basket. However, after learning about this new way of gardening featuring stairs, I tried it at my home and the outcomes have been incredible that I dont need to buy vegetables from the market anymore” says Kamaliza

The easy availability of fresh produce, such as calottes and other vegetables, has greatly improved her family’s nutrition and eliminated the occurrence of kwashiorkor.

“I don’t buy vegetables anymore; I cultivate my own potatoes and even cassava for flour. The only items I buy are beans and salt” she says

Unlike the traditional garden, “Imirambararo,” kitchen garden requires a plot that of about one meter long and 30 centimeters wide. Although some vegetables can be grown in this garden, it fails to sustain growth during the sunny season, even with irrigation, as the water seeps too deep.

But the Kamaliza’s success has already inspired many of her neighbors to try and adopt this gardening style as they also realize how effective the kitchen gardens can be in the fight against malnutrition.

Mukarugwiza Bernadette, a dedicated rice and vegetable farmer working in the Kumusizi swamp, located in Rukira Cell, Huye District. Bernadette is a member of the “Koperative Jyambere Muhinzi wa Huye” (KOJYAMUHU), which focuses on the development of Huye farmers where women make up to 70 per cent of members.

Women work alongside men, actively participating in the cooperative’s endeavors. Within the swamp, one side is dedicated to rice farming, while the other side is allocated for vegetable cultivation. However, the quantity of produce is greatly influenced by seasonal variations resulting from the impact of climate change.

Bernadette highlights their efforts to reduce reliance on modern fertilizers by utilizing traditional alternatives. They primarily apply traditional fertilizers on the vegetable side of the swamp, as the rice side benefits from an ample water supply. However, due to water scarcity, they face challenges in achieving sufficient crop yields from the vegetable section. Currently in the planting season, they are focusing on vegetable cultivation following the previous season’s maize crop.

The commitment and resilience of women like Kamaliza Pauline and Mukarugwiza Bernadette exemplify the transformative power of kitchen gardens in Rwanda’s Southern Province. Through these gardens, they not only combat malnutrition but also foster food security and empower their communities to adapt to the effects of climate change. Their inspiring stories serve as a beacon of hope for others to embrace innovative agricultural practices and contribute to a sustainable future.

In Rwanda, rice and vegetables is predominantly cultivated and thrive in marshlands and wetlands. Supported by partners, farmers there, including women, develop the areas and establish essential infrastructure, such as irrigation and drainage systems. Additionally, they also get support post-harvest and storage facilities, including rice drying grounds, shelters, and cooling spaces for perishable goods. These collaborative efforts aim to empower farmers and enable them to achieve their desired levels of production.

To ensure farmers have access to quality inputs, tools, and equipment, the government has established a subsidy program tailored to the agricultural sector. Eugene Kwibuka, the Agricultural Information and Communication Programme Manager at the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI) says there are various benefits farmers receive through this program.

“We promote the use of climate change-resilient crop varieties, such as early-maturing cereal varieties, heat-tolerant varieties, drought-tolerant legumes or tubers, and crops or varieties with increased salinity or flood tolerance. This helps farmers to better cope with climatic shocks. We also strengthen research in agriculture to avail improved crop seeds and more productive animal breeds” says Kwibuka

Furthermore, the government works on developing crop irrigation technologies, ranging from small-scale irrigation systems to solar-powered irrigation. They also address crop and animal pests and diseases while striving to enhance the productivity of radical and progressive terraces. Reducing food waste is another key priority, achieved by assisting farmers in acquiring better agricultural produce handling, storage, and transportation facilities. Moreover, collaboration with the Rwanda meteorological agency ensures timely weather information reaches farmers.

Kwibuka notes that the rise in food prices, fertilizer prices have increased due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine crisis are some of the dominating challenging facing farmers and consequently food consumers . Rwanda predominantly relies heavily on Ukraine as a source of inorganic fertilizers, which have been significantly affected by the ongoing conflict.

To mitigate the adverse effects on the agricultural sector, during the 2023 season A the government provided free fertilizers to farmers, and a subsidy program continues to support a portion of the overall fertilizer cost. The government is also actively seeking partnerships with private investors to establish local fertilizer production, ensuring Rwandan farmers can afford high-quality fertilizers. Furthermore, livestock provided through various programs and projects, along with other composting technologies, contribute to the production of organic fertilizers, helping farmers sustain soil retention capacity.

Rwanda’s demonstrated commitment to empowering farmers, particularly women, is evident in its dedication to enhancing productivity and ensuring sustainable agricultural practices. The hope is that these efforts will not only contribute to food security but also promote economic growth and resilience in the face of external factors.

Other stakeholders such as the Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rwanda, also stress that their priority is to empower subsistence farmers through the government.

“We are supporting farmers in rural areas in order to reduce poverty. Our projects focus on areas that are exposed to high temperatures which makes communities vulnerable to famine. We channel our support through the government and then the government identifies and delivers the needed support to the communities in accordance to their needs” says Dagmawi Habte-Selassie, IFAD Country Director

Regarding high fertilizer prices, Kwibuka explained that one possible solution could in enhancing import access, while farmers also endeavor to create their own natural fertilizer known locally as “ifumbire y’imborera.”

Within the Eastern province of Rwanda, IFAD has undertaken the Kayonza Irrigation and Integrated Watershed Management Project – Phase I in Kayonza district. Approved on May 2nd, 2019, this project is projected to be completed in 2023 at a cost of US$24.73 million, with IFAD providing a support of US$17.79 million. The second phase was approved in early October 2021, and is scheduled for completion in 2028. This phase carries a price tag of US$61.02 million, with IFAD contributing US$21.78 million, Spain providing US$28 million as international co-financiers, the National Government contributing US$8.08 million as domestic co-financiers, and Beneficiaries Cash totaling US$1.65 million.

According to the World Bank, nearly one-third of farming households in Rwanda are led by women, with approximately 70% of women involved in agriculture. Kwibuka emphasized that viewing the increasing number of women in agriculture as a significant opportunity to empower the sector, rather than a challenge, is crucial. Supporting women farmers is essential for addressing food security concerns.

“To mitigate risks in the agricultural sector, it is necessary to implement climate-smart technologies like crop irrigation, provide crop and livestock insurance, and advocate for improved access to finance and financial literacy,” says Kwibuka. These measures will facilitate affordable agricultural loans and enhance the delivery of suitable agricultural extension services.

The government is also actively assisting women farmers by collaborating with sector partners to establish post-harvest management infrastructures, aiming to minimize post-harvest losses. They offer training on Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), subsidized farm inputs such as seeds and fertilizer, and necessary equipment.

Additionally, the government distribute small livestock and provide cows through the Girinka program to economically disadvantaged families, including women farmers. Tax exemptions on agricultural and livestock equipment, as well as animal feeds, are in place. The government also collaborates with various partners to advocate for the establishment of timesaving interventions for women, including childcare centers (ECDs), energy-efficient cooking facilities, and improved access to clean water sources.

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for a productive and healthy life” says Kwibuka

Key concepts regarding food security:Food availability; which refers to the presence of safe and nutritious food at a given time and place, such as in local markets or countries.

Food accessibility; which concerns whether an individual or household can access available food. This includes the ability to purchase or exchange goods for food, as well as social mechanisms that affect access, such as unequal distribution of food within households.

Food utilization; which addresses the body’s ability to make the most out of the nutrients in consumed food. Factors such as poor storage, spoilage, cooking practices, food safety, and diseases can affect food utilization.

Food stability; which cuts across and affects all other components. Food must be available, accessible, and utilizable over time, rather than being a temporary state subject to fluctuations.

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