By Annonciata Byukusenge
When Covid-19 pandemic broke out in Rwanda in March of 2020, it was followed by a lockdown that barred movement of people seeking income generation in different parts of the country as they were obliged to stay home.
Women were the most affected and lost jobs.
However, after losing their jobs, women in the Ruramba sector, Nyaruguru district pondered alternative sources of income and then embarked on improved cookstoves production while staying at home.
The initiative was also a way of reducing pressure on forests since improved cookstoves use less charcoal and firewood.
Nyaruguru district with 318,126 Population, Rwanda’s pilgrimage site of Kibeho holy land, is located in Southern province.
The district is mountainous, located at South East of Nyungwe forest-One of the oldest rainforests in Africa rich in biodiversity.
Although the women had previously skills to make small bricks as building materials, they didn’t have improved cook stove production skills until Union des Coopératives Agricoles Intégrées / Union of Integrated Agricultural Cooperatives (UNICOOPAGI) in partnership with TROCARE to support them.
After gaining forest conservation knowledge, the greenpreneurs embarked on making modern cookstoves to save the forests.
They attended four training sessions within one week and obtained a machine to facilitate their work.
Viviane Nyirahorana, a 60-year-old woman, said that after struggling during the lockdown, they firmly decided to produce improved cooking stoves in order to protect the forest.
“In 2020, we were trained on forest conservation. We gained skills about modern cooking stoves manufacturing. During the lockdown in March and April, I put in more effort in making improved cook stoves as an alternative source of income because I had lost my job in the city of Kibeho. I crafted the first stove and it didn’t look good. But I tried to push until I produced an improved cook stove which was using less firewood,’ she said.
After realizing that it was possible, Nyirahorana encouraged her colleagues and explained to them how there are solutions to get alternative sources of income.
The women spent two months learning during Covid-19 lockdown although they didn’t get how to sell their products.
They produced 300 improved cookstoves within the two months.
The woman witnessed that after the lockdown, they conducted a campaign in their village in order to inform the community about the importance of environment protection to their life and how they can protect forest through using improved cookstoves that use less firewood.
Securing deal from district
“Later we sold the stoves to the neighbors because they had understood the importance of forest conservation. The Nyaruguru district leadership, through our Ruramba sector, urged us to make improved cookstoves to be distributed to the needy people of the first and second social categories because they cannot afford it,” she said.
They sold one stove at Rwf3, 000 including the price to install it.
“Since UNICOOPAGI had provided us with a machine that helps us to manufacture the modern stove using less charcoal or wood, we managed to produce many,” the woman added.
The women are still manufacturing improved cook stoves depending on orders from those who need them.
Immaculée Uwizeyimana, a mother of three children said that after becoming aware of forest protection, she also embraced improved cook stoves as an entrepreneur.
“I started to craft cooking stoves during lockdown. Now, I am able to make stoves as a business. I am proud as a woman that I contribute to forest protection. Before starting this business, I had a monthly income equivalent to Rw20, 000. Today I earn an income between Rwf50, 000 and Rwf60, 000 per month,” she noted, stressing the benefits gained after joining environment conservation.
Isabelle Nyiraminani, a young girl, also joined a women’s environment conservation group.
She said she benefitted a lot from the group.
“I joined this group in 2021 when I had nothing. I learned to make cooking stoves and the importance of protecting forests. Now I am able to raise awareness among other young girls and boys in order to inform them about forest conservation. Today our behavior on the environment has changed,” she said.
Uwizeyimana added that her life also changed after joining a forest protection group.
“Before joining this group, I would not even afford to pay health insurance for my family members. But in 202, I started to pay their health insurance premiums on time because I have income. And I am self-reliant. I can buy clothes for myself, my children and my husband as a surprise,” she testified.
Solange Uwumuremyi, a neighbor added, “Before using the improved cooking stoves, I would use five bundles of wood when I am cooking beans on a traditional stove. Now I use four pieces of wood to cook beans on a modern cooking stove.”
Although theysensitize other people about forest conservation with facts that improved cooking stoves help them to reduce the quantity of firewood, they don’t have enough resources to reach many people.
Ildephonse Serusatsi, a 64-year old, joined a group of five women to raise awareness about forest conservation.
However, he said they face challenges.
“The first challenge is that we have some people who don’t understand the importance of forest in their life. This is the problem because they still contribute to deforestation,” he noted.
He added that they as six people have one machine helping in the cook stoves manufacturing which is not enough.
“This machine can help us to produce between 300 and400 cooking stoves per month, and we need to make at least 1, 000 cooking stoves per month because now the stoves we are currently producing are not enough.
If we can get a partner or a sponsorship, we can buy two other machines in order to produce more in other villages,” he said.
Théogène Sebagenzi, a local leader of Kabari village in Giseke Cell, Ruramba sector in Nyaruguru district, confirmed that this environment conservation group is significantly contributing to development of their district.
“This group is helping us to fulfill the Imihigo-performance contracts like forest conservation, because they make cooking stoves which we give to our vulnerable community in first and second category to reduce pressure on forests,” he said.
He added that this conservation group is boosting sanitation in the community because the improved cooking stoves improve the sanitation in their kitchens.
The improved Cooking stoves reduce the use of firewood in homes by 42 per cent.
Rwanda Energy Group (REG), is carrying out a countrywide awareness campaign on the use of safe, effective and clean cooking technologies to ensure that Rwanda meets its targets to reduce the use of biomass energies to cook in households.
Currently, around 80 per cent of Rwandans still use firewood for cooking but, by 2024, Rwanda is targeting to have reduced the figure to 42 per cent.
According to Eng. Oreste Niyonsaba, the Manager of Social Energies, said the number of people who use modern stoves is still low which threatens environmental conservation.
“In order to ensure the protection of the environment, we are encouraging the public to embrace the use of modern cooking gas and stoves,” Niyonsaba said.
He noted that if the public continues to cut trees for firewood, the country risks desertification and that’s why the public should be aware of the consequences and embrace the safe cooking system.
The government is taking steps towards supporting 500,000 families with energy-efficient cook stoves at subsidized prices to encourage eco-friendly lifestyles. The Clean Cooking Result Based Financing (CC-RBF) project is being implemented by the Development Bank of Rwanda (BRD) and Energy Development Corporation Limited (EDCL), under the World Bank’s fund of $20 million.
The move aims to reduce the number of families relying on firewood for cooking from 79% in 2017 to 42% by 2024. The EDCL reports that more than 50,000 households have received improved cook stoves since the program’s launch in 2021, running until 2026.
Official data from the Ministry of Environment in 2021 shows that 72% of charcoal is consumed nationwide, with at least 61,000 sacks of charcoal weekly supplied to Kigali City.
At least 380 hectares of forest are felled every week for charcoal production and firewood, according to the ministry.
Status of forest in Rwanda
According to the Rwanda Forestry Authority, forests of Rwanda occupy now about 724,695 hectares of the total country land (30.4%) of which 387,425 hectares (53.5%) are plantations, 130,850 hectares (18.1%) are natural mountain rainforests, 161,843 hectares are wooded savannah (22.3%) and 43, 963 hectares are Shrubs (6.1%).