THE EMERGENCE of the dairy sector as a major foreign currency earner not only reunited Rwanda with the long standing cultural attachment to milk, but also introduced a new potential problem, the need for more grass.
Within the region, there’s a general stereotype that all Banyarwanda communities are cattle keepers. This is especially so in neigbouring Uganda, where they’re locally referred to as Balalo to mean cattle keepers. Indeed, these communities have a strong presence in Kyankwanzi, Masindi and Bulisa districts in mid-western Uganda.
But while Balalo in Uganda tend to be nomadic, moving from one place to another in search of grass and water for their long-horn cattle, in Rwanda, we’re witnessing a kind of modern cattle breeding — call it ‘pastoralism with Rwandan characteristics’.
Under this system, pastoralists are not nomadic, they don’t own large chunks of grasslands for grazing nor do they own hundreds of animals. Actually, most have just two or three heads of cattle, normally bred in sheds behind family houses.
But this small-scale format of cattle keeping is shifting very fast from subsistence to commercial pastoralism and the results were for the first time unveiled in the last quarter of 2013 where milk exports earned $22.41 million.
The resurgence of Rwanda’s dairy sector has been attributed to the successful implementation of Girinka, a government-sponsored scheme that seeks to enable each poor Rwandan household own at least in order to promote food security, fight income poverty and malnutrition.
I first experienced the success of Girinka (Give a cow) in 2009 when the Rwanda Education Board (REB) posted me at Muhoza II Primary School in Musanze district, Northern Province as a teacher trainer of English as a language of classroom instruction.
While there, the teachers, whom I found to be very friendly and eager to learn, introduced me to Ikivuguto, which is homemade yoghurt and Ishushu which is hot milk served without tea leaves. Every day at lunch time, we would all visit the milk kiosk run by an old lady from her house porch right opposite the school where we would normally order for glasses of Ikivuguto and two fat doughnuts.
One day during a light chat with her, the old lady told me then that she was a beneficiary of a government project where people were given cows to look after; my students later clarified that the project was called Girinka.
As I got to know Musanze town better, I soon found that most households were running milk kiosks from their porches and at the backyard of each of their houses. They had sheds where a cow or two fed from under zero grazing and small gardens around homes for grass to feed the animals. From this arrangement, I noted that these households had a sure source of income.
In 2010, REB sent me to Ruheru sector, Nyaruguru, a mountainous district near the border with Burundi in Southern Province; the sector has no commercial housing so I was lucky when a nurse at the sector’s health centre, agreed to be my host for a small fee.
Like the case in Musanze, I found that Lambert, my host, had a cow at the back of his house; he also maintained a small grass garden. His house help, a hardworking young man had his work cut out — to feed and milk the cow. It was the routine for most male house-helps in the neigbouring households and children looking for grass was a common sight in Ruheru sector.
Half of the teachers I was training there told me they had a cow or two and later I was to learn, many arrived late for class because they had to leave the animals well fed every morning.
One of the biggest challenges Girinka beneficiaries face is scarce grass. With limited land space, many have to resort to buying the grass from vendors. In Ruheru sector, grass is one of the best selling items at the market place as cow owners snap up every supply to keep their animals well fed.
The Girinka animals are zero-grazers and they have to be fed well, regularly and on time in order to be productive; this is often a big challenge to households and many attempt to sell off their animals in resignation.
Industrial feeds could be a solution but only limited to a few areas. One thing is for sure, to sustain the dairy sector’s export earnings, a solution to finding more grass will be needed; to do this though, farmers will need to balance between growing food for the family and grass for the animals.
Both will be needed.
Kenneth Agutamba is a post-graduate student at the Communication University of China.