The contented atmosphere during harvest time at a maize farm in Eastern Province’s Rwamagana District (Kagabiro Sector) tells a ‘grass to grace’ story of a group of women who did not have their own source of income, and for long, relied on their husbands, or begging, for survival.
The story starts in 2010, when vulnerable women were rented a plot of land by Rwanda Social Security Board (RSSB) to boost their financial status.
The women used the 11 hectare piece of land to start a maize farm and also started a farmers’ cooperative that has boosted the self-reliance of its members.
The cooperative has 68 members (51 women) and they produce up to 50 tonnes of maize per season.
Under the name Cohunya, the cooperative started with only 30 members who doubled after a number of days due to the impact it made on the beneficiaries.
According to the beneficiaries, the cooperative has revamped their hope for the future as most of the women were depending solely on their husbands for help, and some even resorted to begging for survival.
Agnes Umurerwa, the president of Cohunya, says that the cooperative has empowered women in terms of financial strength. She says that, unlike in the past, the women now support their husbands financially.
“Most of our members could not support their families. Some are widows; they were not able to afford necessities, others would wait for their husbands to cater for everything at home. Since the launch of the cooperative, they are doing much better,” Umurerwa says.
In total, 50 tonnes of maize are produced per season, the entire harvest is not taken to the market; instead, they reserve some for food security in their own homes.
Umurerwa says that in order to ensure the quality of harvest, they work hand-in-hand with the district’s agronomists who help them get fertilisers, and offer advice on farming activities as well.
Through the cooperative, the women pay school fees, health insurance, and also fight malnutrition and famine in their homes.
“Producing maize has brought food security, it has improved women’s financial stability and self-reliance,” she says.
Farmers sell their grains at Rwf230 per kilogramme and in the last season, their produce was sold at a total of Rwf5.3 million.
The culture of saving has been highly embraced by Cohunya’s members since they started earning money from growing maize. Each member of the cooperative has opened an account through which all payments are conducted.
The biggest challenges encountered in growing maize include climate change, and lack of shelling equipment, such as modern machines.
The famers want to buy a plot of land to avoid the closure of the cooperative in the event that RSSB takes back its plot.
Constance Museminari has been with the cooperative for four years. Since the resident of Nyagasenyi sector joined the cooperative, she has made significant progress, including having water in her house.
“Joining fellow farmers helped me a lot. Women were underprivileged and their potential was limited to domestic work. I am now able to clothe myself without waiting for my husband to buy clothes for me. I have health insurance. We have to work to build ourselves and the country as well,” she says.
Vestine Mukankuranga says that teamwork lessens the burden one might endure working alone. She says that she has gained a lot from joining hands with the other maize growers.
Mukankuranga says that the land was previously not as productive as it is today.
“We embraced modern farming. My produce multiplied since I joined the cooperative. I am now self-reliant,” she says.
Pierre Rwanzegushira, a male farmer working with the women, says that the growth and changes the cooperative brought to the lives of the women in the area inspired him to join as he had a piece of land close to the cooperative.
“Women have potential to do great things. Together as farmers in the same region, we hope to achieve more,” he says.