Thick vegetation, the stunning scenery, magnificent wildlife and the tantalising canopy walk will dominate stories people will tell when they visit one of Africa’s wonders, Nyungwe Forest National Park.
It is one of the largest natural rainforests on the continent.
That is adventurous, but you will not fully appreciate this wonder until you get the real sense of how communities that surround the park really are operating thriving economic activities owing to the park.
A media tour to the park last week gave reason to believe that there are more compelling stories to tell.
Take Vincent Hakizimana has lived on the peripheries of the park for decades, in Nyamagabe Sector of Nyamagabe District and a renowned beekeeper.
He heads a federation of 15 cooperatives that operate around Nyungwe Park.
His trade dates back to 1990’s at a time when many in the area practiced traditional beekeeping.
Theophile Nsengumuremyi, one of the beekeepers based in Nyamagabe district, explains their beekeeping profession.
“I have been a beekeeper since I was eight,” Hakizimana, now in his 40s, narrates.
“There was not much to do around here at the time; we spent time in the woods, climbed trees and grew up seeing our parents practicing beekeeping,” he recounts.
Hakizimana later went to Akagera National Park, Volcanoes National and a few other forests before coming back to the safety of Nyungwe Forest.
“Throughout that whole journey we always thought of sustaining this beekeeping activity as something that can promote sustainable livelihoods of our families and alleviate poverty,” he says.
But it wasn’t until few years back that the likes of Hakizimana began practicing professional beekeeping.
Hundreds of households that live around the park thrive on beekeeping. However, for a long time, beekeeping in the rainforest had been associated with traditional practices that occasionally resulted in fires.
“In 1997 alone more than 13 per cent of the park’s forest was destroyed in wild fires,” reads a placard that is hung on the wall inside one of the selling spots of traditional and modern honey in Nyamagabe.
However, Theophile Nsengumuremyi, another beekeeper working under Uwinkingi Cooperative of beekeepers in the same sector, says that this has completely changed.
He has been into beekeeping for a little more than five years.
Both Nsengumuremyi and Hakizimana are part of more than 1,220 people who are now engaged in organised beekeeping, managing over 4,500 hives set up in a gazetted area on the contours of the forest.
Honey products on display at a selling collection centre in Nyamagabe district. These are some of products made by beekeepers that operate around Nyungwe National Park.
They sell certified honey as their core business and support their families’ welfare.
“Last year’s production wasn’t really what we wished for because we experienced bad weather. Personally, I harvested 80 kilogrammes. Still, for someone who previously practiced traditional beekeeping this is significant,” Hakizimana told The New Times.
Nsengumuremyi has been able to get himself a cow and pay for his children’s tuition through his beekeeping business.
“Besides that, I am able to feed my family. That’s already a step in the right direction,” he says.
The cooperatives they belong to last season collectively harvested 11 tonnes of honey – the lowest quantity so far and that is attributed to the unpredictable weather conditions they experienced.
They say they can collect, during better seasons, more than 30 tonnes. This was a nightmare in the past as they were unable to collect even 4 tonnes per season, and that was only for home consumption.
Currently, they have diversified products on the market – honey, bee wax lip balm, skin lotion and candles.
While the flagship product for this cooperative is honey which is still sold domestically, the cooperative is eyeing international markets and targeting mass production of other products.
It is stories of transformation like these that genuinely reflect the real impact of the efforts aimed at promoting conservation in areas like Nyungwe Forest National Park.
A vender selling brochettes just outside Nyungwe Park.
Refuting insecurity claims
While such stories are quite impressive, there have been reports going around, highlighting unstable security and peace in areas where such businesses operate.
A few days ago, particularly, some group of Rwandan dissidents claimed that they had taken control of the northern parts of Nyungwe forest specifically around areas bordering Nyamagabe and Nyaruguru districts.
Residents refuted these claims, saying they have been going about their activities with no threat to their security whatsoever.
Edouard Nzeyimana, a beekeeper based in Subukiniro village, located barely two-kilometres away from the park, said he has not heard of such cases, adding that life is as normal as has ever been.
“I live and work here and I haven’t heard of any shooting. We haven’t heard of anyone who had gone to collect firewood, fetch water or went to garden and never came back. I personally haven’t heard of a gunshot in a while,” he said.
Around the park, there is a beehive of activities.
School-going children are seen moving to and from work, kids are spotted riding wooden bicycles and most importantly, small scale businesses are conducting regular business.
On the other side, there were people working in tea plantations that are just next to the park.
Similarly, there are army personnel patrolling the streets as it has been the case always.
A kid rides a wooden bike on the streets of one of the villages in Nyamagabe outside Nyungwe Forest.
Hotel business thrive
About one and half-hour drive from where beekeeping is widely practiced, there is ‘One and Only Nyungwe House’, a luxury lodge that lies on an expansive tea plantation in Nyamasheke District.
“The people are very warm and friendly. I feel very much at home and I feel very safe here [in Rwanda],” Victor Dizon, one tourist from Philippines whom we found at Nyungwe House said.
He had already spent two days here, visited different parts of the park and participated in a number of activities offered to tourists as part of the Nyungwe experience.
The lodge, which reopened in October last year after undergoing renovations, offers several activities like participation in tea ceremony, spear-flying, night walks and mountain biking, among others.
Jacques Le Roux, the manager of the hotel, told The New Times that they have tripled the number of visitors between October and March, and that they were in discussions with RwandAir to introduce evening flights to Kamembe.
“We didn’t even think it was going to be busy. We’ve more or less tripled it. Between the opening and today, we have tripled our bookings. We are in contact with RwandAir to have evening and morning flights to start people to connect with us easily,” he noted.
Meanwhile, Nyungwe House is opening another luxury lodge, Gorilla’s Nest, in Volcanoes National Park. It will be an establishment of 22 luxury rooms and suites, pretty much the same setting as the Nyungwe House.
Nyungwe Park is one of the ancient rainforests in Africa.
Besides hotel business, tourism around Nyungwe Forest has been growing steadily. Statistics from Rwanda Development Board (RDB) indicates that visitor numbers to Nyungwe National Park has grown from 4,810 in 2008 to 14,193 in 2017.
Nyungwe Forest is located in the southwestern part of Rwanda with a number of flora and fauna. It is the largest tropical rain forest in Africa, it is home to 25 per cent of Africa’s primates, and it feeds two biggest rivers in the world (River Congo and Nile).
Government has been trying to step up efforts aiming at conserving this park to attract more visitors and to cash on these unique attractions. One of the ways has been through community engagement.
The Government also started implementing a revenue-sharing scheme with the community. So far, a total of Rwf1.1 billion from the park has been allocated to five districts that surround the park, as of 2017.