They call their cooperative ‘Abajyana n’Igihe’ or literally translated, those who go with the times, and this association is of one unlikely composition, going by the divergent history of its members.
However, in Rwanda, such things have been possible courtesy of the liberation that occurred 25 years ago today, or Kwibohora 25 as Rwandans know it.
Located in the rural part of Muko Sector in Musanze District, the cooperative comprises 113 members with different backgrounds.
Among the members are those formerly with Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) and later Rwanda Defence Force (RDF), the force that not only liberated the country in 1994, but also stopped the Genocide against the Tutsi that was being committed by the previous regime.
Other members were their former foes; those whom they fought to liberate the country, some of them went on to be part of FDLR, a terror group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they had based to launch subversive attacks on Rwanda.
All these were discharged and all fall under the ambit of the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission (RDRC).
Abajyana n’Igihe was created some nine years ago after combatants from both sides decided to set their differences aside and, the former FDLR militia, armed with the different teachings imparted on them before they were discharged, decided to join their colleagues in the battle against poverty.
“Initially, there was mutual suspicions between us and this was not unexpected because we were fighting on different sides,” said Retired Corporal Fidele Wibabara, the current president of the cooperative.
Wibabara was himself a former member of FDLR before in 2004 when he decided there was no gain in the fight, so he abandoned his fellow militia in the jungles of DR Congo to repatriate.
“We reflected and realized that the mutual suspicions would not get us anywhere, nor feed our families so we decided to sit together and collectively think of what we could do to develop ourselves, our families and our community.
“People are often surprised to see former FDLR fighters working in the same cooperative with those formerly in RPA or RDF but as results show, we made it and we have to keep the momentum,” added Wibabara.
Initially, the cooperative started with 15 former military personnel from RDF, ex-FAR and FDLR and 13 local civilians, Wibabara said, adding that as they registered gains, many others continued to join.
“Owing to the fact that many of us were already smallholder farmers, we decided to venture in agriculture because, our area is known to be fertile and the soil accommodates a variety of crops. That is how we decided on farming.”
To launch the cooperative, he said, every member contributed Rwf10,000 as share capital but because not everyone was able to pay it at once, the made an allowance for members to pay their contribution in three instalments.
“This has since changed because, after what we have achieved, new members are actually compelled to pay Rwf400,000 as share capital,” he said.
After they had collected money from founding members, they leased seven hectares of land on which they rotated different crops including beans, corn, and vegetables like cabbages, tomatoes.
They also planted fruits like tamarillo, which is best known as tree tomato, that he said has lately become a major cash cow.
Currently, he said that they harvest crops worth at least Rwf20 million every season and their market stretches far and wide, including across borders.
From the tree tomatoes alone, he said the cooperative earns Rwf3million on a monthly basis.
Embracing modern farming
Two years ago, the cooperative hired a technical support officer who helps equip members with modern farming techniques and he is with them all steps of the way, right from field preparation up to post-harvest management.
This, members say, has significantly boosted their produce.
For instance, the cooperative is now targeting to harvest above 100 tonnes of maize in this season as opposed to 80 tonnes they harvested last season.
Meanwhile, the cooperative members cite four streams from the volcanoes which during the rainy season flood their plantations and they say that containing the water is beyond their means.
Members of Abajyana n’Igihe also decried the lack of telephone network in their area which they said at times isolate them from competitive market of their produce because they cannot adequately communicate.
Despite the challenges, the cooperative has already built its own office and maize storage facility but currently valued at over Rwf45 million.
Each member of the cooperative currently earns a monthly salary of between Rwf50,000 and 200,000 depending on one’s input, after paying other expenses related to their day-to-day endeavors including paying wages of their employees and buying fertilisers and other inputs.
Samuel Hakizimana, one of the members said; “My life has changed to better thanks to proceeds I get from this cooperative including trainings on modern farming practices.
The said the skills acquired has enabled him to develop his personal farming practice where he said he harvests up to 1.5 tonnes of corn every season.
“I have managed to build my own house worth Rwf7million which was a distant dream for me and my family just a few years ago,” he added.
The cooperative president said that they will soon to acquire their own vehicle worth Rwf36million to transport their produce directly to markets and this vehicle will be available within next month.
He also said that they are mobilizing resources to set up their own maize milling factory which will cost about Rwf40million and to achieve this each member will contribute Rwf150,000.
Speaking to The New Times, the Chairperson of the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission (RDRC), Seraphine Mukantabana, said that the commission has so far discharged about 82,000 ex-combatants countrywide.
She stressed that many ex-combatants have successfully reintegrated socially and economically in their communities whereby they work side by side with their neighbours to build their country, mainly through cooperatives.
Mukantabana said the commission supports each discharged ex-combatant with Rwf180,000 paid in two installments and the funds are considered as starting kit.
On the other hand, those demobilised from Rwanda Defence Force are paid a package depending on their rank at discharge.
According to Mukantabana, to date there are over100 cooperatives for ex-combatants countrywide and their activities vary from agriculture, welding, carpentry, livestock farming and offering security services among others.
She said that the commission makes regular follow up on the cooperatives to ensure their sustainability.
“As the commission, we regularly visit these cooperatives and support them technically through trainings and other forms of assistance they may need to make valuable contributions in communities where they live instead of becoming a burden to them,” noted Mukantabana.
“We annually organise competitions to evaluate the progress the cooperative members have made, and the three best cooperatives from every province are rewarded between Rwf1million and Rwf1.8million so as to incentivise the members,” she added.