Livestock brings healing in Rwanda

Recovery is a word you hear a lot in Rwanda. From public service announcements on television to billboards—it’s the motto for a place that just 15 years ago was literally torn apart by genocide. More than one million were murdered in 1994 as ethnic strife turned neighbor against neighbor in one of the bloodiest civil wars in African history.
Livestock are lifting families out of poverty in rural Rwanda. (Photo by Bernard Pollack)
Livestock are lifting families out of poverty in rural Rwanda. (Photo by Bernard Pollack)

Recovery is a word you hear a lot in Rwanda. From public service announcements on television to billboards—it’s the motto for a place that just 15 years ago was literally torn apart by genocide. More than one million were murdered in 1994 as ethnic strife turned neighbor against neighbor in one of the bloodiest civil wars in African history.

Recovery—and healing—are also things I heard a lot about during my visit with Arkansas-based Heifer International in Rwanda. “Heifer is helping a recovery process,” explained Dr. Dennis Karamuzi, a veterinarian and the Programs Manager for Heifer.

Heifer started its projects in Rwanda in 2000 in a community in Gicumbi District, about an hour’s ride outside of Kigali, the capital. 

This community was especially hard hit by the genocide because it’s close to the border with Uganda. Residents who weren’t killed fled to Kigali for safety.

In the years following the genocide, Gicumbi District is making a comeback thanks, in part, to Heifer International. Heifer works with farmers all over the world, helping them develop sustainable agriculture practices, including providing livestock and training farmers on how to raise them.

Heifer’s beginnings were a little rocky. At first the community was suspicious of the group—because they were giving farmers “very expensive cows,” says Cyprien Holimdintwoli, one of the farmers trained by Heifer to raise dairy cows; they didn’t understand how the group could just give them away.

Many community members thought that it was a plot to have them raise livestock and then take them away.

And Heifer has certain conditions for receiving cows—including that farmers build a pen and dedicate part of their land to growing pasture—which made people skeptical, especially when they were used to letting animals roam freely to graze on grass.

But as people began seeing the results of Heifer’s training, they became less suspicious and more interested in working with the group.

Heifer introduced a South African dairy breed, known for its high milk production, because, according to Dr. Karamuzi, “no stock of good (dairy cow) genes” was left in the country after the genocide. And he says that these animals help prove “that even poor farmers can take care of high producing cows.”

And these animals don’t only provide milk—they are an important source of protein for the hungry—and sources of income for families.

They also provide manure that is used as a fertilizer for crops, as well as biogas for cooking in households as part of the National Biogas Program in rural areas.

Helen Bahikwe, another farmer in Gicumbi District, began working with Heifer International in 2002. She now has five cows—and an excess of manure. With a subsidy from the government as part of the National Biogas Program, Bahikwe built a biogas collection tank, which allows her to use the methane from decomposing manure to cook for her 10 family members.

Bahikwe no longer has to collect or buy firewood, hence saving both time and money and protecting the environment.

Biogas fuel is cleaner when burning unlike other sources of fuel that emit unhealthy smoke.

And according to Donatilla Mukaremera, another farmer who uses biogas, “it helps with hygiene” on the farm. Biogas has enabled her to heat hot water she uses to clean cow udders before milking and for cleaning milk containers.

Both Mukaremera and Bahikwe had to contribute about Rwf350,000 ($USD 700) for the materials to install their biogas units, while the government contributed about Rwf200,000 ($USD 400). With funding from SNV (Schweizerische Normen-Vereinigung), a Netherlands-based organization and the Rwanda Ministry of Infrastructure, the government hopes to have 15,000 households in the country collecting and using biogas by 2012.

Heifer is also helping farmer to become teachers who training other Heifer beneficiaries.

Cyprien Holindintwali the farmer and livestock keeper in Gicumbi District, said that he hasn’t always been a farmer. After the genocide in the 1990s, he and his wife, Mukaremera were school teachers, making about Rwf25,000 ($USD 50.00) monthly.

Living in a small house constructed of mud, with no electricity or running water, they were saving to buy a cow to help increase their income.

However, when Heifer International started working in Rwanda almost a decade ago, Cyprien and Donatilla were chosen as one of the first 93 farmers in the country to be Heifer beneficiaries. Along with the gift of a cow, the family also received training and support from Heifer project coordinators.

Today, they have used their gift to not only increase their monthly income-- they now make between Rwf150,000-300,000 about $USD 300-600 per month-- but have also improved the family’s living conditions and nutrition.

In addition to growing elephant grass and other fodder for the five cows they currently own, they are also growing vegetables and keeping chicken--another of Heifer’s requirements for receiving animals.

As a result, they have built a brick house installed electricity and are earning more income by renting their other house.

Today, Holindintwali is going back to his roots and making plans to teach again—this time to other farmers. He wants, he says, “the wider community to benefit from his experience.”

Heifer’s work is now being recognized and supported by the Rwandan government. In 2008 the government instituted the One Cow Per Household Program, which aims towards giving a cow to the poorest 257,000 households in rural areas. 

According to Dr. Karamuzi, Heifer is also building an exit strategy by connecting farmers to cooperatives, which can organize and train farmers independently.

Danielle Nierenberg is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute. Danielle and Bernard Pollack have been traveling in sub-Saharan Africa for the last three months researching innovations in African agriculture.

daniellenierenberg@gmail.com  or dnierenberg@worldwatch.org 

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