Their story stands out. It is not because of financial success but their collective effort to kick malnutrition out of their community using limited resources.
As malnutrition levels reached alarming proportions, vulnerable women in Kibeho, a remote area in Nyaruguru District in the Southern Province decided to grab the bull by its horns.
They started a tailoring project aimed at raising resources to ensure that malnutrition is kicked out of their homes.
Malnutrition is a big challenge across the country and affects mostly children. Therefore, efforts by the Nyaruguru women are a big boost in government’s efforts to fight malnutrition.
The Turwanye Imirire Imibi cooperative, as they named it, is made up of 20 mothers, some of whom have up to six children.
Putting together their skills, they make many products including sweaters, socks, head socks, among others, which they sell and get money to feed their children on a blanaced diet. They also use some of the money to pay for health insurance for their families.
A fairly large room at Kibeho Health Centre is the work station for the women. A number of charts showing how to prepare a balanced diet hang on the walls.
Sometimes, women from around the village are invited to the centre, and sensitised about the importance of balanced feeding.
How it started
In 2015, the women found themselves with a common enemy – malnutrition - largely caused by ignorance and low financial capacity.
“We had some food but we did not know how to prepare a balanced diet meal,” says Therese Kabano, a mother of six.
Beatrice Mukabutera, another member of the group, says financial constraints were a major hindrance to achieving good nutrition for their children.
“We realised that the main cause of malnutrition was the low financial capacity, so we came up with the idea of starting this cooperative to financially uplift ourselves through sewing,” Mukabutera says.
The group that started with hand sewing has presently managed to acquire up to eight sewing machines, a development that enables them to produce a wide range of products, in different sizes to suit the demand not only of the people in the area, but also other surrounding places.
“Now I can pay Rwf12, 000 for my family’s health insurance and even hire someone to cultivate my garden while I am away sewing,” says Mukabutera, who boasts about having acquired her own sewing machine as one of the benefits she has gained from the cooperative.
“I urge more women to come and join hands with us,” she adds. The group is also involved in a drive to promote good hygiene in the area.
For nutrition, the women follow the Ministry of Health’s 1000 Days programme where mothers are urged to have a good diet from the time they are pregnant up to when they deliver. And, to focus on nutrition of the baby until they are at least two years old to avoid stunting.
Collete Mushimiyimana, a nutritionist at Kibeho Health Centre, was touched by the initiative saying it is an indicator that the community is learning from the lessons given by the health practitioners.
“It helps in the development of their homes as they are able to buy what is needed following the nutrition lessons we teach them,” she says before adding that it also reflects on the impact the cooperative has had on the community as far as understanding nutrition is concerned.
“Now other parents are also cultivating vegetable gardens at home. They are learning the value of good nutrition,” Mushimiyimana adds.
Athanase Karemera, Nyaruguru District’s health officer, says that in 2012, they had 2332 children suffering from kwashiorkor as a result of malnutrition but the number has gone down to 147 children today.
He says the cooperative has used a successful approach in fighting malnutrition.
“They help us help others. When they meet with others and tell them about good nutrition, it goes a long way in addressing the issue of malnutrition especially in homesteads,” he says.
According to Pascal Musoni, the Community Mobilisation Officer at the Multi-Sector Capacity Building Programme of Rwanda (MSCP), the Nyaruguru community has no problem with food but the problem is the mindset and lack of knowledge in preparing a balanced diet.
“There is no shortage of food in the area, the problem is lack of awareness on how to use the available food to make a balanced diet,” he says.
Nyaruguru District is also a beneficiary of the Ministry of Health’s initiative to fight malnutrition in mothers and children in different parts of Rwanda. Many women in the area receive the free Shisha Kibondo nutritious flour used to prepare porridge for children from six months to two years.
Magnitude of challenge at the national level
A study conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture and the World Food Programme (WFP) released last year, indicates that rates of chronic malnutrition in Rwanda have fallen significantly in the last three years, but still remain stubbornly high, especially in rural areas.
The Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis (CFSVA) report in Rwanda found that levels of stunting among children aged under 5 dropped to 36.7 per cent in 2015, down from 43 per cent at the time of the last analysis in 2012. Stunting, where a child is too short for their age, is an indicator of chronic malnutrition and permanently affects brain development and health. The analysis is conducted every three years under the coordination of the Rwandan Ministry of Agriculture, with support from WFP.
The study showed a geographic nutritional divide, with rural areas being the most affected by child malnutrition at a rate of 40 per cent, compared to 27 per cent in urban areas.
According to the analysis, the districts with the largest share of food insecure households are predominantly in the Western Province, and include Rutsiro, Nyamagabe, Nyabihu, Nyaruguru, Rusizi, Karongi and Nyamasheke.
Poverty, illiteracy and insufficient land for farming are among the factors linked to food insecurity, and are the most likely root causes of stunting, especially among rural people. According to the report, children of mothers with low education are more often stunted.
The report recommends enhancing efforts and initiatives to reach the most vulnerable people in the most affected rural areas, particularly by expanding social safety nets to include the poorest, most food-and-nutrition-insecure households.
The CFSVA report also recommended scaling up seasonal interventions to assist households experiencing food insecurity at certain times of the year, for example in the “lean season” before a harvest is due. The report advises promoting alternative livelihood development programmes in order to provide more stable sources of income, and to develop and diversify livelihood opportunities for the most affected rural population. The Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis is a joint initiative between the Rwandan National Institute of Statistics (NISR), the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI) and World Food Programme (WFP).
How can rural women improve their livelihood and health?
Families in rural areas face lots of challenges as a result of poor sources of income, so sometimes getting what to eat is hard and families endure hunger. I think women should try to maintain small gardens that don’t require a lot of money and they can ensure a steady supply of food for the families.
Jackeline Mutwarekazi, Mother
Continuous sensitisation is the best solution; some of the children in rural areas don’t get a balanced diet. I think with the right sensitisation on how children can be fed well, families will improve their livelihood and they will be healthy.
Revocat Murekatete, Community health worker
They should join cooperatives which will not only help them get a chance to save money but also get an opportunity to gain skills on issues like family planning and also a good understanding of healthy feeding practices. These factors are important for a better living.
Rose Kyomugisha, Businesswoman
Women should be given skills through trainings, these skills will help them find means of survival and support their families. With this they will be able to fight problems like hunger and illiteracy.
Yves Ujeneza, Entrepreneur