Rwanda’s booming agricultural cooperative culture (with audio story)

Twenty years after the well-known 1994 genocide, Rwanda is looking like a reformed country – one built on pre-colonial ideals of strong governmental accountability, social justice and grassroots organization.

There are now more than 6,000 registered social or industrial cooperatives in Rwanda, many of which are in agriculture, according to the Rwandan Cooperative Agency, the agency responsible for registering and ensuring compliance of cooperatives in Rwanda.

These cooperatives make up more than 2.5 million people, or roughly 22%, of the country’s entire population, according to Adolph Kajangwe, an originally Rwandan, Burundi-raised man now working and living in Boulder, Colorado, USA.  He spent his younger life in Burundi because of conflict in Rwanda and now supports economic and industrial development initiatives in Rwanda.

“Cooperatives are a strong force economically to be reckoned with,” Kajangwe said at a Denver event to raise awareness and funds for Rwandan cooperatives by African Development Promise, a non-profit working in East Africa and based in Aurora, Colorado.

“Rwandan cooperatives have been the path out of poverty and hope for millions of Rwandans,” Kajangwe said.

Agriculture remains to be the backbone of Rwanda’s economy, employing 90% of the population, according to a 2009 Rwanda Institute of Policy and Analysis Research.

Cooperatives are like-minded, specialized groups of people organizing themselves on the grassroots level to solve local, environmental, governmental and social problems, according to Monica LaBiche Brown, founder and executive director of Africa Development Promise, the nonprofit that held the awareness event and helps strengthen rural cooperatives in rural Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya.

Rwanda is one of the ten fastest growing economies in the world, growing about 8% a year since 2012, according to the World Bank. But rural economies are still having problems, according to both LaBiche Brown and Kajangwe.

Cooperative groups near cities have the support of district governmental representatives who can help organize and connect them with financial, physical and human resources, LaBiche Brown explained.  But for those rural populations, there is little connection or support.

About 60% of people living in rural Rwanda are subsistence farmers; those who grow and live off their own food, LaBiche Brown said. These farmers have not yet thought about or been connected with others who are organizing themselves to sell their food in a market. The remaining 40% is split evenly between those working in cooperatives (20%) and those who do not grow any food and are living in extreme poverty (20%).

Despite a sizable portion of those working in cooperatives, about 65% of the rural population is living in poverty, slightly higher than the national average of poverty – 60%, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialized agency of the United Nations.

LaBiche Brown and African Development Promise are helping rural cooperatives get organized, operable and manageable. The nonprofit is currently visiting start-up cooperatives in East Africa, offering consulting in areas such as business, management and operations, she said.

Over the last year, her organization has helped the development of a group of 66 female farmers who were having a hard time getting their green beans to market.

 

Group of women farmers growing their cooperative with the consultation of African Development promise.

Group of women farmers growing their cooperative with the consultation of African Development promise.

“First, they lost their financial support,” LaBiche Brown said.  “Their primary support fell through and they went to the government to find support. That is where we found them.”

Before Africa Development Promise consulted them, they were selling their beans off the side of the road, she explained.  There was no place for storage, and their crops would spoil.

After they agreed to work with African Development Promise, the organization did researched and found the company Bolton Seeds which offered to sell the co-op a greenhouse, an irrigation system, seed, fertilizer, and training to start growing bell peppers and tomatoes.

 

With a little motivation, the group of 66 women farmers sought out a buyer of their product– a hotel in a nearby city.

The group is now working on organization and management with African Development Promise; who will manage, who will work in the greenhouse, who will work in sales, etc.

But it is not as easy as it sounds, Brown explained.

“The thing about development is that society needs to be mobilized to get there,” she said. African Development Promise’s partnerships depend on whether or not groups in East Africa want and will accept outside help.

Africa Development Promise is currently communicating with two cooperatives– one that has agreed to work with the nonprofit, and one that is still in conversations.

Rwanda’s decentralized and accountable governmental system has a lot to do with what the cooperative progress that has already been made.

Parliamentarians in 30 districts and four provinces of Rwanda currently govern Rwanda. Every year, they are ranked from highest performing to lowest, depending on what goals they set and achieved in the year prior, according to Kajangwe.

These have to be specific terms with specific outcomes, he added.  Those who are found as underperforming will be highlighted by the society.

“I won’t say they are shamed, but it carries a moral cost if you go back to your district being last. You have to have a good reason why you did not achieve your goals,” he said.  “There are also consequences. You usually lose your job,” he added.

Government accountability is not something new. Kajangwe said it was a pre-colonial practice (prior to Belgian and French imperialism) for tribal chiefs to swear in front of royal court to live by their word, he explained.

“The government was always led in a way that was destructive,” he said. Following the 1994 genocide, when more than 800,000 died, “the fabric of the country was torn apart.”

But it also gave the chance for the country to start again,  in the name of basic ideals such as responsibility and cooperation.

Looking at Rwanda today “is nothing short of a miracle,” Kajangwe said.

Major change began in 1999 when leaders, mayors, governors, administrators and international partners began creating a vision for what they wanted the country to look like, Vision 2020.

“It really brought up a lot of comments from a very grassroots level; everyone participated,” he said. The Vision 2020 document became the blueprint for Rwanda by the year 2020.

It included improvements to the private sector-led economy, construction, agriculture, regional and international integration and governance.

In 2006 additional change happened with the Grinka national program that gave one cow was given to every poor family in Rwanda.

“Just from one cow, a family could be fed by its milk, and manure to cultivate farmland. Most importantly, it gave families hope.”

“If there hadn’t been very crushing poverty, I don’t think people would have went along,” Kajangwe said.

“We are going forward, not forgetting our history or leaving it behind,” he said.

“We are aware and mindful of everything the country does,” he said.  “Its not all roses, but it is better.”

 

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