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Blog From Rwanda--Hopelessness to Hope

On the road in Rwanda with WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, meet Bonifrida, the woman farmer who produced so much food she could buy a new home and a cow. Hear about a project that has helped farmers double their income over the years, and find out how WFP is helping people fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Executive Director Ertharin Cousin surrounded by children at the Nkamira Transit Centre, where WFP provides food assistance to Congolese refugees. Here they get “a first glimpse of hope,” she says.

For three days I travelled through the rolling hills of Rwanda as we made our way around the country viewing and observing the impact of WFP’s work. Our trip began at the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  We crossed over from Goma to Rwanda’s Rubavu District, traveling on the same road that hundreds of thousands of people have used to escape from violence – fleeing one direction or the other – over the last two decades.

Our first stop was the Nkamira Transit Centre, located about 20 kilometres from the border, nestled between steep grassy hills.  The centre was established in 1996 as a temporary refugee shelter until more long-term housing further inside Rwanda could be found.  The centre was built to house 5,000 people.  Today, unfortunately, the centre serves 9,200 people, operating at almost double its intended capacity.

WFP’s impact in Nkamira is clear.  We are providing food for every man, woman and child housed in the centre.  The stories I heard will break your heart.  Although these refugees have reached a sanctuary, they remain very much haunted by the conflict they have fled.  Women who made the difficult journey into Rwanda to escape the unrest in DRC told me they lie awake at night, frightened because they can still hear sounds of fighting across the border.  They fear for their family members and friends still at home.   A story becoming all too familiar.  However, this centre does provide a place of safety.  Here the people get a first glimpse of hope.

From the Nkamira Transit Centre we drove to the Cyungo/Rukozo Watershed Management Project.   At this project, I witnessed first-hand how farmers, working from 2007-2008 through our food-for-assets programme, initially receiving food in return for their labour, turned previously barren hills into productive farmland by creating land terraces.  These farmers received food for their work and, as a result, ultimately created a sustainable food source for the area. Today, WFP no longer supports this programme because we handed it off to the Rwandan government.  The government stepped in and scaled up our initial efforts and today more than 20,000 people have benefited from the project.  Local farmers are now cultivating wheat and potatoes.  On average their income has more than doubled.

WFP works with others to help the world recognize that when people can feed themselves they will move forward socially as well as economically.  This fact was again proven for us when we saw the early agricultural success from the watershed management project has generated a ripple effect across all sectors of the local community.  These same farmers are buying new land for forestry plots, improving the local electrical grid, paying for school fees, purchasing medical insurance, and improving their houses. The farmers have also formed a cooperative focused on savings and credit.   By working in the cooperative, now they also can buy seeds and fertilizers at better prices by taking advantage of the opportunity to buy in bulk.  The cooperative has also purchased equipment, like a wheat threshing machine.

The next day, we drove across the country on rugged and sometimes almost non-existent roads to the southeast corner where we visited the COACMU Agricultural Cooperative in Kirehe District.   As a WFP Purchase for Progress (P4P) pilot community, this farmers’ cooperative is an important partner for locally procured food.  This cooperative specializes in growing staple crops, such as maize and beans and includes almost 530 members, more than 30 percent of whom are women.  The cooperative’s success has come quickly, with profits growing by more than 25 percent in just two years.

COACMU’s activities are not just focused on growing staple foods; the cooperative also dedicates time and resources to promoting education among its members.  These efforts are a priority for the leadership, and the successes of the cooperative are only expected to continue as the members’ knowledge of post-harvest handling, storage and marketing skills are further developed.  In addition, the dividends returned to cooperative members are helping them to pay school fees for their children, pay for medical insurance, and to acquire bank loans for other business to increase house hold income.

In fact, one woman farmer, Bonifrida, is producing such a surplus of food that she can now not only send her children to school but she also purchased a new home and a cow.  With a smile on her face, she told me she now feels like a rich woman.  I asked her what she plans to do next, now that she has achieved so much. Bonifrida’s smile grew even wider when she replied… proudly… that she will improve her home by replacing the dirt floor with a proper concrete one!    

For Bonifrida and so many others that I met in Rwanda the past tragedies are not forgotten but the future holds promise for a better and more hopeful tomorrow.  Where food security means not only knowing from where your next meal will come but ensuring that you can provide a better, brighter and healthier future for the children, the community and ultimately for the country.  I am proud of the role WFP is playing in making this future a reality.