Co-operatives tackling malnutrition, attaining economic prowess
By Gloria Iribagiza
In Rwanda, agriculture cooperatives have been at the forefront of removing several barriers that women face in their roles as farm workers, food producers and primary caregivers. Through various programmes, trainings and awareness campaigns on how to use modern farming techniques, increased agricultural output is becoming achievable and inexpensive.
One of the beneficiaries of such initiatives is ‘Abaticumugambi _Kabuga’, a women’s only agriculture cooperative located in the Village of Raro, Kabuga. This is in the District of Kamonyi in Eastern Rwanda.
Patricie Ninyandwi, the soft-spoken President of the cooperative says the objective of the cooperative is to empower women, through focusing on small and large scale crop production and animal husbandry. Formerly a women’s farming association established in 2008, they legalized their status as a cooperative last year. This she says was mostly due to the benefits that are associated with working as a team in established cooperatives.
“The advantages of operating as a cooperative greatly outweigh those of an association,” Patricie says, adding that, “…I have watched the lives of the women we work with change daily.”
Ninety-four women are a"liated to the ‘Abaticumugambi _Kabuga’ cooperative. They focus mostly on farming crops such as plantains (bananas), beans, maize, cassava, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, pineapples, passion fruits and avocados in addition to animal husbandry where they rear cattle and pigs According to Patricie, they sell their commodities and products at the local district’s markets. They also take advantage of the annually organized trade-fairs such as the EXPO where they market, display and sell their products.
In Rwanda, over 80 percent of the rural population practices subsistence farming and of whom are mostly women and girls. On a global scale, widespread discrimination against women and girls, in the social, cultural and legal spheres, has led to lower agricultural productivity and poorer health and nutrition.
According to Patricie, the cooperative’s challenges range from access to capital to venture into bigger projects, embracing ownership of their cooperative, low literacy levels as well as, having access to land to grow crops on a large scale.ACCESS TO LAND
The women cooperative currently depends on breeding animals and growing crops on the few plots of land owned by their members, but they mostly rely on renting land to cultivate their crops.
Patricie says she is convinced that when they grow economically as a cooperative, they will be able to own land, “A lot is already being done by the government to make land accessible to women …and maybe at some point we shall also rent out our land for cultivation and make money.”
Rwanda is one of the few countries in Africa where women’s land rights have been placed at the heart of policy; a lot of work is being done to translate these land reforms into practical and fundamental solutions that benefit women in terms of having greater control over household incomes, improved agricultural production and enhances their position in the wider community.
According to a UN Women paper which examines gender equality in 49 African countries—Rwanda inclusive—specific reference to property rights and land ownership was highlighted.
Recently, a nationwide land tenure regularization programme was rolled out in Rwanda which systematically registered over 10.3million parcels of land. The results were more than a"rmative with about 66percent of women having security of tenure either individually or jointly with their husbands. Generally, overall statistics indicated that in Rwanda, 93 percent of women own public land either singly or jointly—the latter, mostly as agricultural cooperatives.
In light of this, when women have access to land inheritance and ownership, they are assured of progress due to security of tenure and are in a better position to make economically productive and informed decisions that empower them, their families and communities at large.
Reaping the benefits of team work At the initial stages of forming the cooperative, the women at ‘Abaticumugambi _Kabuga’ cooperative had to pay a membership fee of Rwf3000. The primary aim was to sustain their e!orts as women in the Kabuga farming community to succeed just as men were.
Being part of an agricultural cooperative, Patricie says, consequently led to, “… improved agricultural production and consequently leading healthy lifestyles within the women’s families.”
ACCESS TO CREDITS
“When we formed this cooperative, many women had no idea that they were in position to get loans and bank their money in order to gain interest,” Patricie said adding that, “…this lack of financial literacy among most women farmers in rural areas is a very big problem.”
Since she embraced her role as the president of the ‘Abaticumugambi _Kabuga’ women cooperative, Patricie says she had to deal with streamlining the shortfalls in management in order to empower the women to work as a team.
“At first it was quite di"cult for women to embrace the cooperative as their own; they always thought that someone would come and make everything easy for them, which was not helpful at all. “I knew we could have more opportunities if we agreed on many issues especially if we wanted to get financial help and loans for our projects and trainings,” she explained.
When Patricie was asked whether the cooperative members were knowledgeable about the existence of loans that help small scale farmers, she was quick to emphasise that the women are already benefiting from partnerships with financial institutions like Bank Populaire du Rwanda (BPR) and the Umurenge SACCOS schemes.
Accessing fertilizers and using selected seeds through cooperative bank loans has boosted their crop productivity. She says in the longrun, awareness trainings always pay o! because the women have learnt the benefits of working as a team within their cooperative.
“After several meetings we as women agreed to take charge of the cooperative as our initiative—it was a project for Rwandans by Rwandans,” she states.TACKLING MALNUTRITION
Furthermore, a UN report on the Right to Food, ‘Gender Equality and Food Security – Women’s Empowerment as a Tool Against Hunger’, states that women and girls make up 60 percent of undernourished people in the world.
“We were not limited to growing crops by using modern methods of farming, but also gained education on how to prepare a balanced diet in order to eradicate malnutrition in our children and families,” Patricie said. In Rwanda, about 2 percent of children under-five years of age su!er from severe malnutrition, according to Ministry of Health indicators. Within the same age bracket, 11 percent of these children are underweight and 44 percent su!er from chronic malnutrition. These cases have been attributed to ignorance associated with parents especially mothers who do not know how to feed their children on a balanced diet.
Patricie cited community initiatives such as ‘Akagoroba k’ababyeyi’, a platform in several villages where women meet at cell-level to discuss ideas on best practices of improving their livelihoods, socially, economically and culturally—and overcoming malnutrition is a core topic of discussion.
The women in her cooperative have taken advantage of such platforms and are contributing towards encouraging other women farmers to join cooperatives. In addition, as a women’s agriculture cooperative, they ventured into acquiring Rwanda’s public medical health insurance (Mituelle de Sante) for all their members.
“We not only wanted to be economically empowered, but to be in position to access health services and facilities to ensure safe delivery at birth and buy medication at low costs,” Patricie said.
Therefore, by removing restrictions to accessing education, financial credit, employment opportunities and changing policies that allow women to own land, overall hunger can be overcome as women will be in a better position to earn decent wages and become economically independent.
Patricie attributes most of the cooperative’s success to a change in mindset among the women. For example, the cooperative president says, “at the start of the association, most women believed that they had no major roles to play in their community because they were not educated enough, or that they couldn’t make life changing decisions on their own unless their husbands made them.”
This myth was challenged after a series of campaigns by their village local leaders, government o"cials and Non-Government Organisations that facilitated several programmes.
“We now know that our well-being and that of our families is our responsibility,” Patricie says and, “…are have taken charge of our problems and are enlightened when it comes to expressing our rights as women for example; we are now in position to handle Gender-Based violence cases in our homes and communities.”
In order to lay lasting foundations for a better future for their children, the women had to denounce wrong mentalities in their community and homes—the cooperative’s members begun to see the importance of ensuring that their daughters remained in school in acknowledgement that their education was as important as that of the boys.
A study by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that closing the gender gap between women and men, in accessing productive resources such as land, credit, machinery or chemicals and fertilisers, could eliminate crop yield gaps of 20 to 30 percent. This would in turn increase domestic agricultural output by 2.5 to 4 percent; meaning that there would be approximately 100 million fewer people living in hunger. TSM