Magazines 2017 Nov - Dec Farmer field school in Rwanda

Farmer field school in Rwanda

08 November 2017 By Giselle Randall

Canadian Foodgrains Bank works in 40 countries around the world. Our writer went to one of them to see the work firsthand.

As clouds of red dust roll toward us, we quickly shut the windows of the minibus until the other vehicle passes. We’re on our way from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, to Eastern Province, one of the driest regions of the country. I’m a journalist with a RWANDAgroup of Canadian farmers who have come to Rwanda on a learning tour organized by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of 15 churches and church agencies.

"I came on this trip to experience another culture, and to learn about food and food security within that culture," says Jill Martens, who works on her family’s grain and cattle farm in Boissevain, Man. "I love producing, preparing and sharing food with others. I have a passion for agriculture, and I want to see how conservation agriculture techniques are being used to combat hunger and poverty."

Life on the margin

We start to see acacia trees, a sign of savannah, and the rolling hills are becoming gentle slopes with papyrus marshes in the valleys. The bus rounds a corner and we pull into a village in Gahara sector where we’ve come to visit a food security project between the Foodgrains Bank, Canadian Baptist Ministries and the Association of Baptist Churches in Rwanda (AEBR).

"Ninety per cent of Rwandans are farmers and all of them are hungry," says André Sibomana, head of the AEBR’s development department. Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, and the average household cultivates an area about 25 m wide and tall, relying on two rainy seasons to support their crops. Families eat what they grow, with nothing left over.

"When people live on that margin, it means they are constantly and chronically food insecure," says Sam Vander Ende, a field representative for the Foodgrains Bank who led our group. "They don’t know if there will be enough food to see them through from one harvest to the next." In this context changes in weather patterns – rains coming late or not at all – can be devastating, resulting in a state of emergency.

"The challenge is how to help communities become resilient, to build up savings and assets so they can sustain themselves over more than one season," says Sibomana. Climate change is affecting poor farmers, something they can’t control. "But if you can’t control the wind, you need to adjust the sails."

One of the ways of "adjusting the sails" is through conservation agriculture – a sustainable farming method based on minimum tillage, ground cover and crop rotation. Ploughing as little as possible prevents erosion. Covering the soil with mulch adds organic matter to the soil, suppresses weeds and traps water. And rotating crops fights pests and diseases.

The community welcomes us warmly, then Sibomana introduces us to several farmers who have adopted this approach. Athanase Nsengiyumua shows us his kitchen garden – another aspect of the project – and his land, now planted with maize. As we walk through the field, Glen Erlandson, a farmer from Saskatchewan, stops and bends down, scraping away some of the mulch. Scooping up a handful of soil, he squeezes it into a ball.

"It’s a simple test," he says. "When you release it, if it’s dry, it’ll start to crumble. But if it stays in a ball, all knitted together, then you’ve got adequate moisture." The ball test showed the soil was damp. "I was quite surprised. It shows that the mulching does retain the moisture under the surface."

Elisi Nyiragwiza is also proud to show us her kitchen garden and field. She invites us to her home and shares some maize with us. "It was very moving to be fed by someone who may not always have enough to eat," says Martens.


Story of hope

The next day, we travel to a remote community in Ndego sector to visit a nutrition project supported by the Foodgrains Bank and Adventist Development and Relief Agency Canada. It’s an area primarily occupied by those who returned to Rwanda after the genocide and by poorer families seeking cheap land. It has long periods of drought, and child malnutrition rates are the highest in the district.

The Kuraneza ("Grow Well") project focuses on families with pregnant or lactating mothers and children under five, helping them establish kitchen gardens to increase access to nutritious food year-round. Simple irrigation techniques – sunken ceramic pots and wicking beds – help the gardens withstand drought. But the nearest water source is a lake several kilometres away.

"It’s a completely different perspective when you’ve got to carry water for the garden and water to drink – and all that water has to be carried two or three kilometres uphill," says Larry Dyck, a farmer from the Niagara region in Ontario, who came on the trip with his wife Marg. Everywhere we go in Rwanda, we see children clustered at communal water taps, filling rows of yellow 20-litre containers, or people carrying them at the side of the road.

While the kitchen gardens help, it’s clear the community is still struggling. There has been no harvest from their fields in three years. They cope by looking for work, but can walk for two or three hours without finding any.

"I had a horrible crop this year, but I’m still eating. We have safety nets, our fridge is still full. I’m not worried about my children having enough to eat, which was a very real concern here," says Dyck. "As we went to people’s homes, I felt the weight of despair, looking at the situation."

Our visit ends at a community kitchen where participants gather every month to learn how to prepare balanced meals and children are monitored for malnutrition. The village gathered to greet us and a group shares a song they wrote for the occasion – about growing vegetables, the importance of vitamins and nutrients, hygiene – celebrating the training they have received. After the presentation it was time to eat.

"Listening to them sing at the community kitchen, I realized the story they wanted to tell was not that life is hard," says Dyck. "They wanted to tell us, ‘Look at all the things we’ve learned. Look how much better it is.’ That resilience was pretty overwhelming. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought – that’s the story. There’s a lot of hope there."

Planting a seed

Our final site visit is to a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada project, in partnership with Evangelical Friends Church of Rwanda, in Northern Province under the shadow of Volcanoes National Park. The volcanic soil was once highly fertile, but has been depleted. Farmers are reluctant to rotate their crops because potatoes bring in the most money.

MCC is encouraging farmers to adopt conservation agriculture practices through field schools. A group of farmers working with a facilitator comes together and decides what they want to learn – how rotating crops fights disease, the benefits of mulching, the effect of spacing, the best fertilizer – and then tests it on a study plot. They are able to compare results and decide for themselves what works. At the end of the season, the group decides how to spend the profit from the harvest. Often they rent more land to work together.

"Is this making a difference in food security? Has this increased your production at home?" someone on our team asks as we stand beside their field. Lots of heads start to nod.

"And the benefits don’t stop at the field," replies Bernadette Kirizaboro. "Many people come and ask, ‘Why are you mulching maize?’ It’s reaching other farmers."

"Like planting a seed, it spreads," says Vander Ende.

"Do you grow crops in this way, using conservation agriculture?" asks Odette Nzayisenga, the president of the group.

"Yes, and we’re learning too," says Dyck. "This year we planted corn into cover crop and didn’t have rain for three months. So my corn was very poor. We have more land, but it means when we make mistakes, they are big mistakes!"

After seeing the study plot, we go to Nzayisenga’s home where she has a kitchen garden and a small plot of land. "My husband comes home and asks, ‘How’s it going, agronomist?’" she laughs. The majority of the group are women, and several mentioned their value in the home has increased as a result of their efforts.

"You get a sense of their pride and happiness in learning something new, or doing something better," says Martens. "I know I feel that when I’m working on our farm, because I’m a woman who typically wasn’t taught to do the harder, ‘manly’ jobs when I was a kid, so I’m a little behind in the farming world. But to learn a new task or see an improvement – like driving the tractors – gives me so much pride and joy. It’s empowering and it gives you hope for the future."

Working together

Throughout our time in Rwanda, the underlying backdrop to all our conversations was the horrific genocide that took place in 1994 when the Hutu majority systematically slaughtered close to 1 million Tutsis. It was an event that divided Rwanda’s history into before and after, leaving deep wounds. But somehow Rwanda has absorbed the evil and moved forward.

"How Rwanda has responded to an unspeakable crime is a gift to the rest of the world," says Vander Ende. "Africa has a lot to give."

"They have had to forgive, and the forgiveness is a daily choice," says Dyck. "We saw impacted families working together on food security issues. The story is still being written."

As our day came to an end at one project, we began the long climb up one of Rwanda’s thousand hills back to the bus. I quickly dropped behind, tired and out of shape. As I stopped to catch my breath, a young woman approached and took my hand. "Allons-y, Giselle," she said. Let’s go together.

Giselle Randall is a Toronto-based writer.