12 March 2013

Rwanda: Elephant Grass and Mushrooms

One evening in July, 2006, a crew of 4 Chinese agriculturists headed by Professor Lin Zhansen from Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University (FAFU) arrived at Kigali International Airport.

Two thermal boxes made of foam material and packed tightly, looked very conspicuous among the luggage they brought along. Pointing to the boxes, the Director General of Rwanda Agriculture Board, who came to welcome the agricultural experts, asked humorously, "Are these gifts for me?"

"Yes, they are. They are the presents for you and for Rwandan people. There are 400 seeds of elephant grass inside, and they may help to reduce the poverty." Professor Lin replied with wit.

Right after the construction of China-Rwanda Agriculture Technology Demonstration Center (C-RATDC) in June, 2010, the "distinguished grass" appeared on the slope outside the Center in Huye District, Southern Province. These seedlings of the elephant grass nurtured by the very experts from FAFU have grown up to a 60-meter green corridor like the guards of the Center, presenting a beautiful view.

As soon as approaching the Center you will see the tall and green elephant grass. But the question comes, "why do the experts first introduce the grass instead of rice or vegetables?"

The elephant grass, which is suitable for cultivation in tropical and subtropical zones and is perennial in those areas with appropriate temperature, possesses special characteristics such as the advantages of wide adaptability, high yields, and rich content of crude protein.

Since it is tall, erect and gregarious, together with the highly developed root system, the elephant grass can be windproof and reduce soil erosion. That is why Rwanda government decides to introduce the grass first. On the terrace sloping land, inter-planting crops such as beans, maize and potatoes with the grass will reduce soil erosion 89.5 percent, compared with the traditional practice.

With high content of crude protein, the grass is high-quality forage for the cattle. The average yearly yield of the fresh grass and dry grass is about 500 tones and 150 tones per hectare respectively, which is enough to raise 70 cows a year.

The elephant grass can be fuel to generate electricity and methane gas. The electricity made by burning one-hectare grass is equal to that by burning 60-ton coals. 22,000 square meter gas produced by one-hectare grass will supply the energy for 150 families in Rwanda. This "green" energy will definitely have a fast growing market in the rural area.

The grass can also be substrate for cultivation of 49 edible and medicinal fungi species with high production and better quality due to its crude protein. In a year, the grass produced in one hector field may be converted into 150 tones of fresh mushrooms when it is used as the substrate.

With this grass, Chinese experts from FAFU also introduce mushroom cultivation.

In the morning on May 6th, 2011, the first training course on mushroom cultivation kicked off as planned in the Center, which looked extraordinary beautiful against the blue sky and green hills after light showers.

Among all the trainees, 4 young girls, who were active and energetic, looked very outstanding with their eagerness for knowledge and enthusiasm on mushroom cultivation. As senior students who would graduate from the Agricultural College of Rwanda National University, they jumped to catch the opportunity to attend the first training course with the help of an alumna working in the Center.

By the close of the intensive course, the girls talked to the experts about their ambition of setting up a mushroom cooperative, as there aren't many chances for them to get a job immediately.

However, they needed the support and help from the experts and the Center. After receiving an affirmative answer, the girls cheered up with exclamation. Very soon, they established "Agrocare Cooperative" to plant mushrooms with other 6 girls from the same college after graduation.

The most difficult mountain to cross is the threshold. With the help of Chinese experts, the girls overcame various obstacles one after another from fund, field and expertise to market. Whenever they were in difficulty, Chinese experts from C-RATDC always stood by them.

In May, 2012, almost one year after, the girls grew their first 10-kilo mushrooms through thick and thin. The only thing came into their mind was to share with their families the fruit of their labor instead of selling the mushrooms.

The Chinese technology and the hard work paved the way: the Cooperative earned net profit of 2,000 US Dollars by selling about 2 tons of mushrooms in half a year.

Their story sounded somewhat incredible even today, since in a couple of years back, it was a taboo for Rwandans to eat mushrooms. They used to believe eating mushrooms would lead to the death of cows, a symbol of wealth in their culture. That was once considered to be the most difficult task they had ever confronted when Chinese pioneer experts first came to Rwanda.

Thanks to their efforts and persistence, not only have many local farmers changed their diet to seek nutrition from mushrooms, but also realized that planting mushrooms is a nutritional, profitable and environment-friendly industry in Rwanda.

Up to now, C-RATDC has supported more than 30 mushroom cooperatives and over 1,000 families from all over the country and from all walks of life: the widows in the genocide from the Women Association, the aged from the Nursing Home, the kids from the Orphanage, and the people suffering from HIV/AIDS. The Center pulled them out of poverty so that they could see the hope of life; the Center changed their diet so that they could get rid of malnutrition and led a healthy life; the Center helped them earn some money so that they could continue their therapy and make a decent living.

As one of the "Eight Measures" for Sino-African relations President Hu Jintao announced in 2006 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), Chinese government has established 20 Agriculture Technology Demonstration Centers in Africa, and C-RATDC was one of them. China intended to support peace and development in Africa and boost the new type of strategic partnership between China and Africa.

The Center helped the ten girls who established mushroom cooperative realize their dream of starting business of their own. Bankundiye Francine, one of them, could not hold her excitement when interviewed by the Xinhua News Agency of China, "I got a job when I graduated with China mushroom technology. I'm the boss; this is a happy event that I never expected."

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