Kigali — In a country still recovering from the genocide that led to the deaths of a fifth of its population 20 years ago, smallholder farmers have found hope in a new wave of cooperatives that are already improving living standards in Rwanda.
"The steady growth of the cooperative movement in Rwanda was severely affected by the 1994 genocide," wrote business consultant Espérance Mukarugwiza in a 2010 study funded by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
But thanks to an enabling legal environment rolled out by the government from the mid-2000s, and support from international development partners, small farmers can now access bank loans through a growing number of cooperatives. They are also gaining better access to farm inputs, markets and advice.
"With the changing climatic conditions, it is not easy to know exactly what type of seed to plant, when, and how to do it without relevant information.
That is what we are getting from cooperatives, besides trainings, farm inputs and access to markets," said Mukankiko Odeth, a smallholder from Kirehe district in eastern Rwanda.
At harvest time, the cooperative members store their produce in a commonly managed warehouse. When it is sold, the farmers are paid their money, but a small percentage is kept by the cooperative and converted into shares that serve as collateral for loans to members.
"Experience has taught us that banks are able to give loans to farmers through cooperatives, or similar farmer groups without material collateral," said Emma Kambewa, who works on AGRA's market access programme.
AGRA supports 214 farmer cooperatives in eight districts in Rwanda through the RDO and Rwanda Rural Rehabilitation Initiative, assisting with capacity building, finance management, business plan development and leadership skills.
In 2005, the Rwandan government formed a taskforce to develop a legal framework to support cooperatives. In 2008, this became the Rwanda Cooperative Agency (RCA), which today provides the legal and administrative guidance that is rejuvenating the cooperative movement.
"With the onset of climate change, growing population pressure and hard economic times, our country was suffering from food insecurity just a few years ago.
But today, farmers who are working under cooperative organisations are producing enough to feed their families, and more for the market," said Gasirabo Claver of the Rwanda Development Organisation (RDO).
The RDO is a nongovernmental agency that works with the government and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to offer training and support to 122 cooperative organisations with a membership of 21,500 in four provinces.
The country is following in the footsteps of its neighbour Kenya, which boasts 15,000 registered cooperatives with over 12 million members.
Kenya is known for having the biggest and best -performing cooperative movement in Africa. According to government statistics, the savings it holds exceed Sh400 billion ($4.7 billion), accounting for 35 percent of the national total.
Through the RCA, which recognises cooperatives as legal entities, coop members in Rwanda - in most cases, smallholder farmers - can access loans from commercial banks and sell their produce collectively, says the RDO's Claver. That gives them better bargaining power, boosting their profits.
Mukasonga Mediatrice, a member of the Ejo Heza Cooperative in Nyagatare district in eastern Rwanda, said farming through cooperatives has helped the community fight poverty because they receive training in good agricultural practices and access to other amenities.
The U.N. World Food Programme has purchased maize stocks from Ejo Heza twice now because they are available in bulk, she added.
Since the formation of the RCA, over 4,000 cooperatives have been registered with a membership of over 2 million smallholder farmers, according to Mugabo Damien, the agency's director general.
"The cooperatives are a potential vehicle through which members have created employment and improved food security all over the country, and through which farmers are generating income," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Jeanette Mukamapenzi, a member of Kwamusiru Cooperative in Nyagatare, said her family previously harvested only 1 tonne of maize from their hectare of land.
"But after we were trained in how to use fertilisers, our harvests have increased more than four times, and our profits have also gone up," she said.
Mediatrice says she can now pay tuition fees for her daughter at university. By combining fertilisers and manure, and following the right agronomic practices, her maize yields have improved considerably, from less than 1 tonne per hectare to 4.5 tonnes.
"Though Rwanda has had her own share of predicaments, I believe one day we will tell a bigger story about cooperatives - like my brothers in Kenya," said the RDO's Claver.
Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist specialising in agriculture and environmental reporting: email@example.com