Flora Uwera, a milk dealer and dairy farmer from Gicumbi District in the Northern Province, was just like any other village woman about 10 years ago. But today Uwera owns Blessed Dairies, a milk collecting firm.
Uwera, a resident of Byumba sector, never had a steady income stream until she was given a heifer under the government Girinka programme in 2006.
Presently, Uwera has five exotic cows, from which she gets 30 litres of milk per day, earning Rwf800,000 a month. She also works as a milk collector in Rukomo sector, thanks to a programme by the Food and Agricuture Organisation (FAO) that started interventions aimed at helping Gicumbi residents and dairy farmers to get steady markets for their produce. She says when FAO started operations in the district, it organised dairy farmers under one umbrella group, Ihuza Aborozi ba Kijyambere Bafatanyije Co-operative (IAKIB). Prior to the formation of the co-operative, farmers had no sustainable market for their milk and would at times dump the excess milk the families would not consume.
"I do not know how I could have managed without the co-operative as I used to dump 20 litres almost daily. I was not benefitting from my cows," she says.
According to Gicumbi district officials, 78 per cent of the residents depend on cattle to earn a living, thanks to the Girinka programme. The co-operative brings together 700 cattle keepers.
"We would walk for about five hours to Byumba trading centre to sell our milk for peanuts. Those who would refuse to sell at give away prices would use it for home consumption," says Agnes Ngiruwonsaga, a farmer and president of IAKIB. The milk co-operative, which is located in Byumba sector, has five other milk collection centres across the district.
"Since we formed the group, we are able to secure ready and sustainable markets and, presently,we supply Inyange Industries," she says.
Dacien Twine, the manager of IAKIB, says dairy farmers were losing money as what they earned was very low compared to the cost incurred in caring for cattle. "The most affected were women who benefited from the Girinka programme as they were never paid on time," he says, adding that the majority in the co-operative are also women.
The co-operative collects over 65,000 litres of milk per day and supplyies Inyange Industries and Kigali residents and hotels.
IAKIB has set up six milk collection centres in Rukomo, Byumba, Manyagiro, Cyumba and Rushaki sectors.
Uwera is like a piston in the co-operative as she collects milk from farmers in her locality and delivers it to collection points where there are cooling facilities.
She says because of hard work, she was given 10 bicycles by the FAO project to transport milk to collection centres.
Uwera says she employs 10 women in her business besides other workers. She adds that the milk dealership has enabled her to have a sustainable source of income, noting that "most of my dreams have come to pass. I pay school fees for all my children. I have also built a house worth Rwf10m.
For her efforts, Uwera was last year awarded for exemplary performance and being a role model for other farmers.
Milton Ngirente was always a 'dreamer', who envisioned the day he would own a yoghurt-making plant. Ngirente says he was helped by the co-operative to study food processing and now owns a firm that makes yoghurt, cheese and fresh cream. He said the factory employs youth from the area.
Since 2008, the Food and Agriculture Organisation has supported the farmers in terms of capacity building, providing them milk processing plants, milk cans and milk coolers and cooler trucks..
The UN agency plans to give the co-operative a cooler truck to ease milk transportation and help avoid contamination.
The Girinka programme targets poor households which are given high breed heifers to improve people's nutrition and reduce poverty among the masses.
Most of the beneficiaries almost had no other sustainable source of income and the dairy cows are their main source of income.
Over 177,200 families have already benefited from the programme, dairy farmers in Gicumbi District inclusive.