Prince Murekezi lives in Musebeya, a small village nestled in the mountainous district of Nyamagabe in Southern Rwanda. He dropped out of school in primary 4 level when his parents were unable to pay for his meals and school fees, forcing him to take to the streets of nearby Rubondo livestock market where he worked odd jobs.
When he was in school, Murekezi would walk for nearly four hours up a steep gravel road that winds its way through the imposing Nyamagabe mountain, to get home from school in the evening. He was one of many children in this remote rural area who dropped out of school because they could not get food at school after traveling long distances.
According to Nyamagabe district officials, a lack of food in many vulnerable households has led to many children resorting to undesirable coping mechanisms, such as child labour which led to increased school drop-out rates. In a move to help disadvantaged children at risk of dropping out of school, Rwanda adopted a school feeding programme targeting mostly areas vulnerable to food insecurity, which was as a result of factors such as, irregular rainfall, drought, floods and limited land for agriculture.
Murekezi, is pleased to be going back to school, like many other children in similar circumstances, because it provides him with the opportunity to receive an education and also eat a hot meal. "I am more motivated than ever because I will walk long distances knowing that when I get to school there is a meal," he said.
Keeping children in school
According to the Rwandan government, the Home-Grown School Feeding Programme (HGSFP) is specifically aimed at improving school enrolment and attendance, reducing the number of out-of-school children, and improving the nutritional well-being of the students who benefit from it.
Official estimates show that when the school feeding programme was expanded to pre-primary, primary, and secondary school children in 2021, over 3,500,000 students had access to the school feeding programme that served one square meal.
Latest estimates by the World Food Programme (WFP) reveal that through the Home-grown School Feeding Programme, nutritious school meals are currently being provided in 140 schools in Rwanda.
Students are served a daily hot lunch of fortified wholegrain maize, which is high in fibre, protein, iron and vitamins, and is served with vegetables and beans, while hot porridge is also provided in some remote rural districts across the country. Smallholder farmers supply fresh produce to the schools which benefits the local economy.
Each school has a school feeding committee comprised of parents, students, and headteachers. This committee decides on the food menu based on available funds and the location of the school.
Divine Uwineza, Director of School Feeding at the Ministry of Education in Kigali explained that the initiative went beyond simply feeding the underprivileged children. One of its main goals was to reduce all challenges that could affect the students' overall performance.
While humanitarian efforts have helped to reduce the number of malnourished children across the country, officials recommend implementing a home-grown approach as a long-term solution to hunger. According to official estimates, 32.4% of children under the age of five in Rwanda suffer from chronic malnutrition. Severe acute malnutrition is the most extreme and visible form of malnutrition in Rwanda.
Home grown solution
In 2022, the Rwandan government began providing Rwf56 ($ 0.050 USD) while parents contribute Rwf94 ($ 0.085 USD) per meal for students in public, and government-aided primary and secondary schools. This is because "families already struggling to feed themselves need support to keep their children in school," according to Uwineza.
The Rwandan Government has been supported by different multilateral stakeholders to develop the National School Feeding Strategy and a financing strategy in the ongoing implementation of the home-grown school feeding programme.
School meals are regarded by both parents and officials as critical in ensuring children's nutrition, growth, and development, they also serve as a strong incentive for children -- particularly girls and those from the poorest and most marginalised communities -- to remain in school.
Vedaste Murwanashyaka, a parent from Mushubi, a mountainous village in Nyamagabe, is pleased with the launch of the HGSFP, which enabled his children to receive supplementary food in the school. "I am very happy with the programme and my children get free meals in the school," he said. The 52-year-old small-scale farmer described the programme as critical to keeping students in school and reducing dropouts.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has been supporting the Rwandan government to adapt the existing school meals programme, since it was launched in October 2021. Access to nutritious foods is a key component of the government's priority to reduce malnutrition rates in the country from 32.4 percent to 20 percent by 2030.
Diversification of nutrition
For some children, attending school is not just an opportunity to learn, but also their only chance to eat, and most likely their only meal of the day. Nine-year-old Salomon Shyaka, a resident of Musebeya, a remote rural village in Southern Rwanda is one of the many children benefiting from the HGSFP which is being implemented in low-income communities in Rwanda. Shyaka, like many other children is happy to be in school again because he can now get hot meals as well as access to education.
Elie Mazimpaka, head-teacher at Sekera Primary school in Southern Rwanda, said the HGSFP has been beneficial in promoting healthy growth and development among children. Furthermore, it has also enhanced their concentration and academic performance, while simultaneously increasing their energy levels.
However, he emphasised the need to ensure nutrition diversification, in order to ensure that the farmers who supply ingredients can further benefit adequately from the initiative. "There are still some challenges associated with the provision of appropriate meals," Mazimpaka said.
Drawing on the home-grown food strategy, the Rwandan Government is currently considering linking school feeding programmes with local smallholder farmers in order to provide millions of schoolchildren with local food that is safe, diverse and nutritious. "This is key to empower local food suppliers and vendors by creating a ready market for produce," said Edith Heines, WFP country representative in Rwanda.
Rwanda's food security situation has worsened, with statistics from the 2022 Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis (CFSVA) showing that only 19.5 percent of children aged between 6 to 23 months receive a minimum acceptable diet. According to the findings, Rwanda's food security situation deteriorated by 2 percent in comparison to 2018. Official figures show that as of 2022, 20.6 percent of the population in Rwanda struggle with food insecurity.
"The programme provides an incentive for the children to attend school, but these feeding schemes are not a solution to the food security crisis affecting the country," said Alex Ntaganda a nutrition expert based in Kigali.
Despite the effective implementation of the school feeding programme, some nutrition experts criticise it for focusing solely on schools and largely ignoring poor households, where the real problem lies.