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Fighting poverty with heifers in Rwanda

Quality livestock supply milk, meat and manure (© Send a Cow)
Quality livestock supply milk, meat and manure
© Send a Cow

Three years ago, Catherine Nyiraromba could no longer afford to feed and provide for the basic needs of her three adopted children. A smallholder farmer from Kayonza, a district some 50 kilometres from the Rwandan capital Kigali, Nyiraromba joined a local association of poor smallholder farmers who were receiving cows from an NGO, Send a Cow Rwanda. Since receiving a cow, Nyiraromba says that the desperate situation she found herself in is a thing of the past. "I can now earn around US$300 a month from the sale of milk, which helps to feed the household and cover the costs of feeding and caring for my family," she says.

Send a Cow Rwanda's approach of providing families with quality livestock to supply milk, meat and manure has proved so successful that it has been adopted by the Rwandan Government. The aim of their 'One Cow Per Poor Family' policy is to provide good quality and suitable livestock to every poor family in the country by 2015, in collaboration with partners including Send a Cow Rwanda. Théogène Rutagwenda, director general of the Rwanda Animal Resources Development Authority, adds: "It is the expressed decision of the Rwandan Government to offer support to the poorest households across the country to raise milk for home consumption in order to fight malnutrition and generate income."

Pass it on

Farmers who receive a cow must pass on the first female calf to another neighbour (© Send a Cow)
Farmers who receive a cow must pass on the first female calf to another neighbour
© Send a Cow

When Nyiraromba was given a heifer, she was asked to pass on its calf to a neighbour who, she says' killed her family during the 1994 genocide. "It was unbelievable to me to accept sharing with someone who exterminated my family," she recalls, describing the worry and fear she experienced before sharing the cow. However, according to Rwandan officials, the approach of ensuring that farmers who receive a cow should pass on the first female calf to another needy neighbour not only fosters economic empowerment, but also promotes reconciliation. Since 2006, 75,000 cows have been distributed but, by encouraging families to pass on a calf, 106,000 families have now received an animal.

Send a Cow Rwanda also places a special focus on social development to help bring neighbours together. Nyiraromba explains how her neighbour helped her plant grass for her cattle, which began to ease her fears. "The cow has changed my life and it has given me a new hope," she adds. In addition to providing suitable animals, the organisation also provides training to help families boost crop yields and keep their animals healthy and productive. Much of Rwanda's livestock were destroyed during the 1994 genocide, reducing the supply of manure. Families are trained to make composted manure and, by improving soil fertility, they are able to grow more food. New techniques for growing grass and storing fodder are also taught.

Distribution difficulties

The government aims to provide good quality livestock to every poor family in the country (© Send a Cow)
The government aims to provide good quality livestock to every poor family in the country
© Send a Cow

Implementing the 'One Cow Per Poor Family' policy has not been without problems; according to Rwandan officials, the capacity of farmers to cater for the animals is a big challenge. "All vulnerable people want livestock because it is a quick way of fighting poverty," one official states. "Everyone wants to be rich but what happens if beneficiaries don't have the capacity to cater for the cows?" A shed for the animal and land designated for fodder are among the conditions for poor families to qualify for a heifer. "We are classified as vulnerable families, but there are not enough means to fulfil the required conditions to be eligible for a heifer," explains Cyriaque Barabeshya, a farmer from Muyira in southern Rwanda. To help families build sheds, however, a number of local community initiatives are providing assistance.

A lack of transparency has also been identified as a problem, leading the government to launch an investigation into alleged cases of nepotism in the distribution of the animals. "While some local administrative leaders get rich by benefiting their relatives during heifer livestock donations, people in several remote areas are left poor and aggrieved, without any other means to satisfy the basic needs of their family," observes a farmer from southern Rwanda.

Stricter guidelines

Advice is provided to families to help them grow and store fodder (© Send a Cow)
Advice is provided to families to help them grow and store fodder
© Send a Cow

To ensure that families in need benefit from the programme, the government has introduced stricter guidelines stating that local administrative leaders are not eligible to receive a heifer. Also a genetic improvement park has been established to provide insemination services cheaply and to advise farmers on good livestock farming practices. "With the use of artificial insemination, the production of heifers in remote areas will be significantly increased," says Daphrose Gahakwa, deputy director of research at the Rwanda Agriculture Board.

Despite the challenges faced by the project, Agnes Kalibata, Rwanda's Minister of Agriculture, identifies the initiative as a milestone towards achieving socio-economic development in a country where over 50 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. "With 'One Cow Per Poor Family', household income for some of Rwanda's poorest families will increase," she says. In 2012, the government is aiming to distribute 250,000 animals to poor families.

Written by: Aimable Twahirwa

Date published: February 2012


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