27 February 1998

Aid helps Rwandans to

rebuild their farming

Food aid is often necessary

to help people survive

emergencies such as

conflicts and droughts.

But farmers too may need

emergency assistance.

Geoff Tansey recently

visited Rwanda and Burundi

to see how farmers were

surviving the desperate

conflicts that have riven

these two countries

BEFORE I went, Rwanda conjured up TV images of death and refugee camps from 1994, when over 800,000 people were killed and many more fled in a genocidal conflict that devastated the country.

Now, nearly all the refugees are back in Rwanda, although there is still fighting in some areas. In the last year, food requirements went up dramatically when around one-and-a-half million refugees – thats almost a quarter of the population – returned to what is a beautiful country of great rolling hills rising thousands of feet. The place is just a bit bigger than Wales and nearly every bit of available land is farmed.

Most Rwandans are subsistence farmers – over 85% of the population live off the land and they are having to rebuild their farming. What is surprising is the apparent air of normality and how far they have got after such a tragedy.

The Rwandese grow some of the most beautiful beans in the world. At Ngendas bustling market in south east Rwanda, women sell piles of the purple, yellow, red, black and white, red and white mottled beans that are the main source of protein. Others have tomatoes, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbages, and onions for sale.

For agronomist Jean Marie Byakwele and aid worker Jean Francois Gascon, it is visible proof that their work supplying seed and tools to help re-establish farming after the war and genocide of 1994 is bearing fruit.

A few kilometres away, in a marshy valley bottom, 65-year-old Francois Rutebuka is busy hoeing between some cabbages. Here, 100 farmers have formed an association called Dukunda Mahdro – "We love peace" – to farm some marshland communally. They sell the crops, bank the money and make loans to members of the association, he said.

He has been using seeds and a hoe supplied through the large farmer aid programme run by the quietly-spoken but determined Mr Gascon, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisations emergency agricultural operations co-ordinator in Rwanda. Various donors have spent nearly $11m on providing seeds and tools since 1994.

Over 430,000 families, some 2.1m people or nearly 30% of the population, needed seeds and tools for the last season of 1997 according to the censuses carried out in the countrys communes.

A key aim is to get farmers producing food to reduce the need for food aid – which ran to 110,000t in the first six months of 1997.

A major problem, however, for those trying to support farming in complex emergencies like that in Rwanda is the inflexibility of aid money. It is available for emergencies when victims are shown in the media, says James Hoopper, agricultural manager of World Vision International in Rwanda since September 1994.

"What we would like is for donors to provide longer term funding – not 3-4 months but 2-3 years to allow rehabilitation," he said.

Unfortunately, once the media images fade, money is hard to get. The way donors are organised is often a problem because they tend to have separate departments for emergencies and development. The emergency people can usually act quickly, while development people often have long planning times of a year or more and assume there is stability, neither of which is appropriate in long running, complex emergency situations, according to Alison Burden of Christian Aid.

In south-east Rwanda, where the genocide had a huge impact, much land has gone out of cultivation as the families that worked it were wiped out and their houses destroyed. Driving north from Ngenda to Nyamata in Kanzenze prefecture, there are neglected coffee plantations, empty fields, compounds where the houses have been razed to the ground and stretches of road where you hardly see a soul, unlike in the populous highlands in the south.

Some 30,000 people were killed at Nyamata, said the local agronomist since 1970 and genocide survivor, Valens Bicamwigugu. The local population fell from 114,000 to 63,000, and many of them are returned refugees, he explained.

Most animals were killed for food during the war so farmers have lost their major source of fertiliser, says James Hoopper. His team have done some animal restocking but there is a long way to go before numbers are built up again.

Without animals, farmers have also lost a major asset that can be sold when food is short. This has made households more vulnerable to hunger.

Despite the economic benefits from growing more food in the country in reducing food aid needs, there was a $1.5m shortfall out of a $6.4m seed and tools aid package for Rwandas poorest farmers for the last planting season, says Jean Francois Gascon. That season should have started in mid-Sept 1997 but was about a month late due to late rains. A further $6m is needed for the season due to begin early in 1998.

Dry season lifeline

For Francois Rutebuka, and many like him throughout this intensively cultivated "country of a thousand hills", the crops grown in marshy valley bottoms during the short, dry season from July to September, have been a lifeline between the long and short rain-fed seasons, from February to June and September to December respectively.

Francois Musoni and his neighbours have been using valley bottom land that once grew sugar cane for a now disused sugar factory in north-west Rwanda to grow food crops. The mixed varieties of multicoloured beans he plants spread the risk of losing the crop due to too dry or wet conditions, although different mixtures of beans are used for the valley bottom and rain-fed hillsides.

Today, many farm households are headed by women after the war. Apart from those killed, many men are imprisoned suspected of taking part in the genocide. And for those in local gaols it is up to their wives to feed them.

Xaverine Nyiramiruho was one of dozens of women hoeing small plots in a valley in central Rwanda near the town of Gitarama. Her husband is in gaol. She used to grow vegetables and take them to Kigali to sell but was busy trying to plant sweet potatoes. About 95% of the people working in the valley, including the digging of over 2000m of main irrigation channels along the side, are women, according to irrigation engineer Bangoura Sourakata. This is part of an aid-financed irrigation development system.

Although it will take more than a few seasons of seeds and tools to overcome the legacy of 1994, they are an essential step if one pressure on Rwanda – food shortage – is to be removed and its farmers rehabilitated.

Above: Irrigation drainage channel near Gitarama, Rwanda. It is nearly 2000m long and was dug mainly by women. Right: A womens agricultural training plot near Kigale. Below:This valley used to grow sugar cane for a now disused sugar factory.

Above: Multi-coloured beans on sale at Ngenda market are an important source of protein.