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By Danielle Nierenberg and Jim Devries

From public-service announcements on television to billboards — it’s the motto for a place that just 15 years ago was torn apart by genocide. More than one million people were murdered in 1994 as ethnic strife turned neighbour against neighbour in one of the bloodiest civil wars in African history.

“Heifer is helping a recovery process,” explained Dr Dennis Karamuzi, a veterinarian and the programmes manager for Heifer International Rwanda. Heifer started its projects in Rwanda in 2000 in a community in Gicumbi District, about an hour outside of Kigali, the capital. This community was especially hard hit by the genocide because it’s close to the border with Uganda. Residents, who weren’t killed, fled to Kigali for safety.

In the years following the genocide, Gicumbi District is making a comeback thanks, in part, to Heifer International. Heifer works with farmers all over the world, helping them develop sustainable agriculture practices, including providing livestock and training farmers how to raise them.

Heifer’s start in Rwanda was a little rocky. At first the community was suspicious of the group — because they were giving farmers “very expensive cows” says Holindintwali Cyprien, one of the farmers trained by Heifer to raise dairy cows; they didn’t understand how the group could just give them away. Many community members thought that it was a plot by the government to have them raise livestock and then take them away, a remnant of the ethnic rivalry between the Hutus and Tutsis that started the conflict there in the 1990s.

But Heifer introduced a South African dairy breed, known for its high milk production, because, according to Dr Karamuzi, “no stock of good [dairy cow] genes” was left in the country after the genocide. And he says that these animals help prove “that even poor farmers can take care of high-producing cows”.

And these animals don’t only provide milk — which can be an important source of protein for the hungry — and income to families. They also provide manure, which is a source of fertiliser for crops and is now helping provide bio-gas for cooking to households raising cows in the country as part of a national bio-gas programme.

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Madame Helen Bahikwe, another farmer in Gicumbi District, began working with Heifer International in 2002. She now has five cows — and an excess of manure. With a subsidy from the government, Helen built a bio-gas collection tank, which allows her to use the methane from decomposing manure to cook for her 10-person family. She no longer has to collect or buy firewood, saving both time and money and protecting the environment. The fuel is also cleaner burning, eliminating the smoke that comes from other sources of fuel.

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Helen Bahikwe

Heifer is also helping farmers become teachers, training other Heifer partners. Holindintwali Cyprien hasn’t always been a farmer. After the genocide, he and his wife, Donatilla, were school teachers, making about $USD50 monthly. Living in a small house constructed of mud, without electricity or running water they were saving to buy a cow to help increase their income. But when Heifer International started working in Rwanda almost a decade ago, Cyprien and Donatilla were chosen as one of the first 93 farmers in the country to be Heifer partner families. Along with the gift of a cow, the family also received training and support from Heifer project coordinators.

Today, they’ve used their gift to not only increase their monthly income — they now make anywhere from $USD 300-600 a month — but also improved the family’s living conditions and nutrition. In addition to growing elephant grass and other fodder — one of Heifer’s requirements for receiving animals — for the 5 cows they currently own, Cyprien and Donatilla are also growing vegetables and keeping chickens. They’ve built a brick house and have electricity and are earning income by renting their other house.

Today, Cyprien is going back to his roots and making plans to teach again — this time to other farmers. He wants “the wider community to benefit from his experience”.

And Heifer’s work is now being recognised — and supported — by the Rwandan government. In 2008 the government instituted the One Cow Per Poor Household Programme, which aims to give the 257 000 of the poorest households in the country training and support to raise milk for home consumption.

But Heifer, says, Dr Karamuzi, is also building an exit strategy by connecting farmers to cooperatives, which can organise and train farmers themselves.

Jim Devries is the executive vice-president of programmes for Heifer International

Author

  • Danielle Nierenberg, a food and agriculture expert. She is co-founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank (www.FoodTank.org). Twitter: @DaniNierenberg.

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Danielle Nierenberg

Danielle Nierenberg, a food and agriculture expert. She is co-founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank (www.FoodTank.org). Twitter: @DaniNierenberg.

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