Over 3,000 members of the Rwandan Diaspora of North-America are expected to come together next week in Chicago to discuss and support the economic development that has been taking place in their country, 17 years after it was torn apart by a genocide that claimed at least 800,000 lives in 100 days. The guest of honor will be none other than Paul Kagame, the controversial president whose impressive record as a nation builder and a development champion rivals his reputation as a ruthless autocrat.
Paul Kagame has claimed to be inspired by the model and the achievements of the “Asian Tigers,” as he has been guiding his country out of poverty. In 2006, he unveiled Vision 2020, a national policy for development (Poverty Reduction Strategy, PRS) designed and implemented in collaboration with development partners and NGOs in order to eradicate extreme poverty by 2020. It is certainly worth noting that the progress recorded so far on the stability and business fronts has drawn comparisons to Singapore.
This is not to say that Rwanda is now all about shiny infrastructure and hi-tech companies. In fact, eighty percent of the Rwandan population depend on the land for their livelihoods. Most of them are smallholders who own, on average, less than 1.5 acres of farmland. Hence Paul Kagame’s decision to include in Vision 2020 an agricultural program designed to reduce malnutrition, boost food production and alleviate poverty: One Cow One Household (locally known as the Girinka Program).
The reasoning was simple: give a pregnant heifer to a poor rural household, on the condition that it can be cared for through zero-grazing (a model successfully used in Kenya, where the low-carrying capacity of the land does not permit free-range grazing); male calves can be sold or raised for meat, while females are donated to another eligible beneficiary. The milk provided by the household’s cow provides a reliable source of food, of income even, and the animal’s manure is used to fertilize the land, improving crop yield. Ultimately, the goal is to improve national food security in a country that is still heavily dependent on imports.
The Girinka Program targets 275,000 of the poorest households in the country, and has been supported by various NGOs, including Send A Cow and Heifer International. To this day, over 90,000 households have received their animal-savior.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI), beneficiaries typically transition from absolute poverty to self-sufficiency in 18 months after receiving a cow. Improved standards of living usually include access to electricity and running water. Through the village-based decentralized program, beneficiaries are learning not only about about animal husbandry, but also about pasture conservation, utilization of agriculture by-products and water management. Planting pastures on the edges of terraces has reduced soil erosion, while the tons of manure and grass bedding produced by each cow annually regenerates the soil. As a result, crop yields in Rwanda are increasing, further improving income and general living standards.
Finally, cooperatives have sprung up to share knowledge among cow owners, and support their access to market. Observers, such as the NGOs involved with the program, have reported on the remarkable way cows have become “rallying points of communal togetherness.” Not a bad side-benefit in a country ravaged by an inter-ethnic genocide whose perpetrators typically live side-by-side with their victims’ families.
This is not to say that the program has not run into serious hurdles. Last year, it was discovered that about 15,000 cows had not been handed over to the right beneficiaries. Rather than train and support poor households to reach the criteria for eligibility, as the program intends, many local leaders and wealthy families who already had the capacity to care for the heifers had assumed ownership of the animals. MINAGRI admitted then that the program had been poorly implemented, and that the government had not provided proper follow-up.
Since then, the Ministry has refined its strategy. As it turns out, many local leaders whose cows were confiscated, actually fell into the pool of eligible beneficiaries. About 1,600 of them are to be enrolled in the program and to receive their own animal.
The lesson for the rest of us? A powerful reminder that the creative answer to daunting, seemingly intractable issues often rests in something as low-tech, inexpensive and wholesome as welcoming and caring for the gift of Nature.