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Why Women Farmers in Rwanda Need to Lead the Conversation on Climate Action & Equity

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

Women farmers are the face of Rwanda’s agriculture, who bear disproportionate burdens of climate change. This small landlocked nation with the highest number of female parliamentarians in the world grasps the gendered realities of a changing climate on its smallholder women farmers.

Last year, a torrential downpour caused landslides in Rwanda leaving 18 dead overnight and spiralling the death toll from heavy rains to 200 in the first half of the year.  

Muntenema Rehema, President of the COODAKI Cooperative of small farmers in Kigali, witnessed the destruction firsthand. “We didn’t get much harvest...People lost their homes with the heavy rain. Some people died as their homes collapsed. Climate change has caused a lot of problems for farmers,” she said. 

Such stories abound for smallholder women farmers, who are the cornerstone of Rwanda’s agriculture. Over 70% of Rwandans engage in agriculture, with women in greater numbers. One of the ramifications of feminization of agriculture is the gendered impacts of climate change on women’s labor, health and livelihood and food security.  

“Majority of our farmers are women. Climate change affects them as they have multiple roles in their households,” said Dr. Charles Murekezi, Director General of Agriculture Development at the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources. This juggling of roles, includes care work, gathering fuelwood and sourcing drinking water for their families and fodder for livestock.  

Rwanda, called ‘the land of a thousand hills,’ has had a commendable reconstruction and rebuilding process since the genocide in 1994, which left nearly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead. Today, this small East African nation has positioned itself as innovative and trailblazing, with the highest number of women with political power in the world. Nearly 64% of parliamentarians in Rwanda are women. 

Yet, the everyday realities of women reflect challenges of entrenched gender norms and discrimination against women continues to be a lived reality of women farmers as well. “It’s true we have progressive policies, but social norms are difficult to change and are held dear by communities,” said Annette Mukiga, Director of Programs at Rwanda Women’s Network, a national civil society group promoting women’s rights. 

“Equality should be in practice, not just laws and policies. Women need to take the lead with innovations to address climate change and take into consideration their specific needs and considerations,” said Mukiga. 

Agriculture is the mainstay of Rwanda’s economy, employing over 70% of the population and contributing nearly a third to the country’s gross domestic product. Women farmers are the backbone of Rwanda’s agriculture, although the market for food and cash crops is largely controlled by men. 

The marshlands of Kigali are used to grow sweet potatoes, maize, sorghum and other vegetables. Heavy rains in April and May flooded their crops, destroying much of the harvest. “It used to not be like this. The weather is getting bad. Feeding my family was a big challenge, because we didn’t have enough harvest,” shared Chantal Mukamana, a widowed single mother of six.

Musabyimana Marie Hayden (front) is part of COODAKI Cooperative of small farmers. Her group receives livelihood and food security training from Aspire Rwanda, a nonprofit that empowers women and youth through skill building. “I received training on gender-based violence and learned how to save money. Many of the cultivators are women, so we must work to develop agriculture in our country,” she said.

Climate unpredictability has a detrimental impact on farmers in Rwanda, majority of whom are dependent on rainfall for irrigation. “It’s hard to depend on the seasons anymore. People are not prepared to tackle this issue, and they are concerned,” said Jackie Nyiramukwende, Project Manager at Rwanda Development Organization (RDO). The Rwandan government has implemented text message alerts with weather forecasts to subscribers on MTN Rwanda. Additional charges are applicable and the costs could be a challenge for women farmers to subscribe to the service.

Coffee is Rwanda’s coveted export crop. Twongere Umusaruro (translates as Increase Production) is a coffee cooperative of largely women in Kayonza District. Cooperative members shared that earlier this year heavy rains and hailstorms affected their coffee cherries. Magdalena Batamuriza, president of the cooperative, shared that she listens to weather updates on the radio. “We learn when the rain will come, and when it is time to plant the seeds,” she said.

Long dry spells also pose as a challenge for coffee farmers. Batamuriza shared that planting bananas could offer shade to their coffee trees. Higher temperatures can jeopardize coffee production in East Africa if pests and diseases spiral out of control.

 Women demonstrate the installation of clean cookstoves in Kigali at the offices of Rwanda Women’s Network. Firewood and charcoal are the primary source of energy for cooking and women are traditionally responsible for sourcing fuel wood. 

“Clean cookstoves decrease the use of charcoal, which destroys trees. They can be used in both rural and urban setup,” said Mukiga. Preventing environmental degradation is a key strategy for climate mitigation in hilly Rwanda, where soil erosion and land degradation can be disastrous for agricultural productivity.

Women and male farmers receive entrepreneurship and financial training from the staff of Aspire Rwanda. While women farmers are key food producers in Rwanda, they struggle to find market linkages and don’t receive the same financial benefits as men do, leaving many as subsistence farmers.

Mukakarera is a widow with eight children and a farmer in the village of Nyange in Eastern Rwanda. This village was seriously affected by drought in 2015 and 2016, leaving many hungry and desperate. Mukakarera has installed a rainwater harvesting tank in her home with the help of RDO, which she now uses to irrigate her vegetable garden and for her household needs. “This has reduced my workload to get water. I am growing vegetables here that feed my family,” she said.

Farmers are slowly reaping the benefits of rainwater harvesting projects in Nyange, where they are capturing rainwater from their rooftops and other overflow. “Before, rainwater was causing erosion and flowing away. Now the [tank] is helping us to irrigate maize and other vegetables,” shared a woman. Villagers contributed their labor to dig the ponds and RDO supplied them with dam sheets and offered technical training .

Women farmers have organized themselves into a cooperative to create and sell handicrafts, like bags, placemats and penholders. These are off-farm activities during the dry season to supplement their income. “If our harvest is not good, we can have additional income,” said one woman.

Mukiga of Rwanda Women’s Network asserts that true gender equality would reflect in the practical ways that men and women live. “This means having healthy relationships, working together. Women carry a lot of burden in relation to care work and agricultural work and that should be recognized and redistributed,” she said.

Dr. Gerardine Mukeshimana is the minister of agriculture and animal resources in Rwanda. “Women have been given big decision roles in our society and that’s something to be proud of. It inspires us to send our daughters to school. Maybe they will also reach high,” shared a woman farmer from the handicrafts cooperative. 

UN Women has launched a ‘Buy from Women’ pilot program in Rwanda to strengthen their access to markets that can move them beyond subsistence farming. This is a digital, mobile-based platform that offers information to farmers’ cooperatives on market prices and financial services, with RDO as one of its local partners.

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