Chickens and oyster mushrooms lift Rwandan farmers out of poverty

Chris Simoens
01 March 2019
After the 1994 genocide, Rwandan Zilipa Ngirabyago ended up in Belgium. Today she helps Rwandan farmers get an extra income. Here is her story.
Zilipa Ngirabyago

copyright OVO/Peter Mocker

 

Who?

Zilipa Ngirabyago, biologist and social entrepreneur

 

What?

Helping Rwandan farmers get an extra income by means of chickens and oyster mushrooms

 

Why?

Rwandan farmers have little land and many of them do not earn enough money to live a carefree life. An extra income and year-round work can lift them out of poverty.

During the genocide in 1994, I fled with my family from Rwanda to Ivory Coast. I had studied biology and worked in a laboratory for Coca Cola, which gave me the opportunity to work for them in Ivory Coast. But when war broke out there in 1999, we moved to Belgium.

We found a house in Asse and were convinced that local people would speak French,  but after their first day at school, the children said they had not understood a word. The next day, I accompanied them to school and learned that people spoke Dutch. But no worries, we adapted, and certainly for the children that did not pose any problem.

I was lucky to find a job in Belgium with Coca Cola Anderlecht and we found our place quite easily here, but of course you do not forget your country of origin. I soon started working out projects for Rwanda during weekends.

We found our place quite easily here, but of course you do not forget your country of origin. I soon started working out projects for Rwanda during weekends.

Water for female rice growers

In 2006, I started a project with the support of YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association), which in turn was financed by the Belgian Development Cooperation. YWCA organised training sessions for women of African origin in Belgium. We went through the entire project cycle, from identification and formulation to implementation and I had the opportunity to test the theory in southern Rwanda.

My aim was to help female rice growers there because, strangely enough, the women's fields yielded very little harvest. We discovered that the men diverted the irrigation channels to their own fields at night. As a result, the women's fields received far too little water! And the women did not dare to go outside at night for fear of being assaulted...

So we gathered men and women around an auxiliary fund and worked out a strict regulation for the use of water. The members of the group were only allowed to use the auxiliary fund if they respected the regulations. And it worked! The women got more water and better harvests.

This gave me the taste to carry out other projects. It did not matter to me that I had to pay part of the plane tickets myself. I used my days off to work on the project in Rwanda.

 

We discovered that the men diverted the irrigation channels to their own fields at night. As a result, the women's fields received far too little water!

The chicken laying golden eggs

For my next project (the chicken laying golden eggs), I received support from the municipality of Asse. I was lucky  it took place in the west of Rwanda, because there I could stay with my family, which made it all a bit cheaper.

In Rwanda, health insurance costs 3 euros per person per year, which makes 15 euros for a family with 3 children. That may not seem much, but it has to be paid in one go. Many people do not have that money and have to sell a goat, for example, which makes them lose a source of income. A vicious circle. How could I help them? As farmers in densely populated Rwanda have little land, I had to find something that does not require much land: chickens.

A group of 25 women received 12 laying hens. If they lay 8 eggs a day, the yield of 2 eggs goes to a common account. We also had a vet for one year to avoid problems caused by diseases. And indeed, in June - the payment month - the group managed to pay its contribution for health insurance! We had a nice party.

Other people were surprised to see these women could pay their health insurance and showed interest. That is how the project expanded. Meanwhile, 3400 families have already been able to pay their health insurance. District officials now want to repeat the project in other regions.

 

Meanwhile, 3400 families have already been able to pay their health insurance. District officials now want to repeat the project in other regions.

Oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds

Yet we cannot put all the eggs in one basket! So I looked for other ways to give small farmers an extra income. To my surprise, I found out that coffee farmers too were very poor. After all, coffee is Rwanda's main export product. The reason is that the coffee farmers can only harvest once a year, so they only get money once a year. They use it immediately to pay their debts, which forces them to borrow again since they cannot plant anything else on their piece of land where coffee bushes grow. Pyrethrum growers have a hard time too. Pyrethrum, another Rwandan export product, is a plant from which bio-insecticides are obtained, for example in Belgium (SC Johnson).

In Belgium, I learned how to grow oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds or waste products  from beer breweries, for example at Caffungi in Antwerp and at Le Champignon de Bruxelles in the Caves de Cureghem. Then I understood: that is also possible in Rwanda. Because both coffee farmers and pyrethrum growers are stuck with masses of waste products  they cannot deal with. The hard stems of the pyrethrum, which are very difficult to decompose, remain, while coffee farmers are left with the hard and utterly polluting shells that encase the coffee beans.

However, both the pyrethrum stems and the shells appear to be extremely suitable for growing oyster mushrooms. And what is more, after you have harvested the oyster mushrooms, a kind of compost is left behind which allows the grower to fertilise his land! Moreover, there is great demand for oyster mushrooms, even from the hotels in Rwanda, and the farmers enjoy them too. In other words, the sales are assured.

But if you want to grow oyster mushrooms, you need good quality spores. At Mycelia in Deinze, I learned how to produce them. In 2016, I tested the idea with 20 pyrethrum growers  and it worked out wonderfully well. Because there was so much demand, we soon expanded to 170 growers.

The advantage of mushrooms is that you need very little land: 2 m² are sufficient. You just grow them on different superimposed layers. With these 2 m² you can earn 3 euros a day all year round!

After the successful experiment with the pyrethrum growers, I wanted to extend the idea to coffee farmers. I dream of having 5000 coffee farmers grow oyster mushrooms. Therefore I need a smooth supply of solid spores. To do this, I want to set up a small company in Rwanda that can produce these spores.

 

 

The advantage of mushrooms is that you need very little land: 2 m² are sufficient. You just grow them on different superimposed layers. With these 2 m² you can earn 3 euros a day all year round!

A rack with growing oyster mushrooms.
© Zilipa Ngirabyago

Sustech4Africa

I submitted my plan to the Sustech4Africa competition, organised by Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs. I even became a laureate there. Thanks to Sustech4Africa, I learned a lot about business plans and financial management. I have also realised that it is best for me to consider my small spore-producing company as a social enterprise. In addition, I would like to have one distributor per village who can also buy up the oyster mushrooms. At the moment the whole project is ready, I am only looking for financing, probably via a loan. I do have some support from the province of Flemish Brabant.

Finally, I would also like to involve the Belgian coffee roasting companies in the project. Then the chain would be complete! I think that the coffee roasting companies should know how these coffee beans are grown. And maybe some of their employees will be able to visit the project and offer some help, for example as IT specialists.

Where do I find the time? I quit my full-time job at Coca Cola in 2016. I currently work half-time as an educational staff member for the  Active Intercultural Federation, an organisation helping people of foreign origin living in Belgium to organise small-scale projects in their country of origin. My half-time job leaves me sufficient time to work on my mushroom project.

And that is a great feeling. I love living in Belgium, but I love Rwanda too. I need them both! Thanks to my project I remain involved in my country of origin. I hope lots of farmers will benefit from this.

 

Rwandan female farmer shows a bag of coffee and oyster mushrooms.
© Zilipa Ngirabyago
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