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Rwandan farmers brace for climate change on their deceivingly lush lands

Story Food systems
Rwanda -

Rwanda has been trying to shake off the yoke of its dark history of genocide for decades. Successfully so. The streets in the capital Kigali are spotless, the country is safe and welcomes travellers from all over the world, and its economy has emerged as one of the great African success stories. In Rwanda the air shimmers with hope and optimism. But as in many African countries, climate change is throwing a spanner in the works.

Particularly in the eastern part of the country, farmers are experiencing serious challenges due to years of drought or excessive rainfall. When a harvest fails, they lose a year’s income. Not to mention the concerns for food insecurity when the yield remains disappointing for too long.

Worrying predictions

Experts predict that climate change will have increasingly serious consequences for Rwanda in the coming years. Temperatures continue to rise and precipitation patterns become more unpredictable.

In addition, densely populated Rwanda has little unspoiled nature left. Most of the land is intended for farming and 70% of the population is engaged in agriculture.

Landscape and rice fields in Rwanda's Eastern Province.
Climate change is threatening the lush Rwandan landscape. According to the Rwandan Ministry of Environment, average rainfall will increase by 5% to 10% by 2030. Temperatures have risen by 2.6 degrees Celsius over the last fifty years and are expected to rise another 2.5 degrees by 2050. The rise in temperature increases evaporation, rendering the soil too dry for agriculture.

The vagaries of nature

Many Rwandan farmers do not have access to modern equipment and depend on the mercy of the elements and the vagaries of nature. The predictability of the seasons has always been their most important tool. Now they’ve lost that.

Despite the country’s many efforts to mitigate and adapt to the consequences of climate change, more action is needed. Various projects of Cordaid in Rwanda build further on the results of those efforts and help create sustainable solutions.

Transforming through Adaptation

The Transforming Eastern Province through Adaptation programme supports 260,000 people with access to climate-resilient investments and restores 60,000 hectares of degraded landscapes.

The project is a six-year collaboration between Cordaid, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Rwandan Ministry of Environment, the Rwanda Forestry Authority (RFA), and the Green Climate Fund (GCF).

Rwandan maize farmers harvesting their crops.
Cooperative members in Kayonza harvesting their maize.

With a dull blow of her machete, Boniflide Mukatabaruka slashes into the thick stalks. It’s about thirty degrees, but she’s wearing a light brown winter coat with a fur collar and she has a woollen scarf wrapped around her head. Miraculously, only a single drop of sweat trickles down her forehead as she skilfully makes her way through the dense forest that covers her field.

This was a good year.

And today is one of the most important days of the year. All members of the farmers’ cooperative have come together to harvest their maize.

She may be one of the younger women in the group, but she oversees the work like a true leader. In addition to being the mother of three children, 38-year-old Boniflide is also the head of a cooperative in the Kayonza district, with nine female members and thirteen men.

“Climate change solutions and business opportunities can go hand in hand. The right investments can enable farmers to adapt their businesses so that the climate will no longer be a threat.”

A catastrophic year

She has been working on her land for twenty years and saw the unpredictability of the seasons gradually increasing. The worst drought hit the area in 2016 and Boniflide vividly remembers one of the most stressful periods in her life.

‘The sun was so intense, it started to become a big problem’, she says in the shade of her barn. ‘We didn’t know how to adapt to the changes. And as a cooperative, we were not sufficiently effective. How to best distribute the seeds? What is the right amount of fertiliser? Which maize varieties work best on our land? We had no idea.’

Rwandan maize farmer.
Boniflide Mukatabaruka, a maize farmer in Rwanda’s Eastern Province and head of a cooperative in Kayonza.

After that catastrophic year, Cordaid started collaborating with local microfinance institutions to mitigate the situation and organised a multi-annual programme with several goals: making farmers more resilient to climate change, guaranteeing food for the population and restoring nature.

The programme staff train the participants and put them in touch with the finance institutions. The investors, in turn, are trained to develop special financial products for small-scale farmers. This gives them easier access to loans that allow them to purchase the necessary equipment to make their business future- and climate-proof, such as solar-powered irrigation systems.

Adapt to new challenges

‘For this to succeed, they must work together in cooperatives’, project leader Victoire Umutesi explains. ‘As a cooperative, they can negotiate better prices for the inputs, such as seeds, fertilisers and pesticides and the sale of their harvest. They work together on the land, support each other during the harvest, increase their production and gain a better position in the market.’

Cordaid project leader in Kigali, Rwanda.
Victoire Umutesi, leader of the project Transforming Eastern Province through Adaptation.

Savings groups are another essential part of the project. The cooperative members pool money and Cordaid teaches them how to manage their funds best. The farmers also plant fruit trees to compensate for CO2 emissions and at the same time generate new income for their cooperatives and households.


Also in Rwanda, the old aphorism ‘Give someone a fish and they eat for a day; teach them how to fish and they eat for a lifetime’ is well-known. ‘And this certainly applies to this project’, says Umutesi. ‘Thanks to the savings groups, farmers can overcome a disappointing harvest. At the same time, they can show the finance institutions that they have enough reserves, which lowers the threshold for more investments. We ensure a sustainable relationship between the cooperatives and the investors so that ultimately, they no longer depend on organisations like Cordaid.’

Watch this video about the Transforming Eastern Province through Adaptation programme:

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An hour’s drive from Boniflide’s field, on one of the thousands of hills the lush Rwandan landscape is famous for, the members of another cooperative have come together for a training session.

In a classroom with a panoramic view of Lake Muhazi, Alice Mukamurangwa teaches some fifty farmers about the importance of good financial management and smart investments. Alice looks sternly through her glasses, emphasising her words firmly. The excitement of the participants ripples through the room. After all, this information can change their lives.


‘Some of them are angry with themselves’, Alice says, after the participants have broken up into smaller groups to carry out practical assignments. ‘They believe they haven’t done enough to make themselves resilient to climate change. It’s not that they weren’t aware of the challenges, but they were sceptical of the solutions. Many farmers have made investments that didn’t help. We work with them to find out what they need.’

Rwandan farmers at a training for climate-resilient investments.
Alice Mukamurangwa (standing) assisting at one of the break-out sessions during the training.

Even though Alice is concerned about the – figurative – dark clouds hanging over the region, she remains optimistic. ‘Climate change solutions and business opportunities can go hand in hand. The right investments can enable people to adapt their businesses so that the climate will no longer be a threat.’

“At first, our cooperative wouldn’t yield more than three tonnes of maize per season. Now, we expect to get between 15 and 20 tonnes. On the same size of land!”

Digital innovation

Private Dukundimana is also present at the training. He is a value chain expert for Cordaid in Rwanda and is involved in the programme’s digital innovation.

‘The rainy season was good this year’, he says, as he gazes over the endless green slopes. ‘The previous years were different. The solar-powered irrigation systems were a good solution. The sun used to be the problem, but now it has become a tool. On top of that, we want to increase the entrepreneurial spirit in the community. We want farmers to become professional entrepreneurs who not only work the land to feed their own families but sell their produce on the market.’

A value chaine expert for Cordaid in Rwanda.
Private Dukundimana, value chain expert for Cordaid in Rwanda.

According to Private, making the farmers acquainted with new, digital tools is indispensable for improving their livelihoods. ‘We can support many of them through training, but we will reach many more via their smartphones. We send them important information and tips about how to deal with climate change, how you can still get a good harvest in times of drought and successfully reach the market.’

More accessible for women

‘Digitalisation is also a good way to make information more accessible to women’, Victoire Umutesi adds from the Cordaid office in Kigali. ‘Women who work in the field and also take care of their families often do not have time to attend training or visit microfinance institutions to request a loan. They can now attend the sessions online and manage their finances from home. That is great progress.’

In the meantime, the hard work on Boniflide’s land is progressing well. The heap of cobs is growing by the second and the cooperative members work around the clock in the scorching sun to get all the maize to the barn.

Rwandan maize farmers.
Boniflide Mukatabaruka in her barn, where the harvested maize is put to dry.

There, Boniflide talks about the relief she experiences now that she, her family and her colleagues again dare to face the future confidently. ‘We are now much stronger as a cooperative because we work well with the financial institutions. At first, our cooperative wouldn’t yield more than three tonnes of maize per season. Now, we expect to get between 15 and 20 tonnes. On the same size of land. We have made a lot of progress. We can pay the school fees for our children and insure ourselves against illness and loss of income. I’m sure climate change won’t hurt us so much anymore.’

Text and images by Mickael Franci, corporate editor at the Cordaid Global Office.