Growing Gains: Farmers’ Voices Rise in Rural Rwanda
Text & Photos by TR Lansner, Director, Social Accountability Media initiative, Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications
Nicodème Rugerimisare expertly shelled a small handful of mottled-red beans from a dense stand of plants about 40 meters uphill from a rough dirt road in Rwanda’s Southern Province, proffering them to the curious journalists surrounding him.
“These are the best,” he nodded with satisfaction. “These are the beans we will now grow.”
Rugerimisare, the Nyanza District Farmers’ Cooperative chairman, wasn’t just guessing; evidence was in hand. In October 2017, with advice from agriculture officials, his local cooperative sowed 57 bean varieties in this trial patch. Yields, and resilience to changing weather as the plants grew, he showed us, were precisely documented.
Rwanda’s farmers are required to negotiate official “performance contracts” (Imihigo in Kinyarwanda) with their district agricultural office. While performance contracts, which detail crop selection and inputs, are intended to recognize local conditions, they have too often defaulted to agronomists’ expertise rather than the considerable lived experience of cultivators on the ground.
In early 2017, Transparency International-Rwanda (TI-Rw) collaborated with two other civil society groups, Imbaraga (Federation of Farmers and Pastoralists of Rwanda), and SDA-IRIBA (Associations Development Service), both with long experience in rural development, to launch a pilot project to bridge this gap between farmers and officials tasked to support them. With a grant from the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability, TI-Rw set up a series of forums among farmers and officials in Kayonza District, Eastern Province, and Nyanza District, Southern Province. The aim was to help farmers proactively identify their priorities and needs, and to improve interaction with district agriculture specialists.
In mid-January 2018, 12 journalists and five TI-Rw and partner staff journeyed on a day-long trip to meet farmers engaged in the GPSA project in Nyanza District. The field visit followed three days of advocacy communications workshops for CSO representatives and media practitioners in Kigali led by the Social Accountability Media Initiative (SAMI), a project of the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications, supported by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) in association with GPSA.
“The field visit was very important for both journalists and farmers,” observed Francine Mukase, a journalist with Kigali-based PaxPress, which specializes in development issues. “It’s very important to see with our own eyes what we are going to talk about—we may trust what we hear, but it is necessary to verify. And when farmers meet journalists, they express themselves freely,” Mukase added. “They are assured that their voices will be heard.”
Charles Ndayisaba, a representative of a farmers’ cooperative Icyerecyezo (“Vision”) in Nyanza’s Busoro Sector, who joined TI-Rw-facilitated meetings in his home area, reflected on a new sense of empowerment: “We used to just wait for miracles,” he told visitors. “Now we discuss with officials what crop is best for us, and what inputs we need.”
District Agronomist Théogène Mugabonake agrees that improved communication with farmers he serves has quickly brought benefits in the form of larger harvests: “Now we choose together what will be planted,” Mugabonake told journalists who visited his office in Nyanza after speaking with cultivators. “Farmers now strongly influence our decisions.”
“When officials are organizing meeting in the agriculture sector, they now invite us and request that we come with farmers’ representatives to hear their voice,” said GPSA Project Manager in Nyanza District Théodose Mbonigaba, of SDA-IRIBA. “At the start of the project, farmers worried about criticizing local officials, but after several meetings with them, they do not.”
The project’s early positive results have already earned attention from the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), and could help farmers meet not only their annual performance contracts, but also longer-term goals of Rwanda’s Vision 2020.
“This project is building better relationships between officials and farmers,” said TI-RW GPSA Project Coordinator Nzeyimana Elie Makeba. “Technical assistance the government can offer is much more effective when farmers’ voices are heard from the start of the planning process”
The day after returning from Nyanza, the group joined other journalists, CSO staff, senior government officials from the Rwanda Governance Board, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Local Government, Office of the Ombudsman, and donor representatives at a tripartite “Voice Matters” Roundtable in Kigali. The meeting addressed how different sectors could build trust for collaborations that promote the basic goal of social accountability projects—greater citizen participation to monitor and improve governmental performance.
Speaking from his office in Washington, DC, GPSA Program Manager Jeff Thwinda noted that grass-roots engagement is a crucial element for the success of social accountability projects in the 25 countries where GPSA now works: “Community mobilization is energized when people learn that their own actions can help improve service delivery, and when they are armed with information to make clear demands for services to which they are entitled,” he said.
TI-Rwanda’s GPSA social accountability project continues through February 2022, but the group is already exploring opportunities to scale up to more of Rwanda’s 30 districts. The Social Accountability Media Initiative (SAMI) will also support further hands-on engagement for journalists in 2018 to report on the project’s social impact, and additional tripartite roundtables to promote social accountability.
“SAMI aims to build skills and partnerships that bring even the most marginalized citizens’ voices, such as those of the Rwandan farmers we visited in Nyanza, into debates of policy and practice,” stated its director, Thomas R Lansner. “Working with journalists who tell these people’s stories can provide a powerful megaphone for those voices.”
Nadège Nzeyimana, Transparency International-Rwanda Head of Communications contributed to this article.