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Climate-resilient farming success for Rwandan refugees and farmers

By Practical Action On 15.01.2024 FarmingBlog

Refugees and local farmers have joined forces to reduce hunger, earn a better living and stand up to climate change, through regenerative agriculture and solar-powered irrigation.

For two years, Practical Action staff in Rwanda have worked with both groups to address a series of climate change-related problems faced by the farming sector in the country.

The Climate Resilient Farming for Refugees project, supported by People’s Postcode Lottery players and Kilburn and Strode, brought together farmers and refugees living in or nearby Mahama Camp, home to nearly 58,000 people.

Laura Chow, Head of Charities at People’s Postcode Lottery, said: “Practical Action is helping farming communities in Rwanda and around the world build resilience in the face of climate change. It’s great to see support from our players helping farmers, through regenerative agriculture, develop climate-resilient crops year-round providing reliable income, independence and food security.”

A group of climate-resilient huts in a dirt field under a cloudy sky, housing Rwandan refugees turned farmers.

What were the issues farmer refugees were facing?

The land around the camp is shared between local farmers and refugees. Both communities were finding farming increasingly difficult, due to droughts and soil degradation – causing crops to fail and reducing productivity. Climate change is making droughts worse, and there were no trees to help retain nutrients in the soil.

Water was carried by refugee farmers in buckets up from the river to their crops up to 100 times a day, it was back breaking work that left them exhausted and unable to focus on other work, like reaching new markets, and farming more sustainably.

How farmers and refugees have adapted

Doubling profits at the market

Refugees had limited access and knowledge of markets and business development. We’ve worked with them to form cooperatives, with a strong five-year business plan in place. This means they can sell their produce at a much higher price. Refugee farmers used to sell their red peppers for around 200 Rwandan francs per kilo. Now they’re selling for 450 Rwandan francs per kilo, doubling their income.

A man standing in a field while a woman, holding a watering can, demonstrates climate-resilient farming techniques to Rwandan refugees and farmers.

Before the solar powered irrigation was in place.

Sun powered farming

Farmers in the area are highly reliant on rainfall for agriculture. Climate change means rains are more irregular and harder to plan around. Now, farmers have access to a solar-powered irrigation system, which pumps water up from the river. This saves time and provides a reliable water source all year round. The solar-powered irrigation system has inspired community members to think of other potential uses within the household.

Regenerative agriculture for a more sustainable future

Lack of trees and use of compost combined with heavy rain to produce an increasingly barren soil, which lacked nutrients needed for healthy crops. 80 farmers have trained in regenerative agriculture techniques and used this new knowledge to plant new saplings and make their own compost and organic fertiliser using waste from the camp. They are now growing a mix of lime, tomatoes, avocadoes, and calliandra!

A farmer kneeling down in front of a tomato plant performing climate-resilient farming techniques.

Outstanding relationships

The government has endorsed this project. At the launch event for the solar-powered irrigation in December, they announced 15 years of land use and water access. Normally, water access is tricky and takes an average of five years to be installed, but thanks to strong relationships, 15 years of water access will now be available for refugee and host communities. It is a brilliant achievement and one that will lead to long-term change for the farmers.

Denyse Umubyeyi, Country Director in Rwanda said “Camps are considered temporary settings, putting the lives of refugees on hold. But we know people who have been in the camp for almost 30 years.

On the day of the launch, the excitement came from the community members, they weren’t limiting their imagination of how they could use the solar irrigation system. Government officials a UNHCR authorities are exploring purifying it for drinking water and for use at a household level. And on top of that, the team managed to secure land authorisation from the government and water use for 15 years, leveraging this key relationship. This is the first solar powered irrigation system in Rwanda – and one of the first of its kind in a humanitarian setting around the world. We’re excited to see the positive impacts this will have for the community”

Richard grows hope from the ground up

A man standing in a field with the quote advocating for climate-resilient farming to support farmers and empower Rwandan refugees to become job creators instead of job seekers.

Richard might be a refugee, but he is a farmer first and foremost. After fleeing Burundi, he found himself living in the Mahama refugee camp in Rwanda. Reluctant to rely on handouts from the UN refugee agency, he started farming as soon as land became available.

But this is not an easy place to farm: a lack of raw materials and the long walk to the nearest water source were limiting his income. “To water your crops, you are walking over 24kms and carrying 360 litres each day”, he said.

After receiving training tools, and support from Practical Action, Richard now makes his own organic fertiliser and pesticides. He has become a model farmer and shares best practices with members of a local farming cooperative.

“I am proud of my knowledge of good agricultural practices,” he said. “I wish to see myself back in my country applying my knowledge on a larger plot of land. I see my future as bright.”

Working together for long-term impact

Yannick Ndoli, Project Coordinator, said: “To make agriculture sustainable, farmers must be able to make a profit in the first place. That is what we have been striving to achieve. Farmers are now working together in cooperatives. They’re building their own capacity in regenerative agriculture to increase their production with the planet in mind and increasing their resilience to climate change through solar-powered irrigation.

“Farmers are becoming more competitive in the marketplace, increasing their incomes, improving their livelihoods, and reducing hunger. By working in harmony with refugees and local farmers we have all been able to achieve all these. Special thanks to the players of the Postcode lottery and Kilburn & Strode for funding this project.”

Caelia Bryn-Jacobsen, Partner at Kilburn and Strode LLP, and Chair of its Innovation for All Fund said: “Everyone at Kilburn & Strode is proud to be part of helping bring long-term, sustainable positive benefit through the partnership of our charity Fund, Innovation for All, and Practical Action!

It’s fantastic to see such positive outcomes of this innovative project, for so many people in need, throughout the diverse wider community.”