Rwanda: Home-grown solutions to the scourge of malnutrition

Gardens for Health, Rwanda, malnutrition, food, Africa

Single mother of four Afisa ponders her new crops, being planted by Gardens for Health staff and volunteers

An empty packet of Nutty Butta swims in a murky puddle on Afisa’s hill-top, terraced farm in the Gasabo district of Rwanda, the packaging once held a specially produced nut-based energy bar – a short-term fix to at least one of her four children’s battle with malnutrition.

Today, hopefully, will mark phase one of a longer term solution to keep her family “nutritionally secure”. Help had arrived in the form of Gardens for Health, an NGO which aims to help poor Rwandans feed themselves nutritionally indefinitely.

Because while Nutty Butta, shipped all the way from New Jersey, can save the life of a malnourished child, and is ideal for refugee camps, it is not an adequate solution for the predicament of single mother Afisa.  Frustratingly, many of the ingredients found in emergency nutrition products such as this one (peanut-based and fortified with vitamins) can be grown on her farm.

“These products help in the immediate,” says Julie Carney, country director for Gardens for Health. “But if you are working in a population where half the malnourished people in Africa are farmers … when children return to the same conditions [undiversified, vitamin-deficient staple crops and no access to emergency food] they lose the weight again.”

One of Gardens for Health’s initiatives is to help set up balanced home gardens for families who have been blighted by malnutrition. And today the team has driven on rutted mud roads for one-and-a-half hours from its base just outside Rwanda’s capital Kigali to the misty, rainy mountain village of Omoodoogadoo.

Sunday Juntin, 29, community development programme manager for the project, translates Afisa’s story from the local language Kinyarwanda.

With a young child strapped to her back, she recounts how her husband abandoned the family, leaving her to tend to the small terraced farm and four young children by herself. Her timid eyes are downcast, as she shelters from the pummeling rain in the doorway of her modest (read very small) mud house.

Her land is ample enough to be able to provide food for her family, but her crops consist of beans and bananas, vitamin-rich leafy green vegetables and fruits demanded by four growing bodies conspicuous by their absence.

Her remote plot is an age away from the nearest market, even if she were able to sell any of her excess beans or bananas.

“If the people do get money they only buy ugali (cassava) because it’s cheap – it’s not easy to feed the siblings,” Afisa confides to Sunday. 

Molten puddles of manure spread around the farm suggest livestock, but there’s not a cow in view; Afisa ‘shares a cow’, with five other families, because she cannot afford to keep one herself. They are especially expensive to feed if the cow is to produce enough nutritious milk for her children.

Gardens for Health has been called in to intervene after one of Afisa’s children was deemed underweight and “really malnourished” by a local health centre. It is here to assess the potential of her land – and luckily it has some.  

“We’re giving agricultural training and we wanted to come to the field to see what the mama has on her land; she already got some food, she already got beans. So we are going to try to help her to grow some other different vegetables without destroying what she has already planted,” says Samwell, a local agronomist, sympathetically summing up the situation to the small group of staff, volunteers and neighbours gathered.

Today they have brought seeds and seedlings of orange trees, sweet potatoes, papayas, tree tomatoes, cabbages, beets and dodo (a nutritious green vegetable similar to spinach).

In the Gardens for Health programme, each farm receives three seasons’ worth of crops and support in how to prepare the food nutritionally. This means that the head of the household participates in cooking demonstrations and lessons for four months and then receives ‘ inputs’ [seeds and so-on] for her home garden for one year.

“One hundred per cent of the time it’s the mother; those are the ones that come to the trainings, the ones who are managing the home and taking care of the children,” says Julie.

There are around 100 families enrolled in the programme and the staff work with about 35-40 families per season. But this is not pure charity – the families have to do the hard work.

“We provide the inputs, the families do all the initiative,” says Julie. “Samwell [who knows many of the mothers personally] and other staff visit them at least five times to distribute the seeds, do basic surveys and basic training, depending on what the family needs.”

Julie insists the keys to nutrition are variety and support.   

“What we do is give choice. Families choose amongst the categories: green leafy vegetables, more leguminous crops, starches, fruit trees and market vegetables: beets, onions.”

“There are a lot of programmes all over Africa which do home gardens and provide seeds, but if someone gives some beets, cabbages and carrots and calls it a day it’s not going to sufficiently meet their nutritional needs. We are trying to research how you can meet nutritional needs in Rwanda over small spaces.”

“We are also trying to do a mobile application that shows if you have a certain land size what crops will give the variety to give nutrition.”

Epidemic HIV infection rates exacerbate the malnutrition crisis in this deprived area of Rwanda; several of Afisa’s neighbours and two of the workers today are HIV positive (all single mothers).

Malnourished people are more susceptible to HIV infection because their immune systems are compromised, a connection Gardens for Health used to focus on, stating that “malnutrition and HIV/AIDS must be addressed simultaneously”.

But the focus is shifting away from HIV-malnutrition connection to simply tackling the root cause of malnutrition, paralleling the Rwandan government ministry for health’s similar change in outlook.

“We’re transitioning to not practicing positive discrimination for people because they are HIV positive,” says Julie. “There’s so much HIV/AIDs funding into the country so it’s kind of messed up if you go to a health centre and there’s food aid for patients that are HIV positive and none for a child who’s severely malnourished but doesn’t have HIV. We leave it for the health centres to tell us who to work with.”

“It’s against the law to limit entry into these groups to those with HIV but a large percentage of them actually are.”

As the Gardens for Health team pack up the rains beats down even harder, but Afisa’s face is a little less downtrodden than before.

She says that in her whole life she has never met people who wanted to help her. She also promises to maintain her new garden.

Lucky, because once Gardens for Health have left it will once more be up to her to feed her four children. This time around, however, she has a little knowledge that means she is more likely to succeed.  

Steve Madgwick