Girinka: How a simple cow gives hope to many Rwandan families

Maria Uzamukunda, 45, a resident of Kamonyi district of Southern Province, says she has been improving her family livelihoods significantly thanks to a cow she got few years back.

cowThe mother of two used to have no house, but managed to get her own decent house, pro¬vide her school-going children with all basic needs and now cover her family’s health insurance among other needs.

What is more interesting to know is that the woman, who became widow following the 1994 genocide against Tutsi, didn’t buy the cow, but she got it from her neighbor free of charge. The widow also has already given the first female calf to her neighbor poor. And so forth.

In other words, Uzamukunda is among beneficiaries of Girinka [loosely translated as ‘may you own a cow’] initiative that is playing a great role in alleviating poverty, improving nutrition while increasing income for poor families in rural Rwanda since its inception in 2006.

Evidently the initiative has contributed to an increase in agricultural production in Rwanda, especially milk products. For instance, between 2009 and 2011, national milk production increased by 11.3%, rising to 372.6 million litres from 334.7 million litres. Over the same period, meat production increased by 9.9%, according to the Government of Rwanda Annual Report 2010-2011.

Given that FAO has dedicated this year to Family farming, which is defined as a means of organizing agricultural, forestry, fisheries, pastoral and aquaculture production which is managed and operated by a family and predominantly reliant on family labour, I really do believe that such a home-grown solution (Girinka) is a good example of how African countries can translate the FAO theories into tangible actions.

For instance, thanks to the initiative, I can see that most beneficiaries here produce enough milk to sell some at market, providing additional income generation. Recent statistics revealed that milk emerged the main source of export revenues during the fourth quarter of 2013, surpassing coffee, the country’s traditional major foreign exchange earner, for the first time.

The manure produced by the cows also increases crop productivity, allowing beneficiaries to plant crops offering sustenance and employment as well as a stable income. Due to fact that an average of farmland for a household in Rwanda is around 0.59 ha, the cows allow Rwandan smallholder farmers to get maximum production out of their tiny farmlands.

Watch UNICEF video on Girinka Rwanda

Even though I can’t estimate the percentage, but the initiative is also believed to have certainly played a part in reducing the level of malnutrition across the population, as well as among children under five. According to the Demographic Health Survey of 2010, the percentage of stunted children fell from 51% in 2005, to 44% in 2010, the percentage of wasted children fell from five percent to three percent and the percentage of underweight children fell from 18% to 11%.

Reconciliation and Unity

Obviously Girinka is playing a significant role in post-genocide reconstruction in Rwanda. The ‘pass on’ component of Girinka, whereby a recipient gifts the first born calf to a neighbour, has helped to rebuild social relationships destroyed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. This is because the giving of a cow to someone or ‘Gutanga Inka’, translated as ‘sealing a bond of friendship’ remains a cultural practice owned, understood and valued by Rwandans since ancient times.

According to the Rwanda Agricultural Board, the total number of cows distributed since the program’s inception is 180,447 (as of October 2013). Of these, approximately 35,000 were ‘pass on’ cows whereby a beneficiary is obliged to give the first born female calf to another selected beneficiary in the community, often a neighbour.

I do believe that the philosophy behind using a single cow to enable many people of a neighborhood to own cows through ‘pass on’ practice can impact significantly on millions of our farmers in many socio-economic perspectives.

However, it’s important to note that Girinka might be working with successes in Rwanda – and it might not perform alike in another country simply because keeping a cow is in Rwandans’ cultural tradition. But the ultimate lesson to policymakers across the continent should be to go back to their cultural traditions and see what can be modernized and work their way to help fast tracking their policy implementations; thus empowering their people who are mostly farmers.


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