Restoring Rwanda's Landscape and Livelihoods: World Vision's FLR Project
This blog provides a good example of the interconnectedness and interdependencies of environmental stewardship and the longer-term competitiveness of agricultural market systems. Specifically, trees often provide structural support and diversified incomes for farmers, but historical farming practices typically encouraged farmers to cut down trees as a way to increase land size to increase production, as opposed to improving practice. This, as the blog points, lead to soil degradation and even lower yields over time. The case also points out the importance of looking for attractors, or emergent changes in the system that are gaining momentum and signalling that market actors are attracted or favour this change. In this case, the project realized that farmers wanted to have more trees, but the market system had not yet picked up on this signal. By helping SME nurseries to form and grow in ways that added value to their farmer customers, more trees started to get planted leading to better outcomes in terms of environment, household resilience, farmer incomes, etc.
Rwanda is known as the "Land of a Thousand Hills". 95% of its cultivable land is engaged in rain-fed agriculture, heavily reliant on limited natural resources - particularly the country's forests. Rwanda has grappled with the consequences of deforestation, soil erosion, and a loss of biodiversity. It is one of Africa's most densely populated countries. These environmental issues have led to declining agricultural productivity, contributing to food insecurity and alarmingly high malnutrition rates. Responding to these challenges, World Vision's 'Forest Landscape Restoration for Improved Livelihoods in Rwanda (FLR) Project,' supported by the Australian Government, in 2017 started its journey to restore landscapes, boost food security, and enhance the income of over 11,000 smallholder farmers. The project implemented a combination of integrated strategies, such as agroforestry, financial inclusivity, and gender-responsive methods, to establish the necessary conditions for the success of cooperative-based social enterprises.
The market assessment identified a high latent demand for trees, especially the varieties that served to restore both the greenery and the income source. It also found there was a shortage of commercial nurseries capable of supplying high-quality planting materials, including seedlings and vines. As a result, private contractors emerged, but could met this demand only seasonally, leaving a gap in the supply of quality planting materials throughout the year. The project’s assessments also identified the problem extended beyond mere availability. The free seedlings government agencies and NGOs distributed were often of lower quality. Some varieties failed to incentivize the community as they couldn’t generate an income from them. These free seedlings typically didn’t yield significant value, so farmers often lost motivation to nurture them, resulting in a low tree survival rate.
The project has adopted a comprehensive two-pronged strategy to engage both the system and the local farming communities. Within farming communities, there was a concerted effort to disseminate methods aimed at enhancing agricultural production and fostering gender-equitable decision-making processes. This involved exploring strategies to manage land and cattle, leading efficiently and sustainably to increased food and meat production. For a more holistic and enduring impact, the project also promoted gender equity and sustainability within the communities it served.
To influence local systems, the FLR project empowered nursery cooperatives to create sustainable sources of planting materials year-round. A key factor in achieving this sustainability was the economic viability of these cooperatives, which required business training and linkages with relevant market system stakeholders. To understand the latent market demand and map the system, the project conducted a market assessment that identified high-demand tree varieties, including grafted fruit trees and agroforestry trees. The project then established a connection between the National Tree Seed Center (NTSC), Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), and cooperative tree nurseries to ensure the cooperatives could access quality foundation materials for the next season. Additionally, the project worked with nurseries to collect advance orders from various buyers, including NGOs, and provided small grants to kickstart the business.
The definition of success extended beyond economic gains. While the iMSD methodology is often associated with sustainable incomes, this project highlights the broader impact of this approach. It not only facilitated income growth but promoted environmental sustainability. This approach demonstrates sustainable income increases can go hand-in-hand with environmental restoration.
Household Food Security and Economic Advancement
The end-of-project evaluation in 2022 assessed the project's impact. The results were inspiring. Food security saw substantial improvement, with 38% of households reporting consistent access to an adequate food supply by the project's conclusion, compared to 26% at the project's baseline. The project's interventions also led to a notable increase in income generation from trees, with a 20% rise in the project areas compared to a modest 0.5% increase in the comparison areas. Notably, male-headed households experienced a 19.6% income increase, while female-headed households saw an 18.1% rise. Income sources included the sale of fruits and firewood, providing diversified income streams.
The project made remarkable strides in increasing tree density in the project areas, with a 250% rise in median tree density per hectare. The total number of trees recorded in the project areas soared by 822% since 2018, while comparison areas saw a 45% increase. The community engaged in the cultivation of a variety of fruit and timber trees. The six tree species most prominently favoured by the communities during this initiative were grevillea, avocado, paw paws, mangoes, eucalyptus, and acacia. Participants recognized tree planting as a crucial factor in reducing soil erosion, underscoring the project's environmental impact.
Sustainability of Nurseries
Of the initial 32 nursery cooperatives, 22 entered agreements with the project to produce more than 5 million tree seedlings and planting materials. These cooperatives received financial support to establish. The project covered 74% of production costs, including potting materials. The cooperatives contributed the remaining 26% in cash and labour. The disbursement of these funds was tied to the quantity of seedlings that nurseries could successfully market. This motivated the nurseries to ensure the seedlings they offered for sale survived.
Despite the hurdles which the COVID-19 pandemic and a decline in economic activity, these cooperatives successfully produced and distributed more than 5.9 million seedlings and planting materials, resulting in approximately $70,000 in earnings and the establishment of a sustainable income stream between 2020 and 2022.
Challenges and Future Plans
While the project generated significant demand for trees, particularly grafted fruit trees, it's clear that ongoing support is needed for nursery cooperatives to meet this increasing demand. One solution is to invest in building grafting capacity, targeting, and training young individuals interested in agriculture. Establishing connections between nursery cooperatives and commercial suppliers of germplasm throughout the country is a promising way to meet the demand for high-quality planting materials. These positive steps ensure a consistent supply of in-demand tree varieties and strengthen local communities' self-reliance in tree cultivation.
World Vision's FLR Project in Rwanda has not only addressed critical environmental and food security challenges but has also empowered communities to become self-sustaining. Through innovative approaches, cooperative-based businesses, and market linkages, the project has contributed to a brighter and more sustainable future for the people of Rwanda. It is a testament to the power of social entrepreneurship and community-driven initiatives in restoring landscapes and improving livelihoods.
(Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Daniel Mission and Ruth Lamperd from World Vision Australia for their invaluable support and guidance in writing this blog post.)