Behind a milk collection center in rural Rwanda, the aroma of food fills the air. Taking refuge in the building’s shade, local farmers are hard at work shucking corn, slicing tomatoes and peeling potatoes, all freshly harvested from surrounding fields. They lay a patterned carpet on the concrete floor and heap cooked food onto plastic plates for their soon-to-arrive guests: mothers and young children from nearby villages.
This is the Abakundinka Community Kitchen, a space for mothers to bring their young kids for a wholesome meal. Once a month, they gather together out of the hot Rwandan sunshine, mothers to share stories and knowledge, and their children to enjoy a hearty plate of nutritious food.
Though the fruits and vegetables change with the seasons — sometimes Irish potatoes, sometimes yams, beans or bananas — there is always meat to eat and milk to drink.
That’s because the community kitchen was born out of the Abakundinka Livestock Farmer Field School, a dairy farmers’ group working together to better manage their livestock, grow nutritious food, earn sustainable incomes and, now, nourish their wider community.
Though Rwanda has made significant development strides over the last two decades, challenges persist. Nearly 40% of the population live in poverty and smallholder farmers, who mainly practice subsistence farming, often struggle to grow and raise adequate crops and livestock due to inefficient farming practices and limited access to quality supplies.
The Abakundinka Livestock Farmer Field School group was started through a Heifer Rwanda project to help 100,000 rural farmers address these challenges and spur the kind of sustainable change they need. The group serves as a means to disseminate skills and training on topics like milk handling and hygiene, fodder cultivation and livestock nutrition so farmers can increase their dairy production and improve their livelihoods. Working together increases the farmers’ bargaining power and allows them to better access critical financial tools, like loans.
Having a support system in the community is also extremely valuable, explained Beatrice Musengimana, one of the group’s members. “Coming together allows you to think collectively and provide important advice to one another,” she said. “It also gives us a platform to share lessons and best practices on livestock farming.”
As word of the group’s success has spread, its membership has grown and they’ve been able to expand their operations, incorporating raising pigs and constructing a milk collection point to allow farmers to transport their milk more easily and effectively to markets.
Equipped with skills and knowledge, farmers of the Abakundinka group are uniting to tackle the challenges they used to face alone, pulling themselves and their families out of poverty as they raise healthy cows, produce nutritious milk and earn a stable income.
This urge to help their wider community overcome similar hurdles is how the community kitchen came to be.
“I provide milk to the community kitchen and this boosts my relationship with the children and their families,” said Pascaline Uwera, a banana and dairy farmer who, along with her fellow group members, supplies fresh food for the community kitchen’s monthly meals. “It is something I am very proud of.”
Before the children dig into their meals at the community kitchen, one of the mothers makes her way around a circle of seated kids to pour clean water over their hands. Simple acts of improved hygiene like this can drive big changes in communities where the knowledge to keep themselves and their families healthy is often difficult to access or apply.
The kitchen has nurtured a strong relationship with the local village leaders, and the monthly event is attended by a health facilitator, a trained community member who works to increase local awareness of issues like hygiene and nutrition. The facilitator supervises the kitchen’s activities and advises the mothers on what a balanced diet looks like.
In Rwanda, where almost one-fifth of the population faces hunger and 38% of children under 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, the Abakundinka Community Kitchen is vital.
Limited access to nutritious and balanced diets can stunt children’s development, which can lead to behavioral problems and limited economic opportunities as they grow up. But, thanks to the Abakundinka farmers’ group, the community kitchen’s plates are stocked with all the major food groups: carbohydrates from potatoes, fresh fruits and vegetables like bananas and tomatoes, and fats and protein from the cow’s milk and meat.
Not only have mothers like Alphonsina Uwikunze, a local mother who frequents the kitchen with her child, noticed a change in their own children, but they see it too in the other children as the months tick by. Having a space to build solidarity, to learn about the necessary food groups, and to see, firsthand, the change in their children’s well-being has had a ripple effect in the surrounding community.
“It helps new mothers and those who bring their children for the first time to learn how to prepare a balanced diet,” Alphonsina said. “And they then share the knowledge with others who don’t come here.”
As the saying goes, it takes a village. And the farmers of the Abakundinka group are harnessing the power of community to improve lives and livelihoods for this generation — and the next.