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Planting Seeds of Hope: Supporting Smallholder Farmers in Rwanda

By Allison Kooser

In agricultural communities, every seed planted is a symbol of possibility.

This harvest could be the one that helps my family grow our savings. I might earn enough to send all of my children to school this year. These vegetables will keep my family nourished and healthy—and maybe now we won’t have to worry about going hungry.

At the same time, farming is inherently risky.

Crops are fragile and environmental disruptions can impact a harvest in a moment. A storm can knock out months of work, and a drought can ruin everything. Smallholder farmers are at the mercy of the weather—reliant on conditions that are completely outside of their control.

Women in paddy field in the Kirehe district, Rwanda
Women in paddy field in the Kirehe district, Rwanda

Amid so many unknowns, farmers work the land with hope. They look to the future—focused on what could be and learning into the potential of their plots. They watch their crops take root and sprout from the ground—each shoot a tiny reminder that, perhaps, their future could be marked by abundance and flourishing.

Rwanda is Focused on the Future

In a place like Rwanda, this future focus is a posture that every family understands. Since the horrors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the nation has focused on forward-looking, long-term reconstruction. Rwandans have put all their attention on what could be—holding onto hope and prioritizing possibility as they rebuilt political systems, economic opportunities, and peace following one of the most devastating human rights violations in history.

Like farmers around the world, Rwandans know that with hard work, focus, and the right conditions, tomorrow can be better than today.

Yet even with the growth and progress of the last three decades, half of Rwandans still live on less than $1.90 per day. And because the majority of the population lives in rural areas, agriculture is a central pillar of the Rwandan economy. In fact, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 70% of the workforce is employed in agriculture, predominantly on smallholder farms, meaning their harvest is used to feed their own families. They are constrained by countless factors: weather is beyond their control, markets for their produce are limited and inconvenient, and financial services are hard to access. Most are doing everything they can to grow enough food for their families—and striving to produce sufficient surplus to sell and generate income.

A farmer in Muhanga, Rwanda, steps across the makeshift irrigation system around her rice fields.
A farmer in Muhanga, Rwanda, steps across the makeshift irrigation system around her rice fields.

Challenges Facing Farmers in Rwanda

The FAO notes several major challenges facing farmers in Rwanda. In addition to the reduction of the land’s potential to produce crops, soil erosion, land use and distribution, and a deep vulnerability to climate shocks, the FAO describes “low levels of productivity…due to low input use, poor production techniques, and inefficient farming practices” and “weak processing capacity and higher value-added products placed on the market.”

It’s a shortage of not just resources but knowledge. In order to grow their plots and crops, farmers in Rwanda need access to high-quality training that shows them how they can improve the productivity and success of their seeds—in addition to inputs like fertilizer and high-yield seeds, improved access to markets, and connections with partners across the value chain.

Cultivating Hope through Agricultural Finance

Opportunity International’s Agriculture Finance program steps into this reality to help farmers grow both their farms and their incomes.

In Rwanda, many of the families Opportunity serves are rice farmers. Like the FAO observed, they need both access to resources and detailed training—lessons on how to effectively cultivate rice seedlings and grow secondary crops to earn income between rice harvests. Opportunity meets all these needs through comprehensive services tailored for farming families.

We offer smallholder farmers training in financial literacy and agricultural best practices to sustainably grow their crop harvests and increase their earnings.

Our network of Farmer Support Agents (FSAs)—trusted farmers who live and work in the communities we serve who are equipped with smartphones to deliver trainings to other farmers—serve as key partners by providing valuable training, connecting farmers to financial services through technology, and facilitating buyers and sellers to increase access to markets.

In addition, our AgFinance program equips smallholder farmers with an agricultural loan. For years, Opportunity International has been at the forefront of agricultural finance innovation, designing a wide range of financial products for rural communities, including production loans and rural savings accounts, small and medium-sized enterprise loans for agribusiness, loan guarantees, mechanization loans, crop insurance, and revolving credit facilities. These financial services help farmers access the resources they need to grow and improve their farms.

And in light of farmers’ locations—often far from the resources found in city centers—we leverage mobile banking technology and increase digital services to connect them to resources and relationships that will help them thrive. Through innovative tools like mobile banking, agent banker networks, and digital loan applications, we are able to increase access to financing for even the most rural and excluded communities.

A farmer training session in Muhanga District, Rwanda.
A farmer training session in Muhanga District, Rwanda.

Part of a Bigger Story

We aren’t alone in this focus on the future of farming in Rwanda. Across the country, local leaders, lawmakers, and organizations are prioritizing smallholder farmers. From the national Crop Intensification Program designed to ensure food security and self-sufficiency to the Farm to Market Alliance in partnership with the World Food Programme to our own long history serving families, the global community knows that investing in farmers will spark a ripple effect for people across Rwanda.

This year, we have leaned even further into these powerful partnerships. Leveraging our asset-light, partner-rich model, we have taken our proven Agriculture Finance in Rwanda and expanded it through a number of new relationships—all of whom are helping us reach more farmers and more families with the opportunity of a flourishing farm.

We know that when smallholder farmers have access to new resources and training, they can generate greater production. As a result, they have larger incomes to spend on basic needs, education, and health care—improving their family’s daily life. And as farmers make gains, their growth stimulates the local economy with increased demand.

Each season, a farmer’s harvest tells a story. How did the weather impact the growing season? How did digital innovation allow an entrepreneur to expand her business? What connections were made between communities and larger markets?

Opportunity International is supporting farmers now so that the stories they are telling today—stories of hope—become stories of transformation in the future.

The Hope of the Harvest in Action

Today, a Rwandan child will wake up in her own home, leave her family farm, and go to primary school. The gains her family has made in agriculture have made her education a possibility—and her education will open countless doors for new opportunities in her own future.

Her parents had hope when they planted row upon row of seeds—and today, that hope has come to fruition. She is the future of her family, of her farm, and of Rwanda—and despite the many challenges her community and her country have faced, today, their future is bright.

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