A five-acre farm nestled in the rolling hills just outside Kigali has become a local hub for agricultural innovation.
The farm is part jungle and part rural laboratory.
A small team of staff tend to hundreds of agricultural plants dotting the hills outside of Rwanda’s capital city. Some of the products are staples of local cuisine - bananas, mangoes and rice. But others, identified with clear plastic bags around the stems, are created from two different strains of the same plant.
The technique, known as grafting, mixes two types of avocado plants together to improve their climate resiliency. Staff prepare the seedling, then leave it to rest in their nursery for three weeks before giving local families their improved crop.
This is the headquarters of Gardens for Health International, an American non-governmental organization that is tackling “the root causes of malnutrition” in Rwanda by giving female farmers a crash course in healthy eating and sustainable farming practices.
In the last decade, the non-profit has worked with over 15,000 Rwandan women in rural parts of the country, churning out roughly 300 graduates of their training programs per year.
Women are first taught how to prepare a quick-one pot meal with all four food groups (vegetables, proteins, carbohydrates and fruits) and then how to successfully grow these products in their own backyards.
However, health manager Angeline Mumararungu said it has become harder for Rwandan farmers to successfully grow their crops because of climate change.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has described land degradation and soil erosion as the main challenge facing farmers throughout Rwanda. Their latest estimate shows that approximately 1.4 million tonnes of soil is lost per year to poor soil quality - accounting for $320,000 USD annually.
This poses a significant challenge for the 70 percent of Rwanda’s population that work in the agricultural sector. The FAO said the country’s dependency on the agriculture industry could increase the number of Rwandans living in poverty if the effects of climate change continue to worsen.
Farm manager Denyse Niyubahwe said the non-profit is researching low-cost ways to help farmers weather the changes.
One strategy that Gardens for Health International has taught their students on how to avoid soil erosion is how to create a double dug bed.
The women remove a thin layer of top soil in an area of about one metre in size. From there, they dig down more than 30 centimetres and add an organic fertilizer made from coriander, ashes and tithonia leaves to stimulate the soil’s nutrients.
This technique, Niyubahwe said, allows the plant roots to grow deeper and makes it more likely that farmers will get a full yield during the dry season.
Climate change is also making it more difficult to predict just how long that dry season will last. Rwanda normally has a dry season between late May and September, with the rest of the year seeing a lot of precipitation.
Didas Musoni, Rwanda’s director of meteorology, told a local newspaper that the rainy season now begins as early as August, which could disrupt the planting season for farmers.
Niyubahwe said farmers are changing how and when certain types of produce are sown because of the changing climate. For example, farmers now use different irrigation techniques like pipes and sprinklers when possible to continue planting sorghum. The plant’s normal growing season has been cut in half by droughts that continue long after the normal end of the dry season.
The organization can only train 40 women in any community at one time, but Mumararungu said the women can share their new skills home to their communities.