Originally published on April 10, 2018.
Many Rwandans rely on agriculture for their incomes. Maize, a major crop in Rwanda that feeds both people and livestock, is often grown by farmer members of maize cooperatives. IABM “Iterambere ry’Abahinziborozi Ba Makera” meaning Farmers Development Cooperative of Makera in Kinyarwanda, is a maize cooperative operating in the Muhanga District of Southern Rwanda. With 764 farmer-members, 500 of which are women, the cooperative’s mission is to equitably empower its members to advance economically by connecting farmers to financing, access to high quality maize inputs and access to markets.
In 2006, many maize farmers in the Muhanga region were struggling with low productivity and limited connections to buyers. Though IABM formally registered in 2009, its 10 members didn’t see benefits right away. It took time, work and thought to build the cooperative to where it is today. The founding members initiated the idea of aggregating their maize production at one site to better streamline their efforts towards good agronomy practices as well as strengthen their common voice while negotiating with inputs suppliers, financial institutions and most importantly buyers of their produce.
“We used to sell our maize to the people in the streets; sometimes we would not get paid due to bad quality of our products. In 2009 we joined as a cooperative, but back then IABM did not yet give us what we were expecting to receive,” says Mukandayisaba Francine, IABM member and maize farmer.
Over the next few years, things started to improve. IABM established a code of conduct and integrated policies for mutual decision making. “Today we have ethical standards that guide cooperative activities. We have promoted good governance and financial education to the members through regular training,” says Francine.
One of IABM’s development partners is the Seed Cooperative Alliance (SCA), a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development. The four-year (2013-2017) project sought to test the development hypothesis that cooperative alliances can provide a commercially sustainable supply chain for distribution of improved hybrid maize seed. To meet this goal, the SCA project conducted a series of interrelated diagnostic, strategic planning and capacity building services including the development of an Alliances Facilitator Guide and building the capacity of leaders to initiate lucrative business alliances.
IABM, and other Rwandan maize growers’ cooperatives, directly benefited from SCA’s tailored capacity building efforts towards initiating/strengthening alliances, namely on financial management, good governance, auditing and bookkeeping, strengthening social capital and trust in cooperatives through trainings on strengthening communication channels networks in cooperatives, gender mainstreaming and empowerment in cooperatives leadership, and good agronomic practices around hybrid seeds.
SCA also organized cooperative-to-cooperative exchanges to help cooperatives learn from more advanced coops. Another contribution was connecting IABM with seed input companies, such as SeedCo; and financial service providers, such as Unguka, Urwego Opportunity Bank and Muhanga SACCO. Connecting with hybrid suppliers like SeedCo allowed IABM farmers to transition from low yielding seed to higher production hybrid seeds, and the cooperative was also able to increase its revenues from distribution of inputs including SeedCo maize seeds to local farmers. This alone brought about a new revenue of up to 80 Rwandan francs per kilogram of inputs distributed to farmer. Alliances with financial institutions allowed the coop to finance maize flour processing machinery and acquire a transportation truck for maize seeds and harvest.
Access to improved hybrid seeds benefited smallholder members, whereby they saw their maize yields increase considerably; Francine and her 763 fellow members of IABM are now growing maize on their shared 215 hectares of land and are able to harvest around 3 tons per hectare as opposed to 1 ton per hectare before using hybrid seeds.
“We have come far, I remember the time our cooperative used to have endless conflicts, where everyone was depending on his or her own daily achievement with no collaboration, no sustainable leaders and no mutual respect among us,” recalls Francine. “The Seed Cooperative Alliance has trained us how to manage our resources, as many of us had not had management training before.”
IABM president, Twagirimana Jean Baptiste, also says the cooperative is succeeding financially, and now has the basic equipment to continue growing, such as a vehicle for transporting the harvest to markets, a maize flour grinder and a storage building for maize and maize flour.
Women’s membership is especially important, as women are more likely to use the incomes and savings to feed their families, and pay for health insurance and school fees. They have already achieved a high female membership and are targeting to grow and build upon that foundation, as well as increase youth engagement, in the cooperative. They are a cooperative on track to continue to grow and be a model of success for others to follow.