Making Gradual but Lasting Change in Rwanda

February 21, 2014

Concern’s “graduation” approach is steadily building sustainable livelihoods among Rwanda’s poorest people.

When her husband was sent to prison in 2007 with a lengthy sentence for his role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, 48-year-old Scholastic Mukamugaga didn’t know how she would support her six children, the youngest of whom is just seven years old.

Thanks to a Concern program that seeks to build sustainable livelihoods one by one, based on each individual family’s skills and passions, Scholastic is now raising goats and a cow, selling the cow’s morning milk and producing and selling a sorghum-based home brew. The three-pronged approach to establishing an income is allowing her to support her family as she never before believed possible.

Equally as important, today she has a role in a community that once seemed to shun her, in the village of Gafumba, part of the Huye district of southern Rwanda. “Before, no one invited me into their homes,” she says, standing in her backyard, her eyes dark and serious. “I had nothing to offer and I wasn’t presentable. Now they even come to ask me for a contribution for local weddings.”

The approach, known as “graduation” because of its goal of helping participants make gradual but lasting progress out of poverty, is helping about 2,000 families in Rwanda. It focuses particularly on southern Rwanda, where 54 percent of the population lives in poverty and 32.5 percent live in extreme poverty—the highest levels in the country.

The program provides small monthly cash transfers for 18 months along with counseling and business skills training to help families select and implement plans to create livelihoods that will support them beyond the first year and a half. Combined with the drive and initiative shown by Rwandans themselves, it is revolutionizing the lives of some of the country’s poorest.

Jean-Claude Minani, 22, used the graduation program to start a motorcycle-taxi business and build a home so he could take care of his 15-year-old sister. Faced with lifelong chronic poverty, the graduation model gave Jean-Claude a critical hand up at a critical moment, and he has used it well.

In a quiet voice, constantly worrying his hands as he speaks, he describes how carefully he calculated his expenses and earnings so he could make a future for himself after the deaths of his parents. He began his taxi service using a bicycle bought through the program, and eventually saved money to make a down payment on a motorcycle he now uses for his business. He is paying off that loan. Concern provided the tin roofing for his home and he got help from friends from his church to hand-build a house.

He has “graduated” from the monthly cash transfers but, now as the owner of a business and a tiny, sparsely furnished four-room home, believes he can both support himself and save money for his future, which he can at last dare to hope will include a wife and family of his own.

Jean-Claude also speaks with pride about his changed status in the community—a meaningful and common side effect of moving out of the status of extreme poverty. “I was not valued before,” he says. “Now neighbors even come to me at times for help. When they are sick, for instance, they ask me to use my motorcycle to give them a lift to the hospital.”

Further up the dirt road, at the entrance to this picturesque village, Valerie Nyabenda, 54, warmly greets visitors to her home. Widowed in 1984, she is the mother of three children, including one who is handicapped. Valerie proudly invites her company into the first home she has ever owned, one the graduation program made possible.

Sitting on a bench, she explains how she also used the cash transfers to buy a pig and rabbits, become part of a group of homeowners cultivating a communal garden, and fund the building of a second home next to hers that she plans to rent out. It is the decision to build the second home, above all, that makes it possible for her to imagine a supportable future.

“Without this program, I would still be homeless,” she says, “and my kids would probably run away from me to try to avoid a life of poverty and hunger.”

Odette Kweli, a Concern program manager who administers the program in Gafumba, notes that the individuality of each case requires time and focus, but the refusal to accept cookie-cutter decisions may be exactly what makes it so successful, household by household. “People can choose what they know how to do, and what they are passionate about,” she says. “This is the best way to try to build in sustainability.”