1. Rwanda: Processing bananas changes lives in Rwanda (by Sawa Pius, for Farm Radio Weekly, in Mombasa, Kenya)

| October 27, 2008

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For 800 women farmers’ groups in Rwanda, bananas are much more than a nutritious food. These women, affected by HIV and AIDS and the Rwandan genocide, are living happier lives after learning to add value to bananas. They work together to process bananas into beer, wine, and handicrafts, earning money that allows them to send their children to better schools and afford other necessities.

Jean Claude Nasagare is the chairman of Ituze farmers’ group and founder of the Microfinance Banana Exchange Project. Mr. Nasagare was inspired by the potential of bananas to transform lives while attending a conference in Burkina Faso in 2000. He brought the idea back to Rwanda – where bananas have been cultivated for food for many years, but rarely processed into other products.

Women were initially skeptical that bananas could have economic value as something other than food. But, in time, more and more people joined the initiative, and the women began cultivating larger banana crops alongside other food staples. They also learned the art of beekeeping, since honey is a key ingredient in many banana products.

The Microfinance Banana Exchange Project was established to meet the financial needs of women as they expanded their production. Currently, 800 Rwandan women’s groups receive loans through the project. Mr. Nasagarare says the loans help pay for farming equipment such as hoes, plus wages for labourers to till the land.

All participants in the initiative take their banana harvest to the Ituze farmers’ group headquarters, where they each play a role in post-harvest processing. Banana beer is produced from a mixture of sorghum, honey, bananas and sugar. Banana wine is a mixture of bananas, millet and sugar, which is packed and sealed in glass bottles.

The women also produce a number of handicrafts from banana fibres, including baskets, handbags, hats, and tablemats. Most of the products are sold on the European market. Most importantly, the farmers enjoy direct benefits from the income.

The women are able to pay back their micro-loans and keep money to support their families. Mr.Nasagarare says that mothers are able to send their children to good schools because they can afford the fees. They can also afford medical costs and other essentials that improve their standard of living.

The initiative continues to grow. Participants now train other women to grow bananas and produce banana products, which now have a ready market. The project has expanded to Burundi.

Mr. Nasagare says the next step will be exploring the potential to turn banana waste into a biogas for fuel.