Women Take the Lead in Rwanda’s First ‘Green Village’

Like many children from her village in the hills of northern Rwanda, 15-year-old Sandrine would regularly accompany her mother to collect firewood and water. Hauling the loads for up to three hours at a time meant that Sandrine had little time for anything else. Due to this arduous undertaking, Sandrine’s mother laments, many children in the village could no longer attend school. Firewood collection also had a negative impact on the land, causing fertile soil to be washed away during heavy rains, resulting in lower agricultural productivity and food security.

However, since 2010, Sandrine’s village, Rubaya, has been quietly leading a sustainable development revolution. In partnership with Rwanda’s Environment Management Authority (REMA) and a range of other ministries – including Local Government, Infrastructure and Agriculture – the Poverty-Environment Initiative (PEI), a joint UNEP-UNDP programme, supported the adoption of a range of environmentally sustainable approaches, making Rubaya the country’s first “Green Village”.

Terracing and tree planting have reduced soil erosion and deforestation, which has improved agricultural productivity while reducing flooding, siltation and pollution from fertilizer run-off. New biogas plants have provided Rubaya with a clean energy source, reducing smoke-related health problems and decreasing dependency on firewood. Rainwater stored in reservoirs and underground tanks is now used for crop irrigation and household consumption. With these resources now close at hand, women and children have more time to be productive in other ways.

The “Green Village” initiative has improved the lives and livelihoods of community residents, particularly women. Forty-three families have seen their food security improve.

“We are getting more crops, yields have increased and we live in better houses,” says Ms. Muhawenimana Solange, the head of the local women-led cooperative leading the “Green Village” initiative. “The poor people were the poorest among the poor but if you see them now, they look better off. Living conditions are better. Now we have biogas, a school, a health centre and water. We have solved all of these problems.”

Key to the project’s success has been the focus on empowering the community, particularly its women. The formation of the cooperative that leads the project has empowered women to take a lead in community development while ensuring that solutions serve the needs of both men and women. While women’s participation in the project was largely community driven, PEI, in consultation with the villagers, helped identify environmental solutions, ensuring that the needs of both women and men were met.

Thanks to Rubaya’s success, Rwanda’s Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy now includes aspects of environmental sustainability. The Ministry of Local Government has requested that all districts in Rwanda establish at least one “Green Village” based on the project’s best practices. The model is now being replicated in four districts informed by a toolkit developed by REMA and PEI that lays out the process for establishing a green village while promoting women’s empowerment in sustainable development planning.

Meanwhile, back in Rubaya, the future is looking bright for this small community of environmental pioneers. Participation of both men and women in all aspects of the project has ensured the project’s sustainability, thereby allowing the whole community to reap its benefits far into the future.

With more time to focus on their studies, Rubaya’s boys and girls are now free to realize their academic potential. Sitting with her mother, Sandrine notes contentedly that “now with biogas and water nearby, I have time to go to school”.