‘Like a Boss’

A Rwandan mother and child in the Musanze District.

By Jennifer Sicking
Photos by Jennifer Sicking and Dave Ader

Watch as three Rwandan women pause in their hoeing of fields and sweeping of streets as they long for something more. For social standing. For education. For better lives.

Agnes Uwizeyimana labored in potato fields, hacking at the rocky, volcanic earth with a hoe. Straightening her back at the end of the day, she had earned about 800 Rwandan francs (less than $1) from the seasonal work.

After leaving school in the ninth grade, Zahara Umulisa struggled to find a job. She took what she could find, even sweeping streets.

After finishing high school, Immaculet Tuyisenge aspired to attend college, but with no money to pay for it, it remained a dream. And, without a college degree, she struggled to find work.

Then each heard of a program involving chickens.

Making a Profit

That program, Tworore Inkoko, Twunguke (Let’s Raise Chickens, and Make a Profit), is accomplishing its goals of changing lives, including the lives of these three women, in one rural Rwandan district.

It’s led by the UT Institute of Agriculture Smith Center for International Sustainable Agriculture and Rwandan company Zamura Feeds—and funded by $1.9 million in grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development in Rwanda and the African Sustainable Agriculture Project Foundation. Through it, faculty, staff and students began journeying from Knoxville to the Land of 1,000 Hills in early 2017. Working with smallholder farmers in rural Musanze District of northern Rwanda, the project had a simple goal: improve the nutrition and raise the economic level of farmers, who often live on the equivalent of 50 cents a day.

“With the nationwide malnutrition rate about 38 percent in children under 5 years old, Tworore Inkoko is playing a huge role in bringing this rate down by providing access to animal-sourced protein in the form of broiler meat,” says Ritah Nshuti, Zamura Feeds quality assurance manager and Tworore Inkoko project manager.

It also gives families access to regular incomes.

“In many instances, monthly income per family has doubled, tripled and quadrupled,” Nshuti says.

Built on Faith

Donnie Smith (’80 Knoxville) sees his work in Africa as a calling, and it’s one he intends to follow until his end. And, why Rwanda? If he believed in chance meetings, he might call it that. But he doesn’t.

“God opened the door. We marched in, and here we are,” Smith says.

Smith’s partnerships in Rwanda are built upon his 30 years of working for Tyson Foods, beginning as a field man helping Tennessee poultry farmers raise better chickens and ending as CEO and president. He retired in 2016.

It’s also built upon his faith.

“About 2010, I think God started stirring in my heart this desire to take what I had learned through, then, probably close to 30 years of industry experience, and use that to help farmers in Africa,” he says.

To that end, he and his wife, Terry (Knoxville ’80), established the African Sustainable Agriculture Project Foundation in 2012 to work with African farmers to create businesses that could compete with any farmer in the world. The Smith family’s giving also helped launch the UTIA Smith Center to find sustainable solutions to the world’s agricultural, food and natural resource challenges.

Tom Gill, the UTIA Smith Chair in International Sustainable Agriculture, called the partnerships between UT and the rest of the world important.

“It’s not about how great UT is and what we can bring to save the world,” he says. “It’s about what we can learn from other contexts, other peoples, other cultures so that we can do things better together with partners around the globe.”

Those collaborations will prove important during the coming decades. By 2050, the United Nations estimates the world’s population will grow to 9.8 billion, up from the current population of 7.6 billion. About 1 billion of that increase will live in Africa.

“I think hungry people do desperate things,” Smith says. “I think if there’s something we can do to contribute to feeding this population, we need to do all we can to solve that problem…If feeding this continent, or feeding 2 billion people, wherever they are, is important to economic and geopolitical stability, I think we’re pretty smart as Americans, as Tennesseans, if we get right in the middle of that and have an impact.”

But there is another reason that drives Smith.

“It’s pretty clear that God says we ought to help the poor,” he says. “I think there’s a biblical, moral mandate that, if you can help the poor, you should.”

In Smith’s first meeting with the Rwandan minister of agriculture in 2012, she told him the country lacked a commercial feed mill.

“Having high-quality, well-formulated, well-mixed feed is a critical component to having the ability to get all of the potential out of the genetics God puts into that animal,” Smith says.

Zamura Feeds, initiated by Smith’s foundation, opened in 2014 in Musanze District.

With a feed mill in place, Smith and Gill began discussions around what else could be done. They discussed how to help in a country where family-size plots of corn, fruit, beans and potatoes create a patchwork quilt across the hillsides as far as the eye can see. Almost 13 million Rwandans live in a mostly mountainous country the size of East Tennessee, leaving little land available for large-scale agriculture production.

Raising chickens requires small spaces.

“You can raise a broiler in six weeks and get a quick return on your investment, which is better suited to Rwanda’s high population density than most other animal production enterprises,” Gill says.

One chicken also can provide a meal for a family, that lives with no running water or electricity, without the preservation issues of beef or pork.

It’s the concept of teaching a man to fish. As long as there’s fish swimming in the lake, he can feed himself and his family—if he has a fishing pole. The program makes sure the farmers have the knowledge and equipment to raise the chickens so they can change the futures of themselves and their families.

“When you come here and you begin working with farmers—who, by the way have a great heart, a great work ethic; they just need an opportunity—and you help them solve a problem and help them become more economically self-sufficient, that changes you,” Smith says.

By mid-spring 2019, more than 300 farmers had found an opportunity.

For the past two years, they ventured down the rutted dirt roads from their villages to attend three-day, hands-on training sessions at the project demonstration farm in Musanze. They learned what chicks look like at 2 days old, 9 days and on up until the broilers are ready for market. After farmers finish the training and pass a test, the program builds a 100-square-foot coop for 100 chickens in each farmer’s yard. Farmers will spend three to four years repaying the 0 percent interest loans on their coops. To purchase chicks, feed, wood shavings and charcoal, farmers receive microloans, which they repay when they sell the flock.

With the coops and chicks in place, the farmers step inside of their coops, open clay pots and light the charcoal within to warm the coops for the chicks and begin new lives as chicken farmers.

“I thought we’d have a lot of trial and error,” Gill says. “But, from the get-go, we had farmers making quite a lot of money, for them.”

On average, after making their loan payments, farmers make about 48,000 Rwandan francs ($54)—almost double their previous income. But some make much more.

The Farmers

Umulisa, the oldest of five children, was part of the first group of farmers to partner with Tworoe Inkoko and in the last two years has averaged earning about 75,000 Rwandan francs ($85) per flock. She’s used her earnings to pay for her siblings’ school fees so they can finish their education. She’s also started a side business traveling to neighboring Uganda to buy items and resell them in her village.

“I wanted to raise myself economically and socially,” she says. “I had nothing. This helped me to do something at home and in my life.”

Uwizeyimana joined the program because she decided, “Maybe this is better than going to the field and working for someone else.” When she earned 120,000 Rwandan francs (about $135) after expenses with her first flock, she knew she had made the right choice to be her own boss. She had money to help her grandmother and to put money into savings to learn tailoring as a side business.

Tuyisenge, who dreamed of pursuing higher education, has saved between 20,000 to 70,000 Rwandan francs (about $22 to $80) per flock and plans to enroll in college in September to study agriculture.

Emmanuel Maniriho used to pedal a bicycle taxi, earning about 1,000 Rwandan francs (less than $1) per day, which he then spent buying food for his family. With his first earnings of 90,000 francs (about $100), he and his wife sat down to plan for the future. They decided to rent land for five years on which they could grow their own vegetables. With his second earnings, they replaced the tin roof on their house.

But, even more than that, he says, the chickens are improving his two children’s nutrition.

“There’s no stunting in the children,” he says. “They go to school, and they’ve had something to eat.”

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The program encourages the farmers to keep a few chickens for their own use to eat out of each flock. Before, the farmers would eat chicken perhaps once a year in celebration of New Year’s Day. The wealthy—the “bosses”—alone ate chicken regularly.

“Now, I eat it like a boss,” Tuyisenge says to the laughter of the other farmers.

Making a Difference

Rob Mihelic (Knoxville ’17), a UTIA graduate student studying gene expression changes in embryos, found a new calling through an internship in Rwanda. When he learned that the rising cost of charcoal caused farmers to earn less money, he decided to find a way to lower that cost.

“I went in with a plan, but when I got there, I realized it wouldn’t work,” he says. “I got there and got hands-on, looking at the coops and working with the farmers and came up with other ideas.”

His revised plan was to hang a piece of sheet metal above the clay pot to reflect heat down into the coop and divide the coop with plastic to make the space smaller to heat. The result is 50 percent savings for farmers.

After Mihelic graduated in May, he planned to work with agriculture in low-income regions. “The reason I want to do that is because of what I’ve done with the Smith Center,” he says. “It makes me want to devote myself to it long term.”

Art and Science

Donnie Smith visits a farm in the Musanze District.

While visiting farms in January, Smith walked in the cool rain along paths peppered with volcanic rock from long-ago eruptions. He peered into the coops and posed questions to the farmers. He and Mike Smith, UT professor of animal science, evaluated chickens and passed along observations to the farmers.

“See how they’re all bunched up around the heater,” Mike Smith says. “They’re cold.”

The two encouraged the farmer to increase the heat in his coop.

“I want them to make as much money as possible,” Donnie Smith says. “Details matter. It needs to be always right, all the time.”

At another coop, the chickens were lying down. When the farmer walked through them, they immediately got up and began eating and drinking.

“Agriculture is an art and a science,” Mike Smith says.

And so it is for raising chickens, especially the Ross 308 breed, desired for their capacity to quickly grow to dinner size. The best farmers intuit it, keeping the flock at the right temperature, walking through the coop to stir them up, so the chickens pass the time eating and drinking, which means they grow. The more they grow, the better the farmer’s profit.

“I hope this program will help Rwanda on the journey it is on to achieve a well-developed, profitable and sustainable poultry value chain,” Nshuti says. “I’m confident we will also help create a model that will not only be applicable in Rwanda but can also be replicated in other developing countries that are still struggling with poverty, high illiteracy rates, high unemployment rates in young people and malnutrition in children.”

Donnie Smith agrees. “It’s impacting lives. It will change families forever here,” he says. “The work that we’re doing and the research that we’re doing to learn more about how to have an even greater impact could be stamped out all over the world. All we need is the resources. Why not come along for the ride and help the world feed itself, help change the world? Why not?”