Food and fuel: How a rice farmers cooperative is saving Rwanda’s forest cover

Food and fuel: How a rice farmers cooperative is saving Rwanda’s forest cover

In Rwanda, efforts are being made to reduce the use of wood as a source of energy, in order to preserve the environment. All over Rwanda, there were remnants of maize, maize stalks and rice bran dispersed on the ground of factories or companies, which were waste because after the production, nothing to do with the remaining pieces. This is a matter that experienced eleven years ago, a group of rice farmers who decided to form a welfare corporative to enable them to find a market for their produce. The idea was simple. To professionalise their farming practices, increase their output, get better prices, and improve their lives.  Cooproriz- Abahuzabikorwa (Cooperative of Rice producers-The United) was then born. 

In 2012, they set up a rice processing factory located in Kamonyi district, Southern Province of Rwanda. After four years of operation, they faced a challenge that threatened their continuity. The management raised a red flag that the rice bran waste had become an environmental threat. The extended dumping ground had become unmanageable.

From unmanageable waste to briquettes   

The general assembly quickly commissioned a study seeking a solution to their waste management problem. The results shocked everyone. The findings of the study presented a business opportunity for the cooperative. “Setting up a briquette factory was quickly passed. The cooperative invested in a machine worth $47,000 with a production capacity of 300-400 kilograms of briquettes per day. It was like a miracle to find out that the materials that used to be a challenge became a source of revenue to our factory”, says Evariste Nteziryayo the manager of the factory.

In fact, converting the rice bran waste into briquettes that would be used as an alternative to firewood - the leading source of cooking energy in Rwanda was a magic solution not only for that cooperative but also for other similar cooperative destroying tons of trees for their productivity. 

Seven years down the road, after perfecting the manufacturing process and adding a second machine, the factory now produces up to 700 tonnes of briquettes per day.  “Every season we had over 572 tons of rice barn which were everywhere in factory or around. If it’s in two seasons we used to find 1144 tons of the bran rice per year. For now, it is an environmentally friendly energy”, adds Evariste. The factory is now a major supplier of cooking fuel to several clients running big kitchens. Among these, the Rwanda Correctional Service (RCS) which manages 13 prisons in Rwanda.

According to the department of Division of production and infrastructure in RCS, their fuel consumption ratio is 50 percent briquettes and 50 percent biogas. They no longer use wood to cook for inmates in several prisons. This sustainable way of cooking earned them an international corrections and Prisons associations Excellence Award for the use of non-polluting fuels. For RCS, this was a big opportunity to save the environment it reduces efficiently the quantity of trees cut to feed hundreds of inmates incarcerated in Rwandan prisons.  

Medium enterprises such the Bureau Social de Dévelopement, a social initiative that cooks dinner for homeless families in Muhanga district, Southern province, also uses the rice barn briquettes.  Marguerite Mukamana, chief of the bureau expressed that the briquettes cook faster compared to firewood and are more cost effective. “Just three hours compared to some five hours one would use for firewood to cook the same quantity (of food)”, Marguerite said. And added” one bag of charcoal costs around 15 thousand Rwandan francs (15$) and is used only in one week. Today one ton of briquettes is used in two mounts. Every day she uses 25 pieces of briquettes in cooking 30 kilograms 10 kilograms of beans. “At least, I enjoy that using briquettes allows to cook on clean spaces, save our forests where every Rwandan depend when it comes to cooking”, says Marguerite.

Other initiatives to save the environment

Here and there, initiatives are generated to find alternative to the problem of cutting trees, and the higher cost it occurs. Leftover of maize, sawdust are other initiatives on the ground. Those materials are especially used as a source of energy in bricks fabrication. Harerimana John is an investor in this domain. For more than ten years he is invested in, he has found a big difference in using leftover of maize or sawdust compared to using wood. Figures by support, he says’’ On truck of leftover of maize worth around 250$ contrary to one truck of wood which costs between 350$ and 400$). The way we pack leftover of maize is simple compared to wood”.  And maize leftover, are products from other maize not resulting to any destruction of the environment. Problems also challenge the new initiatives. Contrary to the rice ban, finding leftover of maize, requires waiting for the maize season and buy a lot of quantity with cooperatives that cultivate maize. When not in that season, brick production companies suffer from lacking alternative solutions to wood.

Kwitonda Philippe, Rwanda Ministry of Environment, Director General in charge of lands, forests and waters, says this is among government initiatives of not only protect the existing forests, but also encourage its citizens to plant more trees and investors, scientists to look for other solutions that may replace the using of firewood to save the environment. “Users of wood and charcoal have started embracing several alternatives. We encourage more initiatives that would reduce use of trees as cooking energy because this will save our forests,” he said.

According to Philippe, Rwanda set a goal to have ​​forest coverage equivalent to 30 percent of national land by 2024. This objective has been met. Forest cover accounts for 30.4 percent or 702,465 hectares of national land. 

Even if initiatives to look for alternatives that can help to stop using wood are created here and there, the way still remains to be done because schools, universities, citizens in general need to cook food on a daily basis. And, it is currently impossible, although possible step by step, that alternatives such as rice bran briquettes, the use of leftover maize in brickyards reverse the dependence of the use of wood on a daily basis.

But, at least, those, like Cooproriz, who have tried, show that it is possible to contribute to saving one's environment regardless of the few means available. “We have found the quality energy resource for our business; the only challenge is that it might get scarce due to high demand” says Evariste Nteziryayo from Cooproriz.

Marie Jeanne UWAMBAYINEMA/freelance Journalist

The bran rice in front of the factory