An Alumnae Conversation: Farming, Giving Back, and Providing Hope

 

The vision for the Gashora farm was threefold; nourish our students with healthy food, serve as an outdoor classroom for our students to learn about agriculture, connect; serve and support the surrounding community by sharing best practices in farming. Today our 42 acre farm is growing an incredible variety of food for our school and we aspire to be self-sufficient- growing everything that we are eating at school. Students are not only engaged with the operation of the farm but our agricultural focused curriculum offers them a chance to learn about new and innovative farming practices. Our students and farm staff work with the farmers from the surrounding community to help them improve their practices to create more yields. In addition to farming, the farm has also been an incubator for student businesses, including the well-known Gashora Gold Peanut Butter.

After schools around the country were closed in March due to COVID-19, the farm pivoted quickly from feeding students and teachers to serving the community of Bugesera. School leaders worked with the community leadership to identify the most vulnerable in the community that would benefit from the support from the Gashora Farm.

We are also incredibly proud to have two of our GGAST Alumnae returning to school as staff members and helping with the oversight and management of the farm. Below, Olive and Gloria, share some of their reflections about their experience working at Gashora and the challenges they are facing during this global pandemic.


First, can you both introduce yourselves?

Olive:  My name is Olive Niyizigihe. I am from the Northern Province of Rwanda, Musanze District and graduated from GGAST in 2013. In 2014 I attended the University of Rwanda College of Agriculture, Animal Science, and Veterinary Medicine, where I received my bachelors’ degree in crop production.

Gloria: My name is Gloria Uwizeyimana, I was born and raised in Mayange, Bugesera. I graduated from Gashora Girls Academy in 2014.  I attended Earth University in Costa Rica, a five-year program where I studied Agricultural Sciences and graduated in 2019.

How long have you worked at GGAST and what are your responsibilities?

Olive:  I joined the GGAST staff in February 2019. My responsibilities include managing the school Value Added Center (VAC), where our Gashora Gold Peanut Butter is produced.  I also collaborate with the farm team in order to achieve specific goals and reach the mission for the Gashora farm to provide our school with healthy food.

Gloria: Having graduated in December of 2019, I began working at GGAST in February.  I have the opportunity to help fill the gaps on the farm and work in all key areas providing suggestions to improve farm performance.  I am also coordinating our collaboration with the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture (RICA).  RICA is a school that combines research, education and extension services to train Rwanda’s next generation of leaders in agriculture. This is an exciting new partnership that I am excited to help coordinate.

You are a GGAST alumnae! How does it feel being back at school in a staff role?

Olive:  Honestly, I cannot find a word to articulate the feeling I had the moment I heard that I was hired. I was extremely excited to join the GGAST staff. I have GGAST in my heart and I have no doubt that this is where my foundation for life began. I believe in giving back to the community and am excited my career is beginning at GGAST. I love working here so much because I dedicate my strengths, skills, and knowledge for the betterment of the school and the future generations.

Gloria:  It feels like a child who makes her way back home, even though a lot has changed since the last time I was here. There are few faces that are familiar, even our Head of School is new. So, it is so different but still feels like home. I haven’t felt like a part of the staff yet but it is a work in progress.  I now have responsibilities to meet, and realize that every decision I make can create a difference!

School closed on March 20th. How have things changed you during this shutdown?

Olive:  It is true that this was a very difficult time for everyone around the globe in their respective careers. In every situation, for good or bad, one learns from it.  In regards to my career and my responsibilities here at GGAST, I have learned a very important lesson; to always to have a well-equipped stock as it has helped our activities kept going. I also decided to have the VAC team join the farm during this time as many of our casual farm laborers are unavailable. 

Gloria: Before the school closed, I worked with both students and the farm staff, but today I work just with the farm staff, which means I now see more gaps to fill than before. On the other hand, I am very much comfortable staying at school and working on the farm while also using this time to work on my personal development.

Gathering the food for the handout. The farm is now providing food for approximately 300 people/week (95% of the recipients are nursing mothers).

With the school closure, you have shifted to serving the community with produce boxes for 50 families/approximately 300 people in Bugesera. Can you tell us how this came about and what that has been like?

Olive:  It has always been one of the school values to help the community. Even when school is in session our students volunteer their time and talent to tutor the students from other local schools.  In keeping with this culture, we were able to support approximately 300 people, in 3 rounds, with food who were severely impacted by COVID-19. Our Head of School worked with the local government to help identify the families that had greatest need.  It had been a very good experience because to put a smile on peoples faces. We have been able to supply food including beans, tomatoes, fresh bananas, cabbage, yellow bananas, butter nuts, Carrots, dry maize, fresh corns, red onions, papayas, watermelon, amaranth.

Gloria:  It has impacted many and was a huge need considering how tough these times have been to all people around the world. The families have been so grateful for the food received.                    I cannot deny the sight of joy in their faces every time they stand in a line to receive the package.      I have been at the front of the line serving during the three rounds of our distribution.                        We are doing what we were meant to do as a community.

What are some challenges you face on the farm right now?

Olive: The farm is facing a challenge of the irrigation system due to severe flooding in the northern part of Rwanda. This has caused water to be pushed from Akagera River and to fill Mirayi Lake (the lake near the school) which has now flooded.  This has made it difficult for the water pump, used for our irrigation, to function. As a result, we are doing our best to water the crops manually by fetching water from the lake to pour on the crops. We also have less clients than usual and we had to reduce our sale price, which will decrease our intended benefits.

Gloria:  This pandemic has brought its many disadvantages. In addition to the flooding that Olive mentioned, the farm doesn’t have enough suitable appliances and tools to be used in specific activities like pruning and the application of agro-chemicals. For example: Pruning saws, power pruners and a tree pruner. At least one power pruner can do all the work. Our orchard has been badly affected by the brutality of an insect, and the pruning tool is of the upmost importance to revive the orchard. 

Where would you like to see the farm 5 years from now?

Olive: I would like to see the farm sustaining most of the school kitchen so we did not need external suppliers. I would like to see the VAC Market increased and be able to be a supplier of products outside the country. I would like our school farm to continue to grow as a model farm whereby others farmers and community members interested in agriculture would come to GGAST to learn from us.

Gloria: I would like to see the farm more sustainable, advanced in technology and data collection. I would like to see the farm fulfill its main goal to supply all necessary fresh foods to the school, Gashora community and the market in a profitable manner. I would like to see the farm implementing regeneration agricultural practices whereby environmental protection and soil rehabilitation measures become a priority.