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U.S. Group Helps Women Farmers in Rwanda and Sudan Battle Hunger

Soaring food prices over the past year have forced an estimated 100 million more people around the world into extreme poverty. A women's organization in Washington is responding to this disaster with a new anti-hunger project. Its goal is to train thousands of women in developing countries to grow crops that not only will feed their families — but also earn a profit. Mohamed Elshinnawi has more.

Not long ago, international aid agencies combated hunger in developing countries by shipping in thousands of tons of foreign food and distributing it to the needy. But there were unintended downsides of such direct aid including harm to local farm economies and the deepening of rural poverty.

So most aid groups have adopted more careful strategies to fight hunger. Women for Women International is one of them. The Washington-based humanitarian organization teaches poor women in Sudan and Rwanda how to manage a food production system called "commercial integrated farming."

"Having women involved in agribusiness, I think, is really important in terms of poverty reduction in Rwanda," says Pat Morris, Women for Women's program director.

Morris says that their analysis indicates women in Rwanda "have the potential to more than triple their income." And she expects very similar patterns of poverty reduction in the group's projects with women farmers in Sudan and Afghanistan.

The idea behind empowering women with agricultural skills came from the women themselves. They already knew the importance of being able to feed and clothe and provide health care for their families. They knew it was vital to support their local economies. What they needed were the skills to produce and market food more efficiently, profitably and sustainably, often under challenging conditions.

Women learn a variety of business and farming skills

Women for Women International responded to this need by launching the Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative (CIFI) in Rwanda. Pat Morris says training for women in Rwanda will help them develop a budget for their agribusiness.

They will also learn skills in agricultural production such as "how to do organic fertilizer, the best time for harvest, how to increase their yield, what kind of seed to use."

With integrated farming, producers raise livestock and a variety of crops on one piece of land. Animal manure provides fertilizer, and some of the crops can be used as animal feed. With the group's training, the African women have been able to grow staple crops like bananas and sorghum alongside higher-value crops like passion fruit and pineapples.

A typical hectare of farmland in Rwanda used to yield $420 per year. A family using integrated farming techniques on the same piece of land can earn as much as $3500 per year.

Women for Women International has worked with a variety of partners in designing and implementing the Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative. Grace Fisiy is an agribusiness specialist who is working in Rwanda and Sudan to help pull together all the varied pieces of the farming project.

Partnering with other organizations

Fisiy says the land for the program is acquired through the government or local community. "We also work hand in hand with the ministry of agriculture in each country and other related government departments." Local NGOs help with training and, like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN World Food Program, they provide material and financial assistance.

Fisiy says the local news media in both Sudan and Rwanda have been playing a key role, "in getting the word out about what we are doing and…also in sensitizing the communities concerning the activities," She says one of their partners in Sundan is a local radio station. "And the results have been very encouraging."

Agribusiness specialist Grace Fisiy predicts that at least 3000 women in Sudan and Rwanda will be trained in the farming techniques that will boost their harvests and speed their families' exit from poverty. She is also hopeful the Women for Women International initiative can be a model for other countries now enduring critical food shortages and rising poverty especially Afghanistan, where U.N. data show 70 percent of the Afghan population mostly women and young children are now experiencing chronic hunger.