Cooperatives as implementers of Responsible Investments in Agriculture

Here we go with our third post of the project to share what we learnt during our stay in Rwanda, in particular with the rice-growing farmers, the members of the Coproriz-Ntende. In this country, we learnt about cooperatives as implementers of responsible investments in agriculture.

Rwanda, also known as the county of a thousand hills, is impressive for the beauty of its landscape as well as for the energy and dynamic attitude of its population. 

As many will know, this country has also a tough story, the story of a genocide that happened in 1994, where almost 1,000,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi but also Hutu, were killed. The first thing we did when we landed in Kigali was to pay a visit to the Genocide Memorial. A touching human experience we’ll never forget and that gave us a sense of incredulity about how such a level of atrocity could happen, where so many people died, murdered by the hands of people who used to be their friends, their neighbors, their teachers, and so on. Of course, this left mistrust and hate among the population, with clear repercussions on cooperative development, as we will see later on with the case of COPRORIZ-Ntende.

There are some very interesting figures about Rwanda. Did you know? 

Since the Genocide, Rwanda has seen over two decades of uninterrupted economic growth and social progress. Despite the existing inconsistencies and problems, there are some interesting facts and figures about this country:

  • It ranks 6th for gender equality according to the Global Gender Gap Report that benchmarks 149 countries on their progress towards gender parity across four thematic dimensions: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. For example, Italy, our country, ranks 70th; USA 51st.
  • Human development in the country is increasing at a fast pace, with Human development index increased from 0.3 score in 1998 to 0.52 score in 2017, growing at an average annual rate of 2.95 %.

The role of cooperatives in the national development strategy

In the year 2000, the government established the Vision 2020, a long-term development strategy with its main objective to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country by 2020, based on a thriving private sector. What is the role for cooperatives in this process? According to the latest report of the Rwanda Cooperative Agency, more than 3.6 million of Rwandan populations have joined cooperatives. That is, 55.3% of the population, at the age of being a cooperative member, are now operating in cooperatives. So, cooperatives are in fact an important player to pull people out of poverty

Acknowledgment of the role of cooperatives as a means for development dates back to early 2000, when cooperatives were seen as a way to fight the deep poverty experienced after the genocide. 

A very recent interesting initiative – the cooperative knowledge sharing platform – is in place whereby all relevant public and private stakeholders meet quarterly to share information and learning from across the cooperative sector, ultimately contributing to building synergies for cooperative development.

COPRORIZ-Ntende: cooperatives as implementers of responsible investments in agriculture


The story of COPRORIZ-Ntende started in 2003 as an association and then in 2005 as a cooperative. Today it includes 3,761 members, 2,450 men and 1,311 women. The first President, James Karangwa, and the managing director, Jean de Dieu Sinzamuhara, are the key leaders and protagonists, together with the members of the cooperative who have achieved success over its 15 years of existence

It all started with a government intervention that transformed the Ntende territories in 2003. Wide expanses of land were used at the time by local populations to produce not even enough for home consumption. At that time, as told  women members particularly told us during one of the FGDs we carried out, household diet was mainly based on sweet potatoes. There was deep poverty and famine. Government intervention consisted mainly in building a dam and creating a marshland and farmers were encouraged to come together and cultivate that land. 

James was there when all this happened. It was not easy at the beginning, as he explained to us. There was high motivation among farmers to improve their wellbeing, but low capacities at both production and managerial levels. In addition, they did not even speak to each other because of the mistrust left by the genocide. However, the fact of being formally together attracted training provided by external players.

This is considered by James as a turning point in the story of COPRORIZ-Ntende. Little by little, they learnt how to increase rice production, how to manage pests, and above all how to manage a cooperative conformed to the seven principles. It was interesting to hear that the Farmer Field School programme run by FAO was particularly useful for them to learn how to work together, manage pests and increase rice productivity from 2.5 t/ha to 5.25 t/ha while massively reducing pesticides. Another important moment for the story of the cooperative was when they secured a contract with a national buyer, which assured them a profitable access to market.

They put in place a pyramidal system of governance that sees at the bottom the groups, each formed by nearly 25/30 members. 8/10 groups together form a zone, at each level the rice collection centre is found. The COPRORIZ-Ntende has in total 15 zones. Each zone elects its delegates who then participate in the GA and elect the Board. The flow of information from the groups to the management and board and back again is assured by the “mobilizers”, that is farmers trained as agronomists and employed by the cooperative to provide technical assistance to the farmers of each zone. 

cooperatives as implementers of responsible investments

How the cooperative changed members life?

Although there have been challenges, the cooperative has grown and has managed to provide members with many services that have radically changed their lives. During one of the FGD, we asked members to identify the main changes that happened in their lives since they joined the cooperative. They came up with a very long list:

  • Decent housing, thanks to higher income and easier access to bank loans facilitated by the cooperative that works as a guarantee;
  • Children’s education until university level thanks to small loans from the cooperative to pay children’s school fees, the coop shop to buy books and stationary; and easier access to bank loans to access university;
  • Pension for members older than 70 years old paid by the cooperative fund;
  • Medical insurance provided by the cooperative fund;
  • Funeral services paid by the cooperative fund in case a member or any of their relatives pass away;
  • Increased farming knowledge, thanks to training and technical advice provided by the cooperative;
  • Feeling more empowered, thanks to collective power;
  • Easier and stable access to market;
  • Improved nutrition and food security, thanks to more knowledge about the balance diet thanks to cooperative training; higher income to buy diversified food; cattle and goat breeding;
  • Access to electricity thanks to photovoltaic panels.

However, one could wonder how sustainable a process of development can be like this when it is dependent on one crop, especially when it is challenged by natural threats, climate change being the first. Could a cooperative like this be resilient? This has been the very first question James and Jean de Dieu asked themselves. Their vision was to build a sustainable business that could effectively meet members’ needs over time. But how to do it? The answer came by chance, when they made their first investment, building a hall to hold their meetings. The hall, that was the best in the district, was requested for renting, and after that, upon clients’ requests, the cooperative built also a restaurant and a hotel, recently awarded with two stars, as they proudly showed us.

Nowadays the cooperative generates a surplus of 40 million RWF out of rice production and another 60 million RWF out of the hotel. This is crucial as it not only means that the level of services assured to members is not affected in case of a bad harvest, but also that the cooperative can meet emerging needs. Other investments are under way, such as a project of poultry farming that aims first to provide each member with their own chicks (with an expected good impact on nutrition and on household income diversification) then to serve also the district, generating additional income for the cooperative

Another interesting project is the foundation of a farming association composed of members’ kids who, after completing their studies, engage in fishing activities at the dam for their own income-generation. By the way, as we learnt, the dam is managed by a water user association that takes care of the dam’s maintenance and works hand in hand with the cooperative to serve the marshland the best it can. 

Board and management alone agree none of these projects of investment. As was explained to us, for each investment there has been an internal process of discussion that led to project prioritization by members according to their needs. 

When we asked the management what is their factor of success, they identified exactly this high commitment to be respondent to members’ needs, generating trust, transparency and accountability. This was frankly confirmed through the words of each member we met. Social and economic cohesion that was not there at the beginning of the story of this cooperative, as the genocide had disrupted whatever possible confidence among people there had been, was successfully rebuilt through the COPRORIZ-Ntende.

What insights emerge from this cooperative story?

For us spending those days with James and Jean de Dieu, as well as with the newly appointed president, and with all the members we met, was indeed an interesting lesson of cooperative development. As usual, here is some food for thought:

  • It is always said that cooperatives set up through a bottom-up process are more likely to survive and be perform well. Of course, it is not a mystery that this cooperative has a different story and that at the beginning it could not count on important social capital, which meant that a committed group of people had to work together in a collective action process. However, after 15 years, those bonding ties among committed and empowered members are there. This happened mainly because of committed and visionary leaders who managed to rebuild trust and motivate farmers, but also thanks to the good support of external actors, who provided training and turned this fundamental experience into cooperative development.
  • The role of women in Rwanda is impressive. After the genocide, they became the backbone of the country’s development. Targeted training for women had an important role to support them in their process of self-development and in their active participation in the cooperative. Within the cooperative, they also have their own commission where they discuss themes of their specific interest. However, let us say that a higher representation at leadership level would be desirable also for the COPRORIZ-Ntende. 
  • Finally, a remark about the role of cooperatives to promote responsible investment. This is a topic of particular importance for me (Sara) and Cécile Berranger (today one of the members!). Together with another of our friends, Federica Rinaldi, we wrote a paper exactly about this! It showed how cooperatives are not only capable of generating investment through share capital and loans, but can also create financial viability and provide effective services to their members, they can also manage to increase the willingness of members to reinvest in the cooperative itself, generating a virtuous circle of responsible investment and sustainable development. That research was the output of a project we carried out under a partnership between FAO, Roma TRE University, ICA Africa and the Uganda Cooperative Alliance. This case study totally confirmed the findings of that paper!

Also in this occasion, we gave James the argan oil produced by the Cooperative Toudarte

This time we also asked Jean de Dieu, as managing director, to share a sentence with cooperators and cooperative leaders around the world… here you go!

“One of the best possibilities to eradicate poverty for many people at once is through cooperatives… Coop leaders, please work hard in transparency and ensure freedom for all members because cooperative failure, success and pride is not only yours… remember that you will always reap what you sow, there is huge opportunity ahead if you aim at common interest!”

We are so grateful for the fantastic time we had in Rwanda! Our thanks goes to everyone at the COPRORIZ- Ntende, including Mr Africa, the director of the hotel, who facilitated our stay and helped with the translation, and all the staff who work at the hotel and made our stay comfortable and unforgettable. We also thank the chairman of the National Cooperatives Confederation of Rwanda (NCCR) Augustin Katabarwa, and the Executive Secretary of NCCR, Gerald Ngabonziza, for welcoming us in the country of a thousand hills.

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