How grassroots aid work in Africa is making a difference
High up in the majestic rolling hills of Rwanda sit some 100 men and women discussing how they intend to tackle the challenges that have beset progress in this remote village where soil erosion, poor harvests, heavy rainfall, precarious roads and lack of electricity are the norm. From improving their crop yields, to a desire for social structure, the people of Siganiro are eager for change.
In the past six months they have, for the first time, come together as a collective, agreed on a mission statement to unify the community, identified objectives they want to meet, and outlined the steps they need to take to get there. Which begs the question — why now and what happened to move them to this stage?
Development based on trust, not power
As one of several remote villages on the outer edges of Ruhengeri, the capital of the northern Musanza District, the people of Siganiro have somehow escaped the attention of the development industry, which accounts for more than 100 international humanitarian organisations in Rwanda. It’s precisely because they have been ignored by the traditional aid model that Spark Microgrants, a small grassroots-led microgranting organisation that pairs community facilitation with a small grant opportunity, reached out to them in February this year.
The group of 100 men and women are representatives of Siganiro’s overall population of 424, covering 94 households. They were initially scouted out by Regine, one of Spark’s in-country facilitators, who spent two months evaluating Siganiro’s needs before beginning the Spark process of the Community Development Experience.
Regine has since met regularly with the group, taking the two-hour journey by bus, then motorbike and finally on foot hiking up the undulating slopes that lead to the village.
As a Rwandan citizen, Regine welcomes Spark’s bottom-up approach, given the disproportionate and unbalanced level of progress in a country that has apparently been heralded as the perfect example of development, yet where access to health, education and basic resources remains sporadic for most living outside the capital Kigali.
The communities that Spark works with typically face up to a six hour walk to the nearest health centre, a two hour walk to the nearest school, eat only one meal a day, lack electricity and have homes with the most rudimentary level of sanitation.
“Our priority is to work with communities who have never had any NGO help before and who meet all of our vulnerability criteria,” says Regine, a university graduate and former teacher.
“Sometimes we’re seeing people who might have had some involvement with other NGOs but not in a way that has really helped them. For instance, I came across a Rwandan community that had been given some goats, which they simply sold because they needed money. Another community was given funding but no help in how to manage it. We work with people to understand what opportunities they can truly benefit from.”
The aim of Spark’s Community Development Experience, as the name suggests, is to facilitate change by enabling social cohesion from within. It’s participatory in the truest sense — instead of placing power in the hands of outside agents, and thereby keeping the so-called beneficiaries in a near constant state of need, Spark’s approach is shaped by the people it connects with.
Siganiro is just one example that proves the dramatic difference this can make — the community has elected its own leader to govern the process, and villagers meet regularly to discuss what resource and capacity they need to make a difference to their lives in a way that matters most to them, as decided by them.
Virgina, the Vice President of the community, says: “We didn’t use to come together and sit like this before Spark came to work with us. I’m very happy to have Spark here working with us. If people keep coming together like this and working, I’m convinced we will achieve something good.”
Siganiro is in the early stages of working through the Spark process, in which local Spark facilitators reach out to rural poor villages in their home country and lead them through a five month project planning process in which community members identify a project, design an implementation strategy, identify budget and elect a leadership committee.
Spark awards anything from $2,000 to $10,000 for the realisation of each community-led project, such as a school,electricity line or health centre. As the organisation approaches its fourth year of working in East Africa, it has helped more than 64,000 people in 75 communities in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda to plan and implement their own social impact projects. But the outputs are about more than just the concrete results — each community gains the skills and confidence to continue leading local change.
In Mubuga, a neighbouring hilltop village, over three miles from the capital Kigali and again, only accessible by motorbike or foot, the challenges faced by the community of 94 men and women are virtually identical — lowland poverty caused by reduced productivity and lack of manure to fertilise the land, leaking roofs forcing families out of their homes in the rainy season, and reduced income owing to their inability to grow sufficient crops to eat or sell.
As in Siganiro, the threat posed by the heavy rains means stabilizing the roofs of their homes is the first priority — as one villager says, “it’s difficult to think clearly about everything else when you feel insecure in your own home”.
Trust is an especially important part of the Spark process, and something that isn’t necessarily easy to come by where some have experienced outsiders dropping out as quickly as they have dropped in. One villager asks Regine what happens when the project phase is complete.
The reality is that Spark never really leaves — while the visits become less frequent as the villagers hone their own processes, the facilitators nonetheless keep in touch to ensure support is there if needed, and crucially, so that Spark can evaluate its own processes against grassroots-level change.
Karuganda is one of many long-term success stories for Spark. Located in Gashaki, one of the poorest sectors in Musanze, Karuganda is an hour’s motorbike ride through the hills overlooking Lake Ruhondo. Composed of 157 households, community members had traditionally survived mainly on income made from breeding sheep and goats.
The village has several maize fields, but the harvests are generally too small to yield an excess for the market. During the growing seasons, village men frequently travel to neighbouring villages to help with the harvests, but the pay is not sufficient to feed a family. And given that most have not been able to afford schooling past primary age, they lack the knowledge or skills to seek out higher paying jobs.
Spark first partnered with Karuganda in September 2012 and in February 2013, donated $5,000 — match funded by money the villagers raised independently — to build a welding school and an adjoining sewing school. The community decided this would enable them to bolster their own skills, provide them with a self-sufficient income that could benefit the whole community. A year later, the school is thriving with students, some of whom have since started their own businesses to sell their goods in neighbouring sectors.
Console, Spark’s programme manager in Rwanda, now only need return to the community every few months to help them review progress and plan for the future. The project wasn’t without its dissenters though, explains Console, something that isn’t uncommon in communities where working as a collective is not the norm.
“At the start, not everyone saw the benefits of the idea of building a school,” she says. “Some thought the only benefit would be to the students who would attend. As a village, they worked through what everyone could bring to the project and they were eventually inspired by the benefits it would bring for everyone.”
Now, some of the income generated by the school and the associated workshops is directed towards buying goats that are tended by other villagers, ensuring everyone has a role to play and something to gain. There have been other challenges too; students producing substandard goods, for instance — precisely what you might expect from any start-up business, and these are addressed during each review.
Reflecting on how far they have come, group leader Velast explains that when Spark came to the village, it was a much-needed chance for people to come together: “There had been government initiatives before focusing on community development and building nursery schools but this was the first time we had the opportunity to work directly with each other.”
Manakiza is one of 12 students from the sewing school. Before the school was built, she earned a living working the roads, as so many women do in Rwanda.
“I feel great for having these new skills,” she says. “I can make socks, trousers, hats, anything for my five children now. I hope to one day have my own sewing machine so I can earn some school fees and take care of my children.”
For Nshimiyimana, learning to weld was a dream come true: “I had to drop out of school early to look after my family. I couldn’t afford to go back to school then Spark came along and changed that. Now I can actually work for money. It’s changed my life.”