Marie Consolee standing in her chilli crop.

Business heats up for chilli farmer Marie Consolee

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda took Marie Consolee’s husband and child. For almost 20 years, it also took her ability to hope. But on a hot, still day in January 2014, the one-time teacher from Kiziguro village finds herself dreaming of a better future. “I am no longer begging for things or money. I can get what I need on my own.”

So what’s changed?

An unspeakable past

Rwanda has come an immensely long way since the 1994 genocide claimed some 800,000 lives. Poverty is decreasing rapidly – almost 12 percent between 2006 and 2011 – and the country’s primary school enrolment rate, 98.7 percent, is the highest anywhere in Africa.

Marie in front of her chilli crops

But for every reason to be optimistic there’s a reminder of just how it has left to go: 40 percent of Rwandans still live in extreme poverty, and secondary school enrolment is only 21 percent. In rural Rwanda, home to more than 80 percent of the population – including Marie – poverty rates are three times higher. Almost 14 percent of rural dwellers are landless peasants living in extreme poverty.

Before the genocide, Marie was a teacher in Northern Province. Afterwards, as one of 800,000 refugees and displaced people, she withdrew to the tiny Eastern Province hamlet of Kiziguro with her remaining son and newly orphaned nieces. The plan was to settle into a quiet, isolated life living off a small plot of land she’d inherited from her mother. In practice, the family of five found themselves begging for food from neighbours as part of the 28 percent of Rwandans classified as ‘food-insecure’. Occasional day labour in the fields meanwhile brought in a handful of francs a day – enough, most months, to total about 30,000 Rwandan francs (US $40).

Kiziguro, Rwanda

A brighter future

The family scraped by until 2009. Then Marie joined a Village Savings and Loan group organised by Hand in Hand partner CARE and, gradually, everything changed. But first she had to cut down on the sugar. “Instead of spending 500 RWF (US $0.70) on sugar, I would spend just 300 RWF (US $0.40) and so find the 200 RWF (US $0.30) I needed each week for the group savings fund,” says the 53-year-old.

“I changed my life”

Nine months later, after the group of 30 villagers had saved enough to start funding micro-businesses, Marie was among the first to apply for a loan. Knowing that chilli peppers always sold for a good price, she borrowed 50,000 RWF and bought her first seedlings.

The weather that year was unusually dry. But Marie, with “more friends and a bigger network than before,” was feeling unusually confident. When her seedlings were threatened, she borrowed another 70,000 RWF to hire help carrying water from the local pump. The investment paid off: Marie netted 480,000 RWF (US $700) that first season, enough to pay off her loans and purchase new land. Today, having diversified to grow chillies and bananas, her annual income has increased almost eight-fold to 3,840,000 RWF (US £5,520). And depending on the time of year she employs as many as 16 neighbours.

New hope

And there’s no plan to stop there. To stay ahead of her competitors, Marie has begun saving the 800,000 RWF (US $1,000) she’ll need to build a water tank. After that, she can start her own nursery and begin selling thousands of seedlings for 10,000 RWF (US $15) each. “I changed my life,” she says.

Marie standing in her chilli crops

She also changed her home. In isolated Kiziguro, 10 bumpy miles off the main road from Kigali, most houses are made of mud and tree stumps. Not Marie’s. “I have cement walls and floors so it’s clean and nice,” she says. “There’s also enough food and my family can afford health insurance.”

But perhaps the biggest change of all has been internal. “At local meetings neighbours and government officials want to hear how I changed my life,” says Marie, who’d once lost hope. “I am now a counsellor and advisor on how to start a small business to people in this village and beyond. I am a role model.”

Marie’s results

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Annual income increased almost eight-fold to 3,840,000 RWF (US $5,520)

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Employs up to 16 neighbours

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New home and health insurance for her family

Hand in Hand Eastern Africa and CARE Rwanda are co-operating to empower some 80,000 Rwandans, mostly women, to work their way out of poverty by running their own sustainable businesses. The three-year, US $3.2 million partnership is grounded in our shared belief in the power of entrepreneurship to fight poverty.