Rwanda is one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in Africa, with approximately 80% of the population working in the agricultural sector. Most are smallholder farmers, raising traditional staple crops. But some – like Theoneste – are thinking outside the box, and finding ways to turn agricultural waste like discarded banana stems into products that support women and girls.
Theoneste was mainly growing maize (corn) using traditional methods. But his income remained low – and with a family of nine to care for, he needed a way to increase his earnings to continue providing for them.
In 2015, he began working with the Clinton Foundation, through the Clinton Development Initiative (CDI). CDI helped introduce Theoneste to soybean farming, which has been proven successful in both increasing the output of farmers’ crops and nurturing the earth by returning important nutrients back into the soil.
During the two years that followed, Theoneste harvested 14 metric-tonnes of soybeans, selling them at a great profit. He explained:
“Before working with CDI, I didn’t realize that farming can generate an income. I just took it as subsistence farming where I could feed my family without buying the food in market. When I joined CDI, I received a lot of trainings on agribusiness and tips on sustainable agriculture. I opened my eyes and I thought, “How can I turn these into business opportunities?”
With his profits, Theoneste decided to launch a business that would benefit not just his family, but also his community and the environment. Theoneste was introduced to Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) by CDI at a local training where communities were shown how a machine could process banana stems, a by-product from harvests that farmers typically have no use for, into a fiber that could be used to make sanitary pads.
The fibers made from banana stem waste can be seen drying in the sun. Workers then process them, turning them into sanitary pads that are sold to rural communities at an affordable price.
He decided he could support his community’s economic growth by purchasing other farmers’ banana stems waste. He then invested in the processing machine with profits from his soybean sales and sold the fibers to SHE which would then process, package, and sell sanitary pads in rural communities at a price local women and girls can afford.
With the help of CDI, Theoneste is able to reduce, reuse, and recycle in his day-to-day work, making him both a sustainable and a profitable farmer. Now, Theoneste has started exploring the potential to further reduce the waste produced by banana stem processing. Discussions with a local mushroom producer led him to understand that the by-products of banana fiber processing are a great material in which mushrooms can grow.
Working to give back to his community, while reducing his environmental impact is a win-win for this farmer, and his community as a whole.