Giving Refugees In Rwanda The Power Of Choice

Fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has resulted in more than 76,000 people seeking refuge in Rwanda. In Gihembe camp, Northern Province, where WFP and its partners are providing assistance to more than 14,500 people, a new cash programme is improving the dietary diversity of the refugees as well as empowering them by giving them the ability to decide for themselves what they eat.

GIHEMBE CAMP – When they first fled their home in Masisi, in northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for fear of being killed by militia, Agnes Nyirakanyana and her family believed that they would soon be able to return. But after almost two years living in the forests praying for an elusive peace which never came, they began the journey towards Rwanda.

“We had no big problem with food as there was so much to eat in the forest but it was very hard living in the trees, we missed the sun” said Agnes with grief etched into her face “Two of my children died as we travelled here to find safety”.

That was 18 years ago.  Since then, home for 56-year old Agnes and her five children has been the Gihembe refugee camp in eastern Rwanda. Here, Agnes and her family have relied on a monthly food basket of maize, beans, oil and salt provided by the World Food Programme (WFP). But this year everything has changed again for Agnes, as the WFP general food ration has been replaced with cash. A programme supported by the generosity of donors including ECHO, USAID and the Governments of Canada and Switzerland.

“I did not believe it at first; it was something impossible for me to believe,” said Agnes, her eyes suddenly lighting up. “It has changed everything for the better; I have control again.”

Embracing Technology, Improving Equity 

In January 2014, WFP began implementing a cash transfer pilot project targeting 14,500 refugees in Gihembe refugee camp. The new cash programme modifies the general food distribution, and is partly in response to studies that show refugees needed to diversify their diets to protect or improve their nutrition status.

WFP provided 3,500 mobile phone handsets to the head of households in the camp to facilitate the electronic money transfer using the mVisa technology provided by VISA Inc. Each beneficiary receives RWF 6,300 (US$9) per month to cater for their food needs. The transfer value is based on the average projected local market price of the commodities that were provided in the WFP food basket. A small amount of additional cash is also provided to cover the withdrawal fees, in accordance with the household size.

Beneficiaries also have the option to pay for food items directly from their phone to registered traders operating in or around the camp. And everyone receives their funds on the same day, without waiting in queues, whereas food distributions took time.

So the introduction of cash has not only empowered the refugees and diversified their diets but improved equity among them. Feedback is overwhelmingly positive, even from those who have found the change a bit more daunting than others.

Kanyamihigo Bosco with his mobile phone“I had never used a telephone before and did not believe that money could come from this machine” said 63 year-old Kanyamihigo Bosco as he tapped his mobile phone “but after the training I could do it. For an old man like me it is good to eat softer food like rice and vegetables which is now what I buy with my money.”

Supporting The Most Vulnerable

In addition to the cash transfer, the most vulnerable people also receive additional fortified food rations under WFP’s safety-net interventions, including blanket supplementary feeding to prevent malnutrition among children under 2years of age, pregnant women and nursing monthers. For children between the ages of 2 and 5 who have been diagnosed with moderate acute malnutrition, WFP also provides curative supplementary foods as treatment to help them recover. Children attending primary school are provided with mid-morning porridge to increase their attendance rate and retention rate.

WFP provides food to around 200,000 people across Rwanda, including refugees hosted in five camps. All refugees in the camps are from DRC, and are entirely dependent on WFP food assistance. While the cash programme is currently only operating in one of the five camps for now, WFP is exploring the expansion of the programme, including market assessments to determine if the local markets around the other refugee camps are healthy enough to cope with the additional demand.

“The cash programme has received overwhelming support and we are beginning to see a positive impact on the refugees’ nutritional status” said WFP Country Director Jean-Pierre Demargerie. “By providing cash, we are not only empowering those that receive it but it is an opportunity to stimulate local trade and to extend the benefits of WFP’s operation to the local community outside Gihembe camp. We welcome continued support from donors to enable us to continue and indeed expand this programme.”

For Agnes and others like her, this is a change that is being warmly welcomed.

“Our lives have changed since the cash started. We live better now, the best life ever,” said Agnes with a beaming smile.