KIGALI, Rwanda – The first thousand days in a child’s life are critical to their mental and physical development.

On this basis the Rwandan government has been working to improve the nutritional status of its population such that each child has the best start in life.

One initiative underway is the aggregation of smallholder farmers into large cooperatives who then partner with government-backed Africa Improved Foods (AIF) to increase yields and modernise techniques.

The cooperatives sell their improved crop to AIF who in turn manufacture highly nutritious foodstuffs.

“Africa Improved Foods is a public-private partnership between the government of Rwanda and a consortium of investors who formed a company whose main purpose is to provide solutions against malnutrition,” explained Prosper Ndayiraggije, Country Manager.

“We are a mission-driven company making highly nutritious foods for the most vulnerable.”

Indeed, the venture produces a wide range of maize-based products enriched with vitamins and minerals which are sold throughout the East African region and which are sourced from Rwanda’s many cooperatives.

The company’s partners include the Dutch development bank FMO, a DFID Impact Acceleration Facility managed by the UK’s development finance CDC group, and the World Bank’s private sector arm, the IFC.

Last season AIF worked with 64 cooperatives comprising around 20,000 smallholder farmers and by situating itself in the middle of the local value chain has been able to effect enormous change.

“What we do is to help cooperatives improve in the value chain,” continued Ndayiraggije.

“We need high standards for our raw material so we support farmers to meet these standards by providing them with equipment and guidance.”

The Cojyamugi Cooperative is just one example where AIF has been making an impact.

The Cooperative, near the Burundi border, is a processing unit and storage facility surrounded by 529 hectares of maize fields cultivated by 4,800 farmers.

Farmers are separated into groups of 15, each with their own leadership structure and reporting head.

Nayigizika Boniface, Manager at Coiyamugi, explained how the farm has benefited since partnering with the AIF.

“Previously, we used to produce 800 metric tonnes before AIF started working here,” he said.

“Now we produce 1,200 metric tonnes and we no longer lose anything post-harvest because our post-harvest handling practices have been improved.”

Along with post-harvest techniques AIF also helps the cooperative with fertilisers, planting methods, farm equipment, seed selection and market access, continued Boniface.

The combined effect of these improvements has meant that last year the cooperative was able to sell 816 metric tonnes to the AIF out of a 1,200 metric tonne season – meaning plenty is left over for sale and redistribution within the local market.

In a mutually beneficial cycle, then, it’s in the AIF’s interest to improve the productivity of Rwanda’s cooperatives as a sustainable way to source raw materials for its nutrition business.

Public-private partnerships, as ever, are key to creating impact and Rwanda’s model should be lauded.