The nutrition messenger keeping refugees in Rwanda healthy in a pandemic

“There were 60 children suffering from acute malnutrition in this camp when I first started working in 2015 and now there are 17.”

Augustin (R), a refugee and nutrition animator for WFP’s SBCC programme, lives with his wife Athanie and their six children in Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda. Photo: WFP/Emily Fredenberg

Augustin Rudahinyuka, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is one of 15 “nutrition animators” working in Gihembe refugee camp in the north of the tiny East African country of Rwanda.

Through cookery demonstrations and dietary advice, he plays a key role in changing nutritional attitudes and behaviour among refugees.

Augustin and his co-workers are supported by the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Social and Behaviour Change Communication (SBCC) programme.

SBCC, the use of communication to influence knowledge, attitudes, and social norms, is a key component of WFP’s nutrition strategy — and particularly for addressing stunting rates among refugee children.

However, millions of refugees in the East African region, including 133,000 in Rwanda, are facing reductions in their food rations due to severe funding shortfalls.

To avoid the reductions affecting the most vulnerable refugees, WFP and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, have established a targeting system in Rwanda which prioritizes funding to the most vulnerable refugees who depend entirely on humanitarian assistance.

The targeting however only applies to food assistance. All refugees, including those in the least vulnerable group, continue to receive other assistance including cash for non-food items, access to education and health services, school meals and supplementary food assistance to treat and prevent malnutrition, which can lead to stunting.

What is stunting and why does it matter?

Stunting is caused by poor nutrition, recurrent infections, and chronic diseases which cause poor nutrient intake. It has life-long consequences, especially if it occurs during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.

Statistically, stunted children fall sick more often, are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, and may suffer economically as adults.

Teaching during a pandemic

Although the coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the need for good nutrition practices, it has also forced Augustin to adapt how he conducts his lessons.

“During a pandemic it is more important than ever to continue educating families on the importance of good nutrition and the role that it plays in staying healthy,” says Augustin, who as a father of six, knows first hand the role good nutrition plays in a child’s development.

“I used to give cookery lessons for groups of around 30 refugees but at the height of the pandemic I could only teach small groups with strict safety precautions to avoid the spread of the virus in the camps.”

Augustin and other nutrition animators have played an important role in reducing stunting rates for children in all six of Rwanda’s refugee camps — from 33 percent in 2015 to 22 percent in 2019.

WFP also promotes household kitchen gardens as a way for refugee families to increase their nutritional intake by growing their own food and improving dietary diversity.

Families are provided with raw materials such as seeds, fertilizers, and farm tools and trained to construct and maintain their own kitchen gardens.

“I would say that around half of the families in Gihembe now have kitchen gardens,” says Athanie, “Sometimes we grow so much that we are able to share with our neighbours!”

The kitchen gardens have been a nutritional lifeline for many during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has restricted people’s movement and many refugees who used to have casual work outside the camp were no longer able to travel,” says Athanie. “The kitchen gardens helped ensure they could continue to eat fresh foods.”

WFP’s promotion of mushroom farming has also provided another important food source for refugee families and a chance to sell surplus to others in the camp.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic the Mushroom Association of Gihembe was making around 60,000 Rwandan Francs (US$ 60) per month through sales to refugees.

Unfortunately as the economic impact of the pandemic continues, the market for mushrooms has reduced dramatically.

“Many refugees haven’t been able to find casual labour and families haven’t had the same money to buy mushrooms as before the crisis,” says Eline Mukasine, President of the Mushroom Association of Gihembe.

Instead, most of the mushrooms produced by the association have been shared among refugees rather than being sold.

“In normal times the mushrooms provide us with a supplementary income and during times of crisis it has given us an additional nutritious food source to help us get by,” says Eline.

Other components of WFP’s SBCC programme includes the promotion of livestock rearing for milk and meat sales, and the establishment of Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA) where members can save and borrow money to start businesses which generate additional income.

WFP’s SBCC programme in Rwanda is possible thanks to generous funding from USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance (BHA).