Aberdeen oil tycoon helps to build '˜a better Rwanda'
As the morning mists give way to a hot, climbing sun, legions of smallholder tea farmers take a seat in a makeshift arena in the shadows of the Mulindi Tea Factory which crowns the vast, rolling expanse of this dark green growing territory. A VIP tent lines one side of the pitch.
Here, Sir Ian Wood, the Aberdeen-based oil tycoon, sits in the front row, surrounded by politicians, dignitaries and key figures from the Wood Foundation, the charity set up more than 10 years ago to distribute a share of his family’s £1.6bn fortune.
It has been quite a morning already for Sir Ian, 75, who, on arrival at the tea factory, receives, by all accounts, a rock star’s welcome from the staff and is passed babies to hug.
For a man who is too busy to retire and prefers a quiet bowl of soup in his hotel room to the spoils of the super rich, he enjoys the moment.
“It’s a good sign, to see all these happy faces. It’s always ever been about these people,” he later says.
Five years ago, the Wood Foundation Africa led the purchase of the Rwandan Government’s majority shareholding in the tea factory at Mulindi, plus another in Shagasha in the south.
In time, once certain standards at the business are being met, the 60 per cent share in the factory will be handed over to the smallholders for free, giving them total control of the plant.
Parallel to this has been the foundation’s support of more than 12,000 smallholders over both sites who supply the green leaf for processing.
Long term loans have been given to farmers for seeds and fertilisers with Farmer Field Schools (FFS) set up to teach techniques in husbandry, hygiene, business and cultivation.
Prosperity, as a result, has improved. Tea farming, often a tough gig given the bush’s long maturity period and the steep growing plots, has become more lucrative with incomes for smallholders increasing two to three times over the past four years.
Sir Ian was keen for the celebration of achievements at Mulindi. He describes an earlier event at Shagasha as a complete “eureka experience” for the businessman. These are not words you would usually expect from Sir Ian, for whom optimism does not come easy.
He says: “I didn’t know how many people would come to the celebration and then more than 4,000 people turned up.
“Why it meant a lot to me was that probably all the way along this process I have probably wondered if this was really working.
“Now I know it’s working, There is an awful long way to go but it said to me that now we have got these farmers on side, now we have got their trust.”
Sir Ian watches on as lines of farm school graduates, dressed in matching blue T-shirts and baseball caps, form on the pitch – and the dancing begins.
Quickly, the farmers are pounding the moves as a young woman on a microphone whips up the response with her singing.
It’s not long before dignitaries are pulled out of the VIP tent by the smallholders and dragged up for a dance. Sir Ian gets to stay seated, but is smiling away.
The mood in the arena is high. One smallholder, called Marcus, who wears a sharp burgundy suit over his school T-shirt, takes the microphone and tells the crowd how his boosted income allowed him to buy a motorbike and two cows.
Patting his belly, he adds: “I used to be slim and now I am fat! It is because of tea! Thank you for the seedlings.”
A woman speaks of being able to send her children to school and buy gas for her home for the first time. Now she owns a cow, a prized possession for Rwandans and a show of status, that is producing 10 litres of milk a day.
Applause breaks out for man called Protogen who tells the arena that he used to fall in category one, which marks those on the lowest income in Rwanda, but has now moved up into category three.
Protogen says: “I have three children and I can send them to school. I am among the rich of the region. I have made my house bigger, it used to have just two rooms. Now I can invite a guest to come and stay!”
Cows are handed out as the top prizes for the best performing students with Sir Ian helping to present the sometimes reluctant beasts to the most able farmers. Stoves, cooking pots and solar lamps fitted with mobile phone chargers are also handed out by the Scot.
A line of speakers take to the podium with the words “We will build a better Rwanda, we will build a paradise!” amplifying around the arena.
The words are a common mantra in a country renewing and rebuilding in earnest after the atrocities of the 1994 genocide when up to 1 million people were slaughtered, the overwhelming majority of them Tutsi, in just 100 days. Up to a quarter of a million women were raped, the United Nations estimates.
The Mulindi Tea Factory, where the farmers and dignitaries have gathered, had its own role in the country’s darkest chapter.
It was from here that Paul Kagame, now president, led the Rwandan Patriotic Front with his bunker sitting just outside the factory gates on a site that has become the National Liberation Museum Park.
It was on the same football field where the celebration is now being staged that Kagame addressed the RPF rebel troops ahead of their liberation of the capital, Kigali, 24 years ago.
While Sir Ian may not be in the business of building a Rwandan paradise, the signs are there that the Wood Foundation Africa is helping to transform the livelihoods of some of the country’s poorest.
In stark contrast to the clean, controlled order of the capital Kigali, around 50 per cent of those living in some rural communities live below the poverty line with an income of less than $190 a year. Around 25 per cent live in extreme poverty and bring home less than $125 a year, according to the World Bank.
Figures from the foundation suggest that a hectare of land making between $200 and $300 a year will be worth $2,500 a year once it is fully producing tea.
Smallholders who have gone through the Farmer Field School, have helped to secure a 60 to 70 per cent rise in green leaf production.
Now, one tea bush is producing around a kilo of green leaf a year – up from 600g recorded before.
Figures aside, Sir Ian says the first hand accounts of the smallholders helped gave him confidence in the project.
He adds: “There is an awful long way to go but it said to me that things were working.
“I went home and said to my wife ‘this has never happened to me before’. It was a good moment, a really good moment.”
For the smallholders of Mulindi, they too got their moment. Even if paradise is hard to build, a new prosperity is starting to grow.