Pomegranates Mean Prosperity

04/22/2008 01:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In these pages, I've written about the need for investment in Africa. A recent example makes it quite clear that this investment need not be in the billions to have a very real and potentially far-ranging impact.

By staking local business, investors have a chance to permanently break the cycle of poverty, disease and despondency. By teaching microfinance, building local cooperatives, and connecting producers to international and regional markets, we can create prosperity.

Building prosperity is quite distinct from ending extreme poverty. The tools for ending extreme poverty are well known though rarely implemented in an integrated fashion. In Mayange, Rwanda -- the very epicenter of the 1994 genocide -- the Millennium Villages Project has been working with the community to implement these interventions -- in health, agriculture, education, and cooperative development -- since 2006. As long as children were dying of malaria and starvation was lurking around the corner, it was difficult to engage the community in small business development. However, in the past year there has been a rapid transformation: simply put, the death rate has fallen dramictically, and alongside this drop, the community's excitement for private sector development has taken off.

One outstanding locus of interest has been the creation of an organic pomegranate cooperative - the very first in Rwanda, or East Africa, for that matter.

About a year ago, the Millennium Villages Project began to work with 32 local farming families to help them organize the Turwanyubukene Farmers Cooperative (TFC). Their stated goal was straightforward: to rise out of poverty through the production and sale of pomegranates and other high value crops such as chickpeas and chilies.

What's exciting beyond the initiative and vision of these local growers is the partners they are working with and the arrangement they have, which provides a model of the ways in which local prosperity can be achieved.

Two key partners, the U.S. African Development Foundation and POM Wonderful, the world's largest pomegranate buyer and producer, have been working alongside the TFC to jump start their program. A $150,000 grant was applied for and obtained from the U.S. African Development Foundation, which funded the initial seed purchase, technical training, field preparation, irrigation and the acquisition of the necessary equipment for the coop members. In addition, POM Wonderful, the University of California Davis and experts have provided valuable technical expertise on the ground and continue to work with the farmers here to ensure that the crops reach maturity and are harvested, and are further able to produce cuttings that will provide for exponential expansion. The program is now underway: on February 19th, the initial donation of 480 pomegranate trees arrived here for planting and are now in the nursery.

Collaborating with Millennium Villages Project on the project is Rwanda Community Works, a new private-sector oriented initiative which seeks to connect private sector investors with on-the-ground opportunities to create prosperity. Processing pomegranates to make juice and other products will take serious investment over the next few years, and the TFC is looking to US and European investors for help to become a role model for commercial cooperative farming.

The TFC's goals are ambitious, but the members of the coop are highly motivated: fed up with the status quo, they want to achieve sustainable prosperity. The cooperative members have been living on an average of 60 cents per day; they have little or no income generating opportunities. One-third of the farmers are over 60 years old. One-third are the only surviving household member. One-third are women. The cooperative is providing a new avenue of hope for these farmers by bringing them together to raise high value cash crops, and establishing a clear supply chain for consistent purchase of the produce at negotiated and guaranteed prices. These farmers are the key target of USADF assistance in fighting poverty and creating wealth in rural Rwanda. What's more, they're willing to work hard: in the last several months, they've labored to clear an abandoned hillside of brush and stumps in preparation for planting.

The cooperative is taking advantage of the pomegranate's current status as one of the newest "super foods" (i.e. sources of concentrated vitamins and anti-oxidants). With the growing trends in consumption of super foods in their raw and processed form, investment in pomegranates can provide a great return. Perhaps more importantly, investing in this project is an investment in the community's abilities: management, logistics, and accounting skills they gain here are endlessly applicable. These will ultimately allow the cooperative to diversify and seek other forms of income in the future, should our thirst for pomegranate juice be sated.

Nevertheless, the short-term impact of the initiative will be immediate and explosive: starting this year, the coop's farmers will have large chickpea harvests. They can expect pomegranate harvests within two years. Earnings per farmer have been conservatively estimated at $500 per annum. This amount will propel member households from the depths of poverty to Rwanda's middle class.

Despite what looks like a promising and profitable enterprise that will lift these 32 member households up, I can imagine critics noting that "this is only 32 families" and that this is "too modest a development". But in response, I would look at the unavoidable ripple effect this prosperity will surely have.

One direct impact beyond raising members' standard of living will be the promotion of commercial, sustainable and organic farming district-wide. To help their neighbors benefit, TFC will share its newly found expertise in agricultural and business practices with fellow farmers in Mayange and throughout the district. The cooperative is also partnering with a local vocational school one kilometer from the farm to spread knowledge about high value crops and virgin organic farming (that's commercial code for organic farming on land that has previously been uncultivated).

In these ways and others, the TFC will quickly benefit its members and may yet realize its dream of becoming the leading supplier of organic pomegranate fruit in East Africa. That would be a rather extraordinary turnaround from being one of the poorest and most traumatized populations on the planet to one of the most innovative and prosperous. Investing in this community and their dream seems like a bet worth placing.