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Rwanda: After fleeing, Nicholas Hitimana returned to grow flowers for a new market

In the hills of eastern Rwanda, where communities still bear the scars of the 1994 genocide, the scent of eucalyptus, patchouli, and lemongrass provides fragrant proof that villagers are raising themselves out of poverty.

The region’s farmers are switching from crops such as sweet potatoes and bananas to more profitable plants like geraniums and marigolds for processing into essential oils, to satisfy the growing demand from the world’s booming wellness industry. It is a change that is transforming lives.

Barefoot in the tropical heat, farmer Emeritha Uwamariya takes a break from tilling a field of geraniums to reflect on the momentous upturn in her family’s fortunes from the £5 a day that she can now earn by supplying the raw materials for essential oils. Previously, she lived a hand-to-mouth existence that meant planning for the future was nearly impossible.

“We used to plant sweet potatoes and tubers here, but we couldn’t sell them, we had no income,” said Emeritha, from the plantation at Gahara, in Kirehe district, about three hours’ drive from the capital Kigali. “Then, when the geraniums came, we finally earned a salary to pay for the children’s school, clothes, and even to build a house. We can also put money aside for retirement.”

She is one of around 250 farmers – at least 70% of whom are women – now working at three cultivation sites across Rwanda to supply plants and herbs to Ikirezi, a pioneering essential oils company launched by agronomist and social entrepreneur Dr. Nicholas Hitimana in 2005. Last year, the firm’s shipments brought in more than $1 million, despite being badly affected by Covid-19 and climate change-induced floods. Trade is expected to more than double this year.

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