Decades of using mostly imported strategies to promote socioeconomic advancement in Africa has achieved modest success. The outside-in or top-down approach to development favoured by international organisations and adopted by several African governments has, in many cases, failed to resonate with most citizens. It is an approach that needs to be reassessed.
When policies are crafted outside the realities of those intended to benefit from them, the response tends to follow a pattern that ranges from an outright refusal to participate, especially in the absence of direct monetary incentives, to apathy or passive resistance as a result of feeling overwhelmed by externally set targets.
Therefore development policies need to be generated from within communities, taking into account indigenous knowledge and practices. The role of governments or development agencies is then to act as facilitators — helping to bring clarity, and adding intellectual backbone and procedural depth through processes and systems that improve the reach, efficiency and effectiveness of indigenous knowledge-based approaches.
The government of Rwanda has acknowledged the need to incorporate indigenous knowledge into economic advancement strategies, and has done so through several programmes. One is Girinka — a success story and a model for other African governments and global organisations seeking ideas that will effectively address poverty at the grassroots level.
Cows for poor households
Girinka — “May you own a cow” in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s official language — is an agricultural project in which the government gifts a pregnant dairy cow to poor and vulnerable households in a village. The responsibility for identifying suitable households and informing the Rwanda Agriculture Board, the agency in charge of implementing Girinka, about them rests with the village (umudugudu). Under the agreement, beneficiaries of Girinka pass on the first female offspring of the cow to a poor and malnourished neighbour approved by community leaders.
The Girinka scheme was established in 2006. As of March this year, it has donated close to 200,000 cows to households in need. Although the government has provided funding since the early stages, the programme also relies on donations from wealthy citizens, religious bodies, political organisations, international organisations and NGOs.
There are several measures of its success. Drawing on analysis by the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, the Rwanda Governance Board — a public agency that supports good governance for development — noted that when Girinka began in 2006, childhood malnutrition across the country stood at an average of 43 per cent; six years later, this figure had dropped to 21 per cent. [1,2]
Girinka was also associated with an 11 per cent increase in national milk production between 2009 and 2011. During this same period, beef production rose by approximately ten per cent. 
Through Girinka, previously malnourished and vulnerable families were able to get adequate nourishment from milk. They could also sell the huge surplus produced by the Friesian dairy cows, a high-yielding breed. As a result, families hav ebeen able to invest in health insurance, tuition, decent housing, biogas plants and in starting local businesses.
The success of Girinka can be attributed to its involvement of an indigenous and culturally rooted approach to wealth creation, which citizens could readily identify with and leverage to better themselves and their community. This is more than an abstract notion — it is based on the fact that cattle rearing holds a central and deeply regarded place in Rwanda’s ancient tradition and modern culture.
The cultural value of cattle
In Rwandan culture, the gift of a cow or calf symbolises the most appreciated expression of goodwill during a marriage, funeral or any other special occasion where there is a need to show gratitude or friendship. It is also the most highly regarded form of economic assistance that can be given by the rich to poor and vulnerable groups.
Rwanda’s dances, folklore and other artistic expressions are full of references to the cow. Indeed, one can say that, at its core, Rwanda’s socioeconomic structure is about cow rearing and exchange.
By officially acknowledging and institutionalising the centrality of cattle to its citizens, the government of Rwanda plugged into existing social dynamics, leveraging them and — in combination with other similar projects — lifting hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty.
Rwandans who never felt empowered by previous poverty alleviation programmes, such as micro-credit loans or the distribution of seeds and fertiliser, were able to immediately and strongly identify with the way that Girinka and cow rearing represented the government’s objective of making their lives better. The cooperation of villagers was neither coerced nor induced; it was a spontaneous and open-hearted response to their own understanding of wealth creation.
The successes recorded by Girinka show that, when government and development partners invest time to understand culturally significant, economic-related knowledge and practices with a view to making them the foundations of policymaking, citizen ownership becomes the immediate result. The agencies involved should then put more emphasis on scaling-up existing structures, and closely monitoring and evaluating them in order to determine their impact, address weaknesses and expand on successes.
Chika Ezeanya is affiliated with the University of Rwanda and the African Institute for Research in Indigenous Solutions. She has worked as a consultant for the World Bank and studied the Girinka programme while at the Ministry of Agriculture in Rwanda. Ezeanya can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @chikaforafrica
References Child malnutrition (UNICEF, accessed 4 June 2014)
 National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, Ministry of Health, ICF International. Rwanda Demographic and Health Survey 2010. (National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, 2012)
 Girinka — The one cow per poor family program (Girinka, 13 June 2013)