Shared Trade Partnership for Greater Social Impact

by Nicolas Hitimana, Ph.D, Founder and Managing Director of Ikirezi Natural Products, Rwanda

Ikirezi Natural Products1 is an emerging agribusiness company that is pioneering the production of high quality essential oils and other natural plant products in Rwanda. Ikirezi operates as a social business committed to reinvesting positive cash flow into operations, distributing it to associations/cooperatives, or utilizing it for projects that benefit the whole community.

Women learning how to prepare an open geranium nursery
Women learning how to prepare an open geranium nursery

Ikirezi was set up in an effort to contribute to the rebuilding of Rwandan economy and its rural communities in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide that killed about 1 million people and destroyed Rwanda’s economy, sinking the remaining population into unprecedented levels of poverty. Although the country has made great strides in rebuilding its economy over the last 20 years, more than 40% of Rwandans still live in poverty and about 80% of the population is engaged in subsistence farming.

Subsistence farming, characterized by very low input and low productivity of both land and labor, depends predominantly on rains. Rwanda, a sub-Saharan landlocked country of the size of Maryland, is the most densely populated country in Africa with a density of 450 people per square kilometer of arable land. Increasing population size and density have reduced farm plot size to about one acre per rural family. This, in turn, leads to a disguised rural unemployment reducing further productivity of farming activities. Few colonial cash crops like coffee and tea have yielded meaningful benefits to the majority of small farmers that work so hard to grow and produce them. Real profits are the privilege of other stakeholders at higher levels in the coffee and tea value chains.

It is within this backdrop that Ikirezi introduced low volume, high value, labor-intensive essential oil crops to help rural poor farmers change from cashless subsistence farming to commercial farming with real monetary value for their crops and labor, and thus escape poverty.

Geranium field in Gahara/Kirehe
Geranium field in Gahara/Kirehe

Ikirezi’s business model represents a new approach for farmer involvement based on farming groups. Ikirezi has developed farmer group principles to optimise income for farmers and productivity from both the land and labor. This approach allows Ikirezi to focus on empowering rural farmers by training and guiding them in the transition from subsistence farming to commercial farming. The result is a highly efficient, scalable farm management system.

Women preparing geranium cuttings
Women preparing geranium cuttings

Ikirezi engages with groups of farmers, especially women, by training them and guiding them in successfully adopting commercial farming techniques. Ikirezi is involved in all aspects of the production chain, and our extension agents oversee all growing activities. Ikirezi technicians coordinate and manage the distillation of the biomass produced by the farmers into essential oils. Most of distilled oil is exported in bulk and some is sold on local markets as an end product. The income that farmers earn from this model of working is significantly higher than when they are otherwise struggling with subsistence farming.

One of distillation units in Gahara/Kirehe
One of distillation units in Gahara/Kirehe

Five years ago Becca Stevens, the Founder of Thistle Farms2 (Nashville, Tennessee) and her team visited one of the Ikirezi geranium farms in Rwanda. The farm is run by Rwandan widows. Becca quickly discovered that, although thousands of miles apart, Thistle Farms and Ikirezi serve women who survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction and homelessness on one hand (USA) and genocide and war on the other (Rwanda). These women have suffered all sorts of abuse and were trapped in hopelessness and abject poverty. They were all victims of mankind’s failure to see themselves in others, resulting in the denial of these women’s intrinsic human value and dignity. Both Thistle Farms and Ikirezi provide jobs to the women and create a working environment for their healing and holistic transformation. Whereas, the women at Thistle Farms make handmade natural body care products, the women at Ikirezi produce organic essential oil crops bought by Ikirezi and processed into organic essential oils used as fragrance in body care products.

Trade (not aid) became the natural link between Thistle Farms and Ikirezi Natural Products.3 A geranium spray that turned out to be one of the most popular products sold by Thistle Farms is made using organic geranium oil produced by Ikirezi. Thistle Farms has always paid a premium price for the organic geranium oils it buys from Ikirezi, not only because the oils are high quality organic products, but also because both companies were created to solve social problems within the respective communities where they operate, not to maximize profits.

Wilting of geranium harvest before distillation
Wilting of geranium harvest before distillation

Hundreds of Ikirezi farmers have been able to build decent houses, pay school fees for their children, pay for their medical insurance, buy farm animals for better nutrition and increased soil fertility, and they have escaped from poverty. It’s our hope that our partnership with Thistle Farms will keep becoming stronger as both enterprises share and learn good practices from one another as well as networking with other like-minded social businesses. Together, we will impact more people at the bottom of the value chain, who only need a “hand up” not a “hand out.”

Founder and Managing Director of Ikirezi Natural Products (www.ikirezi.com), Nicholas Hitimana, PhD, trained as an agriculturalist; he completed his BSc in General Agronomy and Agronomist Engineer at the National University of Rwanda and worked for the Ministry of Agriculture in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994. Having left Rwanda in May 1994 due to the unfolding genocide, Dr. Hitimana proceeded to complete an MSc in Extension for Rural Development and a PhD in applied entomology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland/UK between 1995 and 2001.

Dr. Hitimana returned to Rwanda in 2001. From 2003 through the present time, he has worked as the Rwanda country co-ordinator for Agri-business in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products (ASNAPP). In addition to co-authoring many publications, Dr. Hitimana has lead a World Relief Rwanda/ASNAPP essential oils programme and founded Ikirezi Natural Products, a social enterprise that focuses on lifting rural people, especially women, out of poverty. Under his direction, Ikirezi currently serves more than 500 poor people in Rwanda.

Dr. Hitimana and his wife Elsie, through a local NGO called Link Ministries, started and manage “The Village of Hope,” which houses 27 families of widows and orphans mainly from the 1994 genocide. The Village of Hope is a place for healing, reconciliation, and holistic transformation, not only for people living in the village itself, but also for the surrounding communities.

In addition to his leadership of Ikirezi and Link Ministries, Dr. Hitimana is Chairman of the Board of the Rwanda Agricultural Board (www.rab.gov.rw), a Government institution which combines both agricultural research and extension. He sits on many boards including that of his local Christian Church. Dr. Hitimana recently was selected to be an Ashoka Fellow; Ashoka is “the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 70 countries putting their system changing ideas into practice on a global scale” (www.ashoka.org).


  1. Ikirezi Natural Products available at http://ikirezi.com/

  2. Thistle Farms, available at http://www.thistlefarms.org/

  3. The Voices of Thistle Farms: Meet Our Keynote Speakers: Dr. Nicholas Hitimana (August 14, 2013), available at http://thistlefarms.blogspot.com/2013/08/meet-our-keynote-speakers-dr-nicholas.html