Pulling her squirming little boy close, Yvone Nindamutsa explains the impact being part of a food-for-work program in Makamba, Burundi, has had on her.

“My children wouldn’t all be alive,” she explains.

Nindamutsa, 42, lost her husband to lung disease last year. That would be  hard enough in any country. But in Burundi, one of the world’s poorest countries, the loss of a male protector and breadwinner can be devastating.

Most Burundians, like Nindamutsa, are small-scale farmers. They struggle each season to grow enough food to simply feed their families—never mind growing enough to sell on the side and afford things like medicine and school fees.

In the region of Burundi where she lives, years of mismanagement and poor farming methods have left the soil depleted of nutrients.

The result? Growing food on such land is difficult. Many people work hard on their land all day long, but still go to bed hungry at night.

With support from Canadian Foodgrains Bank, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is responding with a Food-for-Work program reaching 12,600 people.

MCC’s partner is Help Channel,a local Burundian organization. At the beginning of the year, Help Channel held meetings in local communities to explain what Food-for-Work projects will happen, and how much people will be paid.

In Nindamutsa’s region of Makamba, people could choose to work in a reforestation project that plants several varieties of trees, both on government land and on land belonging to the participants themselves.

This is an important effort; during the most recent civil war, that ended in 2006, many forests were destroyed by armed groups that wanted to ensure those they were fighting against had no place to hide.

“Working in the reforestation gives me enough food to feed my children,” says Nindamutsa. “There are eight of them, between the ages of 4 and 20, and our land size is small.”

The work isn’t easy; Burundi is a country covered in high, rolling hills and small mountains.

Help Channel’s tree nursery is located at the base of a group of hills, in order to be close to easy water sources. Once the seedlings are big enough to be planted, the women carry them on tubs on top of their heads up the side of the mountain.

From there, they dig holes with hoes, and plant them in the soil.

The trees typically grow quite well. A visit to planting sites from last year, and from two years ago, showed fields of strong, healthy eucalyptus trees.

Healthy forests are important for local farmers, preventing soil erosion, returning nutrients to the soil and ,  depending on the variety, providing a source of extra income.

For this reason, many people are eager to use the food-for-Work program, seeing it not only as a source of immediate income, but also as stepping stone back into regular farming life.

According to Normand Ndazizeze, program manager for Help Channel, paying people with food instead of cash is a way of making sure the project targets those it is intended for.

“Only the poorest people will agree to work for food, and not cash,” explains Ndazizeze. “It’s a method of self-selection.”

The structure of the food-for-work program itself also helps lift people out of extreme poverty.

“People don’t have to work all day,” says Ndazizeze. “We set tasks that have to be accomplished, and then, when that task is done for the day, people are free to go.”

It allows people like Nindamutsa, who has started her own small business making and selling beverages, the opportunity to spend some time working towards becoming self-reliant.

“I’ve been able to use that money for sending my children to school with pens and notebooks,” she says proudly.

Of her family, she says that “the future depends on the development of my children. Of the help she receives from the Foodgrains Bank and MCC, she says: Thank you for your support.”