Rwanda is an International Development Success Story. But Can it Survive Climate Change?

Many international development experts will tell you Rwanda is a modern success. Since the 1994 genocide, the government has instituted policies that have sharply raised living standards nationwide, in a remarkable turnaround. But the country—in which agriculture employs more than three-quarters of the population—faces new threats from climate change and population growth.

In 2014, Rwanda launched a national fund for the environment and climate change adaptation to help farmers prepare for the future and mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Experts say this is sustainable development in action.

Earlier this year, I traveled to Rwanda on an International Women’s Media Foundation Fellowship to report on rural development. Across the country, I met farmers, health care workers and government leaders intent on moving beyond history. Farming is key to the country’s future. I met with Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources Gerardine Mukeshimana, who discussed the country’s prospects.

Here is an excerpt of that interview:

Gerardine Mukeshimana

What challenges and changes will farmers face in the future? 

Rwanda is a small country, so as the population grows, there’s a problem of the land size being reduced over time. The tradition is that as the kids grow, they will have to divide the family land—so that’s a huge challenge.

Rwanda being a hilly country, there are some lands which were not previously used because [of] high slopes. So we have a comprehensive program of what we call “land husbandry,” that is, using agriculture practices like radical terracing so that the land, which was not previously used, can be used for agriculture.

But as Rwanda emerges into the middle-income country, we don’t expect that 75 percent of people who are in agriculture are going to remain there. So with development, we expect that some people will be graduating from agriculture to some other form of activities.

What is the purpose of the Fund for the Environment and Climate Change?

To fund the projects which are in the line of climate change mitigations. That’s important for the Rwandan farmers….. Rwanda is experiencing climate change as any other countries in Africa or in the world. Some are experiencing droughts; others are under flood. It’s important that everyone be involved in trying at least to mitigate them. There are so many programs to try to adapt…crops, which are supposed to be able to withstand droughts; radical terracing…to minimize erosion but also to be able to conserve water in the soil.

Droughts are really bad in Rwanda: last year, the whole season beat us. February to June was lost because of drought.

In such cases, what can farmers do?

We have a program of storing grains so we have what we call national strategic reserves…maize and beans. Last year, when the droughts were severe in certain districts…the national program was able to provide some food. Not for free, as such, but in a context of what we call “Food for Work.” People would be working in their own fields, probably doing the terraces for erosion control or other things, but they benefit [by receiving] food. That was a big help last year when the season was lost.

What is the state of food security in Rwanda today?

The people are being able to produce enough food for home consumption. Some spots of the country are having more malnutrition than others, but in general, the food security is OK. We still have to work on…nutrition security.

Farmers have told me about a trend in growing beans that are both nutritious and prolific. What are these?

We are encouraging farmers to grow the biofortified beans—those are having high content of iron and zinc. They combine both high-yielding properties with a content of iron and zinc…a super bean…bred in Colombia in the CIAT, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. CIAT has a strong partnership with a Rwanda bean program.

They are more nutritious than other crops. Families who are consuming beans plus something else, they are [more] well off than the families who are surviving on roots like cassava, potatoes.

You earned a PhD in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology from Michigan State University. What is your childhood background, and what did you learn in the United States that is applicable in Rwanda?

My parents were farmers. But also I had a high school background in the sciences, so I had various choices. I ended up being an agricultural scientist.

Agriculture education is a whole thing…your job is to adapt to what you know. I did plant breeding and genetics, and I end up working in molecular biology. Having a background in science…I can be able to interpret various aspects of agriculture in the field.

What role might GMOs play in Rwanda’s agricultural future?

So far the GMO crops are not in Rwanda, but I assume that they may come in the future. GMO crops are playing a huge role in food security and markets and nutrition. So many crops are being transformed for specific traits, which are beneficial. What we can do as a country is to think about and start developing policies that are going to help us to deal with it. I see it as something that we should be getting ready for.

Is GMO labeling an issue debated in Rwanda?

Different countries in Africa are setting up their biosafety frameworks, and that’s the way to go. You start discussing about labeling, about everything that is needed to make sure that the consumer is well informed before he buys. To my view, it’s important that the consumer knows what he’s buying because it’s his money at the end of the day.

What would you like people in other countries to know about Rwanda?

We have a vision of being a middle-income country in 2020. And we have huge opportunities for investment, partnership—especially in agriculture. Many programs are emerging in horticultural crops, agroprocessing. It has a huge potential.