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Feature: Through Genocide and Beyond, A Story of Hope from the Coffee Fields of Rwanda

 

The son of a farmer, Daniel was just six years old when his family fled Rwanda for Burundi to escape the escalating tensions tearing at the fabric of Rwandan society. When guarding their precocious son seemed insufficient to protect him from the mounting hostilities in Burundi that would soon erupt into the Tutsi genocide, Daniel's father moved the family again, this time to Tanzania. A farmer, his father knew the value of tending the land, but also emphasized the value of education: “My father would escort me to school at five am each morning, walking with me for one hour before leaving me to walk the remainder of the 11 kilometer journey alone. Twenty-two kilometers I walked every day. He did this for three years.” Taught by his father to honor the land but hungry for more educational opportunity than the farm could provide, Daniel attended university in Tanzania at Sokoine University of Agriculture. The political climate in Rwanda was still too dangerous for him and his family to return home.

 

Daniel Rukazambuga

Daniel Rukazambuga at center

“The government invested in me and others to move us forward in life. We should be grateful for that investment,” Daniel explained to a group of East African researchers, assembled together in Kampala, Uganda by the Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI) to explore partnership potential. Thirsty to repay this investment, Daniel spent decades sharpening his skills—he went on to earn his M.Sc. in Applied Entomology at Imperial College London and his Ph.D. in Crop Production and Protection at the University of Reading in the UK. Between stints in the classroom, Daniel worked at Maruku Research Station on the shores of Lake Victoria in the far Northwestern corner of Tanzania. Toiling alongside subsistence farmers, Daniel saw firsthand how poor farmers only fell further into poverty. Research that could raise incomes by solving unanswered questions about crop yields, drought resistance, and pest management failed to garner governments' attention. Daniel decided then that he would devote his life to improving the plight of rural farmers across Africa. Science would be his tool to do so.

 

Shaping Africa's future through science

 

His devotion took him to Uganda where he began his PhD research on that country's main staple crop: bananas. His quest took him back to the farming community too, establishing himself in the research-farm go-between institutions known as “agricultural extension.” In the lab, Daniel fixed his sights on the mysterious banana weevil— an insect pest that ravaged Uganda's highland bananas whereas in South and Central American farmers managed to avoid this menace. What started as an entomological question—Why are weevils here and not in South America? —bled into other areas. Soon Daniel was called upon to help diagnose other major constraints to Uganda's banana production. With a research fellowship provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, he ultimately made his way into the global behemoth of international agricultural research: the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and its International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

 

Despite his academic and research achievements, Daniel struggled to forge the linkages needed to move information to farmers from the laboratory and back again. Unsatisfied with traditional approaches, Daniel joined a development program based at his research station in Maruku, Tanzania. There he established a novel participatory approach for community-based seed production and pest management for smallholder farmers. He watched as the extension system changed to become more relevant to farmers' needs through his facilitation and others' efforts. The experience fortified his optimism that through collaboration, change is possible.

 

Going home

 

It was not until 2001 that Daniel finally returned to Rwanda. First working with government in the Ministry of Agriculture, Daniel ultimately made his way to the National University of Rwanda as a member of the faculty. “It's the most enjoyable job I've ever had. The output is visible. The impact is clear,” he said.

 

Daniel Rukazambuga

Daniel (left) and the head of the Muraba Coffee
Washing Station observe the coffee washing system
that differentiates coffee by grade.

After the Tutsi genocide, the country sought to stabilize the economy and promote national unity and development. Resuscitating the economy would be as much a story of agricultural development as it would be a story of socio-economic reform. In its Vision 2020 plan, the document outlining the country's priorities and targets for the year 2020, Rwanda set ambitious goals. Within 20 years the country aims to increase per capita GDP by more than 300%, boosting it from $250 per person per year up to $900. Agriculture, especially coffee production, is to play a major role in that increase.

 

In the early 1990s coffee accounted for 60% of Rwanda's total exports. The genocide and a severe coffee sector crisis in the late 1990s resulted in coffee revenues falling by more than 60%. Intent on salvaging the sector and reaping the benefits of increased exports once more, government, research institutions, and private sector, with the support of development partners, joined forces to draft a National Coffee Strategy in 2002. The Strategy targeted specialty coffee, which enjoys higher and more stable prices than commercial coffee, which is subject to volatile global commodity price swings.

 

Since the strategy's articulation, farms have begun to see the value in producing specialty coffee. Coffee cherry prices for Rwanda more than doubled since the strategy's actions were undertaken. A mix of better technology in the form of coffee washing stations, improved on-farm practice for harvesting and post-harvest handling, and investments in research and training in agronomy at graduate levels all contributed to the miraculous turnaround the sector enjoyed. Daniel's research and that of his university, together with international universities including Michigan State University and Texas A&M, proved vital to the turnaround. For a decade students and faculty worked continuously on the coffee value chain. The USAID-funded SPREAD and PEARL projects spurred these and other reforms. All the while, Rwanda's coffee industry gained a positive profile internationally, evidenced by a surge in demand for high quality bourbon Arabica hailing from the country's lush emerald hills.

 

What coffee's transformation did to heal the fresh wounds inflicted through genocide may be a less known story. “Working together at coffee washing stations, farmers have new opportunities to interact with other Rwandans. These repeated interactions are helping to lessen the sense of ethnic distance among members of Rwandan society,” a recent World Bank report notes. “As farmers and other workers at coffee washing stations experience increased economic satisfaction which comes from the higher incomes they earn from coffee, they may also feel greater levels of trust and conditional forgiveness towards others with whom they interact as well as more positive attitudes towards reconciliation ... these positive changes have the potential to benefit a broad swathe of Rwandan society” (Boudreaux, World Bank 2010).

 

By the time the 2009-2012 Coffee Sector Strategy update was drafted the government could claim success for liberalizing the sector, removing a variety of trade barriers, creating new incentives for groups and individuals to invest in coffee production, and facilitating entrepreneurship in the coffee industry. The story could stop here if it weren't for a tiny menace whose existence is threatening to roll back the hard-won gains of people like Daniel and his colleagues (Alfred Bizoza—a Ph.D. candidate at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Alphonsine Kenyangi (Ms.C.), Dr. Callixte Karege, Dr. Elie Mugunga Muhinda, and Dr. Jean Chrysostome).

 

Meet the antestia bug.

 

Arabica's enemy #1: the antestia bug

 

The antestia bug can be thought of as enemy #1 for Rwandan coffee. Antestia attacks coffee and as it feeds, it injects saliva containing the spores of a fungus. Evidence of this fungus comes in the form of a taste defect commonly called “potato taste.” Even worse, researchers now believe the toxin pyrazine may enter coffee cherries punctured by non-insect enemies too, like hail.

 

Feature: Through Genocide and Beyond, A Story of Hope from the Coffee Fields of Rwanda

Evidence of Antestia bug

The antestia bug jeopardizes both the quantity and quality of Rwandan coffee. First, farms and washing stations reject damaged coffee cherries, resulting in yield loss. A second loss occurs when trained coffee tasters—cuppers—reject supplies when batch-tested coffee reveals the potato taste. Finally, if not caught during grading or cupping, very displeased suppliers discover the potato taste after purchasing roasted beans. Fear of this occurrence is slowly gripping international buyers, threatening Rwanda's export market.

 

When Daniel learned about the potential to compete for participation in GKI's LINK program he immediately recognized the opportunity to forge the global partnerships he believes are crucial to tackle the potato taste. “I'd been wondering how you can access global knowledge and introduce it to the local market and ultimately inform the research system. I see the farmer as the consumer at the center of an innovation system. We need a team-based approach to look at the whole coffee value chain. Partnerships are required to do this,” he said. As Daniel sees it, LINK can be a stepping-stone into the global knowledge partnership landscape. Learning how to identify knowledge partners with experience on coffee pest management strategies, technology development, research approaches, or knowledge-sharing strategies with farmers is vital.

 

Daniel and GKI join forces

 

By being selected as GKI's pilot LINK winner, Daniel's team won access to a suite of offerings that compose Phase I of the LINK process. These offerings include research into the context underpinning the “potato taste” challenge, synthesis of data, training in methodologies to locate resources and appraise collaboration potential, assistance with outreach to potential partners, and preliminary matchmaking with the scientists, engineers, innovators, and entrepreneurs poised to solve Daniel's challenge.

 

coffee cupping laboratory in Kigali

Making sense of the science, technology, and
innovation context ofDaniel's coffee challenge entails
countless substantive interviews and field visits, like
this one to a coffee cupping laboratory in Kigali.

June 2011 entailed the LINK Challenge Kick-off Meeting and Training for Daniel and his team. GKI's Sara E. Farley, Amanda Rose, and Andrew Gerard spent a week with Daniel and 10 of his colleagues at the National University of Rwanda in Butare, Rwanda, beginning the process of clarifying the context of the potato taste challenge. All too often challengers like Daniel struggle to forge research and innovation partnerships that are both equitable—when partners from developing and developed countries both take part—and sustainable after aid monies are spent. More often than not, collaborating scientists are former colleagues or those who've met at a scientific conference. Too rare are global knowledge partnerships established on equal terms by colleagues who've never met but whose resources—human, institutional, technological, knowledge-based—are uniquely positioned to solve a challenge together. GKI's role in Phase I of LINK is defined by locating optimal partners and ensuring the existence of a sufficient baseline of collaborative activity upon which their efforts can stand. Through GKI's training, Daniel will establish a baseline of collaborative activity pertinent to coffee research and mitigation of the antestia bug's attack. Helping Daniel discern what resources are already available to him within the National University of Rwanda and nationally will allow him to be more selective with the addition of new resources.

 

Another aim of Daniel's and GKI's efforts is to paint as detailed and compelling a picture as possible of the Rwandan science, technology, and innovation context. Imagine an entomologist with experience working on coffee borer issues in Colombia's coffee sector. Though intrigued by the prospect of applying her expertise to a similar challenge in another corner of the world, the transaction costs for a scientist willing to collaborate with Daniel may be too high. Perhaps the Colombian researcher only associates Rwanda with Tutsi genocide and has little knowledge of the scientific infrastructure, human resource base, or enabling environment that can hinder or propel the advances made jointly were a partnership to form. How much time would a Colombian researcher, once located and contacted, need to invest in making sense of the Rwandan operating environment before determining that Daniel's was a team worthy of scientific collaboration?

 

The June training marked the beginning of Daniel's exposure to a unique methodology that can help his team diagnose and lay bare the features of Rwanda's science and innovation context as well as the specific context underpinning coffee research. By learning how to perform this type of analysis for themselves, Daniel's team is empowered to form new knowledge partnerships with the best collaborators anywhere. Those collaborators, in turn, will benefit from knowing that GKI's sterling international scientific technical committee vetted the science behind Daniel's team. Moreover, questions of available human, technological, institutional, and knowledge resources pertinent to tackling Daniel's challenge may be answered by referencing the catalogued and analyzed summary that GKI and Daniel's team construct. The precise role for a collaborator will be clearly defined and elegantly related to the challenge context central to Daniel's work. Wheel re-invention is minimized. Resource sharing is maximized.

 

Becoming "Super Collaborators"

 

After the week in Butare, GKI accompanied Daniel and three of his team members (Callixte, Elie and Jean) to Tanzania where GKI delivered a week-long UNESCO-supported collaborative innovation skills session to 40 Tanzanian researchers from universities, public research organizations, and the private sector. By week's end, Daniel and his team radiated the kind of optimism toward collaborative problem-solving few could imagine. Convinced this kind of skill building and orientation to partnership construction can make the difference for researchers seeking to solve science-related challenges collaboratively, Daniel smiled as he bid farewell to the GKI team until their return in September. “GKI's tools—like the Knowledge Partnership Landscape Analysis and Challenge Mapping—are not just important, they are crucially valuable. In fact, I believe they are needed for all academic and research staff across my university as they are applicable to so many areas of university life.”

 

We think so too.

 

If you have resources for Daniel or suggestions for his team and GKI as we jointly tackle the coffee challenge in Rwanda please contact us at: info@gkinitiative.org.

 

Contributor and photos: Sara E. Farley, Chief Operating Officer of the Global Knowledge Initiative

 

Through Genocide and Beyond, A Story of Hope from the Coffee Fields of Rwanda

 

 

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