My country Rwanda just marked the 25th anniversary of what may be the worst chapter in its history: the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. On April 7, President Paul Kagame lit a flame in the capital city of Kigali. It will burn for 100 days.
We must remember the past so that we don’t repeat our mistakes. At the same time, we must look to the future—and make sure it’s as bright as possible.
That’s why I’m so pleased that my fellow Rwandan Agnes Matilda Kalibata has won the National Academy of Sciences’ Public Welfare Medal. The formal recognition will take place on April 28 in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Kalibata has devoted herself to one of the world’s greatest challenges: improving food production in Africa, where hunger and malnutrition pose ongoing threats to humans flourishing.
The future of our continent depends upon her success and others like her.
So this is not only a wonderful tribute to a remarkable lady, but also an important recognition of the enormous problem that she hopes to solve.
The NAS, a nonprofit group based in the United States, describes the Public Welfare Medal as its “most prestigious award,” given “annually to honor extraordinary use of science for the public good.”
Previous winners include Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution; Bill and Melinda Gates, for their global-health philanthropy; and Herbert Hoover, who led food-relief efforts during the First World War.
Now Kalibata joins this distinguished list. Since 2014, she has headed the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), headquartered in Kenya. It aims to improve food security for 30 million people in 11 sub-Saharan nations.
Before joining AGRA, Dr. Kalibata was Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources. In this post, she was a powerful advocate for our sector. She encouraged farmers to coordinate their crop plantings so that extension services can offer more effective support. She also oversaw the introduction of improved seeds and fertilizers, allowing Rwandan farmers to make the most of modern agriculture. Because of her efforts, poverty rates dropped.
I don’t know Dr. Kalibata well, but as chairman of the Coffee Exporters and Processors Association of Rwanda, I worked with her when we organized a research symposium to discuss an issue that challenges East African coffee growers called “potato taste defect,” which can cause coffee to take on an unwelcome flavor. Although we’re still learning how to deal with this problem, which confronts coffee growers in Rwanda and our neighboring countries, I came to appreciate her determination to help us preserve and expand our opportunities.
The NAS credits Kalibata for “her work to drive Africa’s agricultural transformation through modern science and effective policy, helping to lift more than a million Rwandans out of poverty and scaling impacts for millions more African farmers.”
Marcia McNutt, the president of NAS, gave a personal endorsement. “Kalibata has long championed science and evidence as the basis for practical agricultural policies that have transformed Rwanda to a model of prosperity and security,” she said. “Her actions exemplify science as a powerful force for growth and well-being, and we are thrilled to present her with our highest award.”
This is so true. On my farm, where we grow Arabica beans, we rely on science and technology. We use GPS tools to monitor our land and social media to trade information faster than ever before. We use crop-protection products to drive away pests. One day, I hope that we’ll even have access to GMO coffee that could help us resist disease and drought in an era of climate change. These innovations are still a long way off, but we’ll never enjoy them if we don’t at least start to think about them now.
Looking to the future has helped Rwanda improve its present. The World Bank says Rwanda is the top country for doing business on the African mainland. We’re also known for clean streets, low crime, and resistance to corruption. Our economy has grown by about 7 percent per year over the last decade. Agricultural exports have helped make this possible—and Kalibata deserves a portion of the praise.
The political will of the government of Rwanda under President Kagame’s leadership to support the farmers is a big opportunity. And recognizing a Rwandan national on the international scene, is a recognition of Rwanda as a country that has been working hard to eradicate famine and hunger in their country.
Something tells me that the Public Welfare Medal is not the last prize she’ll ever receive.