Agnes Kalibata, a Rwandan who grew up in Uganda with refugee parents, had an ambition to become a medical doctor or an engineer.
But as her father turned from teaching to farming to fund his children’s education, little did Kalibata know she would end up being an agricultural scientist.
Now, as president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) since 2014, Kalibata is helping to transform Africa’s agricultural sector through programmes designed to reach millions of smallholders.
In 2012 she won the Yara Food Prize – now the Africa Food Prize, and in 2019 the US-based National Academy of Sciences awarded her the prestigious Public Welfare Medal “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”.
“Be prepared to work hard but also be prepared to do the hard stuff.”Agnes Kalibata, AGRA president
Kalibata tells SciDev.Net that girls and young women in Africa who aspire to be scientists should be prepared not only to work hard but to do the “hard stuff”.
Tell us about your childhood
I grew up in Uganda to refugee parents. Even though my dad had been a teacher in Rwanda, the only thing he could do as a refugee in Uganda was to farm. He was determined to see that his children got better out of life than he did.
As I grew older, I developed a habit for reading, especially in my secondary school where I got to see a library for the first time. This helped me understand that there was a whole other world around me.
Building on my parents’ efforts, I got best student scholarship for secondary education from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) and later obtained a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation to study for a master’s at Makerere University in Uganda and then a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the United States.
How did your journey as a scientist and policymaker begin?
When I finished my first degree at Uganda’s Makarere University, I joined the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) at the Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute in Uganda as a research assistant. For my master’s, my work was focused on natural control of a major pest of bananas, a major staple crop in Uganda.
“We have built the African Green Revolution Forum into a continental platform that brings policymakers, scientists, farmers and business leaders together.”Agnes Kalibata, AGRA president.
This work continued into my doctorate. I worked on understanding the crop, the pest and biological control options. I traced the banana plant back to its area of origin. From Uganda to Indonesia, Tanzania, Thailand and Vietnam. By doing research on farmers’ plots in each of these countries, I was able to establish why the banana weevil was a pest in Uganda but not a pest in the area of its origin in South East Asia where it was under the control of natural enemies.
I cut my postdoctoral work [on banana bacteria wilt] short when I got an opportunity to go to Rwanda and lead a World Bank rural development project in the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources. That was the beginning of my shift from being a scientist to development work and later to policymaking.
How did you become Rwanda’s minister of agriculture and animal resources?
I held a few positions in Rwanda at the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources before I became a minister from 2008 to 2014.
When I was appointed to lead the agricultural ministry, I had a lot of support from the president and the government. This gave me an opportunity to combine and to apply the scientific and technical knowledge I had acquired to work with the whole of government and marshal partnerships that enabled us to move from a country where people went to bed hungry to a food self-sufficient nation in a period of five years.
Because of that, Rwanda is significantly food secure and was able to significantly reduce poverty. Farmers’ yields increased and poverty reduced by 12 per cent in the same period.
What are your achievements as president of AGRA?
AGRA was designed to help African farmers use scientific knowledge and technologies to improve their lives: increase access to improved varieties, access to soil fertility management and understanding the policy environment where agriculture can thrive and enhance access to markets.
Coming from government, I saw the opportunity to help AGRA understand how governments work and how they could be leveraged.
I am proud of how AGRA has worked with its partners to reduce duplication of resources under what we call the Partnership for Inclusive Agricultural Transformation. This partnership aims to support country-owned plans and reduce fragmentation of donors on the ground, which is a long-standing problem that compromises the speed of delivery of development outcomes.
We have worked with the private sector and moved into new geographies where farmers never had access to yield improving technologies such as improved varieties, and the information on how best to manage these inputs. We have been building platforms for scale with the private sector that allow a whole new group of farmers to be reached by partnering with local governments and local private sector.
We have built the African Green Revolution Forum into a continental platform that brings policymakers, scientists, farmers and business leaders together, and profiles the agriculture sector and its importance on the African continent.
What other achievements have you had as a female scientist in Africa?
I sit on many boards where I bring not only the African perspective on development issues that impact agriculture on the continent. Whenever I can, I mentor young people. Personally, I take it as a responsibility to support young people – especially women — to help them understand that they have a huge place and an important role to play in the world.
Currently, I am also working as a special envoy of the UN secretary-general for the 2021 Food Systems Summit. This role is a huge responsibility but it is an opportunity to drive things I care about: ending hunger and poverty, ending malnutrition, and dealing with climate change.
What advice do you have for girls and young women aiming to become scientists in Africa?
I didn’t start out trying to be a scientist. But now, with all the innovations and technologies around us, girls have an opportunity to actually dream about being a scientist. I see it with my eight-year-old daughter. She has exposure to technology in a way that I didn’t have growing up. She dreams of designing all the way from makeup to aeroplanes!
Agriculture today is not about killing pests like I thought back then. It’s about solving big problems – especially around climate change – gene editing, big data and many more.
Girls and young women, you are entering into a male-heavy territory. You need to develop some thick skin. Be prepared to work hard but also be prepared to do the hard stuff. Find something you care about enough because it’s going to be necessary to keep you going.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk and edited for brevity and clarity.