Beyond university gates: How research makes big impact to society in Rwanda

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This blog post is written by Alin Kadfak, researcher at the Department of Rural and Urban Development (SLU), in connection with a visit to Sweden by researchers from the University of Rwanda. The blog post was first published at SIANI’s website.

Dr. Jennifer Batamuliza talking about how the University of Rwanda contributes to gender equality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Photo: SLU Global

Obliged to focus on teaching and engaging with busy research work, researchers often fail to think beyond academic results. Dr. Jennifer Batamuliza and Professor Alfred Bizoza from the University of Rwanda (UR) informed us about techniques for transferring university knowledge to real-world impacts. 

What bring you to Sweden?

We are here to continue planning our courses as part of our collaboration between SLU and the UR in one of the fifteen sub-programmes of Sida-funded bilateral capacity-building programmes. The Engendering Rural Transformation and Sustainable Development (ENTRUST) sub-programme has four PhD students, three of whom are studying at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.  Since 2017, we have closely collaborated with the Department of Rural and Urban Development and the Department of Economics at SLU. While visiting Sweden, we are collaborating developing two doctoral courses to be integrated at the University of Rwanda. The first PhD course “Farming, food consumption and health”, is being co-designed with Associate Professor Linley Chiwona Karltun of SLU. This is a collaborative undertaking with Dr Franklin Amuakwa Mensah at Luleå University of Technology, where our fourth PhD candidate is based. The second course focuses on “Information Communication Technology, Gender and Rural Transformation”, and we are partnering closely with Associate Professor Caroline Wamala Larsson, based at SPIDER at Stockholm University. Both courses are planned to be run as pilots in May-June 2025 and will be open to PhD students globally, focusing on the African context.

 

Such true collaboration brings up many lessons from both partners. We have learnt great stories from your works that create real impact on society. Can you share some of those examples with us?

One concern is that gender inequality remains high in the higher learning education in Rwanda. As shown in figure 1, the number of teachers, both male and female, has dropped drastically after primary education. One-fourth of the lecturers at university level are female. There are a serious concern that many of the girls and women do not make it to the top to pursue a professional career.

Figure 1: Male and Female Teachers/ Lecturers at all levels of education in Rwanda (Statistical Year Book , MINEDUC,2023) 

Women and girls make up half of the world’s population and hold half of the world’s human potential. When their lives are improved, the benefits reverberate across society. Access to decent work and regular income in the hands of women, for example, contributes not only to poverty reduction (SDG 1) but also supports better education, health and nutrition outcomes for women and girls and those who depend on them (SDGs 2, 3 and 4).

Mainstreamed diversity and gender perspectives in law and established programmes on gender studies lead to structural changes in institutions to make equality possible. At UR, we have a unique programme that supports girls and women in pursuing their education in science to build a more inclusive and equitable career path in science and technology. This is because we believe that science-related fields play a crucial role in sustainable development and women’s potential for creation and innovation cannot be left behind. Professional education for women is one of the solutions.

SourceDr. Jennifer Batamuliza

Source: Dr. Jennifer Batamuliza

So, it is time to rethink gender relations to science! What is the role of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in countering this challenge?

Yes! STEM is a learning approach that integrates the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and we hope to encourage more girls and women to participate in this programme at our university. As many of us know, STEM is a male-dominated space, and we are trying hard to stop the leaky pipeline of women within the STEM field and create more inclusive workplaces and ecosystems to retain and support women in their STEM career advancement. Gender inequality in STEM is a result of stereotypes, bias and inequality that limits girls’ expectations and professional goals.

In Rwanda, as in many parts of the world, women and girls continue to be subject to social and cultural restrictions. Limited access to education and unfavourable treatments in working environments may hamper women’s advancement. At present, only 32% of young women are entering STEM programmes in Rwanda due to issues such as social and cultural restrictions and societal structure, which need to be changed.

 

How to address gender inequality through STEM?

There are many things you can do, but here are some points where we have started to see changes.

  • Creating role models: at the University of Rwanda, there is the Association of Women in Science and Engineering (RAWISE). This group is self-initiated by many female faculty members who come together and mentor to other female students. Having such a platform creates more than a role model, where the students can see their near future potential, and it provides open and safe spaces to share opportunities and challenges.
  • Networking: we started a virtual regional platform that serves as a networking space for women in STEM and helps them share and make available training courses and digital materials. Our university celebrates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science every year.

Can you tell us more about your other outreach activities beyond university gate?

Through the ENTRUST programme, we initiated a Societal University Village Initiative (SUVI) model in 2019, piloted and tested by the UR in 2018. We select “SUVI champions”, graduate students paired with people in the communities, and develop project ideas focusing on rural development, poverty alleviation and food security to implement at village level. Our SUVI champions work with local people to solve the real problems concerning their livelihoods, using the students’ science and technology skills. Results and stories from implementing the model tell us that this model is scalable and impactful.

There are several success stories from SUVI champions. The prominent one is their ability to create their own business plans to address the challenges facing their communities. For instance, SUVI champions are helping small farmers establish kitchen gardens to address issues of malnutrition. Similarly, others have initiated their small businesses, such as livestock rearing (cows, goats, sheep, pig, rabbits) and farming-related activities, such as farming mushrooms and other crops, in collaboration with communities where they are deployed. The SUVI model helps students to create their own jobs after their service through SUVI instead of waiting three to five years before getting employed. This model makes the skills and competencies available for rural transformation and ensures the equity in knowledge distribution across the country rather than being concentrated in the cities.

Source : SUVI, 2023

Source: SUVI, 2019

Source: SUVI, 2019

Dr. Jennifer Batamuliza is a lecturer at the University of Rwanda and a head of Data Driven Incubation Hub and Short Professional Courses at African Center of Excellence in Data Science, University of Rwanda. She is also a founder of RWA TECH HUB an organization that trains and mentors girls in ICT.  

Prof. Alfred R. BIZOZA is a Professor of Agricultural Economics from the University of Rwanda (UR) with extensive academic and policy research experience in areas of Agricultural Economics, Institutional Economics of Soil and Water Conservation, Economics of Land, Economics of Climate Change Adaptation, and Economic perspectives of Gender. 

Associate Professor Linley Chiwona Karltun is a researcher at the Department of Urban & Rural Development, Rural Development division at SLU, and a co-lead investigator for the Sida-funded bilateral capacity building programmes Engendering Rural Transformation and Sustainable Development (ENTRUSTsub-programme 

Development research funding is vital to tackle global challenges and needs to stay – in one form or another

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Picture of pastoralists from southwest Uganda. Photo: Erika Chenais, SVA.

There is no doubt that international development cooperation funding has to tend to many different needs, including humanitarian emergencies in Ukraine. However, there are good reasons to look closer at the benefits of the now cut Swedish development research funding, and start considering different possibilities to enable these benefits moving forward.

The precise ramifications of last week’s governmental decision to terminate Development Research funding from the Swedish Research Council, Vetenskapsrådet (VR), remain to be seen. What is already clear, however, it that loss of this vital funding stream for Swedish research comes at a time when other opportunities for international research cooperation have also radically changed.

Since 2022 this has included the pause of Minor Field Studies for Swedish undergraduate students, indefinite suspension of the Linnaeus-Palme programme for teacher-student exchange, and most significantly, the 54% decrease in the research cooperation budget of Sida (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency). Within the latter, the partnerships where Swedish researchers serve as supervisors and partners have contributed significantly to strengthening Swedish researchers’ networks and understanding of global challenges.

Together, this combination of changes has significantly altered the landscape of possibilities for Swedish research to tackle the global challenges the world faces today – and especially so for young Swedish researchers. Past funding from Swedish Development Research (from 2013 through VR, and earlier through Sida/SAREC) has often led to ground breaking knowledge with extensive scientific and policy impact – for instance contributing to knowledge on how trees make soil more fertile and improve ground water levels. Such knowledge has also been widely used, for example by FAO and practitioner agencies.

While on the face of it this decision on VR funding comes as a blow to Swedish research cooperation on poverty reduction and sustainable development in low-income contexts, there are also several long-term impacts – some of which relate to Sweden’s own interests and competitivity – to consider:

1) Development research equips Swedish researchers with skillsets that are otherwise unobtainable. Many, if not most, development researchers in Sweden and at SLU are also active in domestic research in one form or another. Knowledge, skills, and other benefits gained from development research thus tend to flow back to Sweden, and have helped to reinforce Swedish agricultural competitiveness and food security; a little considered side-benefit that is henceforth set to decrease. This is exemplified, for instance, by a series of SLU projects funded by VR Development Research that pioneered new heat-resistant wheat for West Africa. This experience is now being leveraged to breed climate-resilient wheat for Sweden together with industry partners Lantmännen. Similarly, the vital experience gained by SLU and the Swedish National Veterinary Institute (SVA) on control of African Swine Fever, and enabling policies to support this, has also been of direct benefit to Sweden. The risk of introducing this highly contagious and deadly viral disease to Sweden is great, and with support from VR Development Research this team has come to function as an internationally recognised expert group, including for Swedish preparedness planning. Another perspective is that several Swedish world leading experts have been trained through Swedish Development Research funding. An example is PhD training on agricultural water management in dry areas in East Africa that was funded by the Swedish Development Research – evolving into decades of research in dry areas in Africa and Asia – building expertise that is now not only contributing to policies internationally but is crucial in Sweden’s management of our increasingly intensive droughts at home.

2) Development research can stimulate Swedish priorities abroad. Research cooperation with low- and middle-income countries is a form of ‘soft diplomacy’ that is unique, building on scientific relations and fora. An example is the long-term engagement by SLU researchers on global efforts to prevent antimicrobial resistance (AMR); a high priority by the Swedish government. This knowledge (example here) is used extensively by normative agencies such as FAO (example here). Development research at SLU of course extends well beyond only agricultural processes, in which Swedish Development Research funded collaborations on good governance, decent working conditions, human rights and democratic architectures (e.g. of project outputs here, here, here, and here) – amongst others – have served to promote Swedish priorities and core values abroad. We see many cases where SLU development projects have incorporated a strong focus on innovation, technology development, or science-policy engagement with ‘buy-in’ from industry and governmental stakeholders. The ‘Social benefits from carbon forestry’ project is one such example; a Formas funded initiative that built on knowledge generated from Swedish Development Research funding (example here), and produced innovative guidelines on socially-responsible carbon investments for consumers, companies, and public agencies.

3) Development research renders Swedish research more internationally competitive. It is well established that internationalisation can improve the quality of research and higher education; a point that is also highlighted within the Swedish Higher Education Act. One widely accepted indicator of scientific quality is the bibliometric “percentile profile”. This is used to identify the percent share of a specific group of scientific publications that are among the most cited. Looking at SLU’s scientific publications jointly published with researchers based in low- or middle income countries, it is clear that more (13%) are among the top 5% most cited publications than SLU publications overall (8%, which is however also excellent). This high standing of SLU development publications in international terms is one major reason why the university has climbed in THE’s Impact Rankings for sustainability. Furthermore, national funding for development research supports Swedish researchers in developing their own capacities and networks, a great benefit when competing for international research funding from for example EU Horizon.

It is thus vital that funding possibilities for Swedish development research remain, from one source or another. In any case, it is important that the funder has the procedures and capacity specifically designed for reviewing development research initiatives with a transdisciplinary perspective, and competence to review the particular challenges of low-income contexts.

Given the above perspectives – that development research creates high-in-demand knowledge and unique skillsets, and furthermore can stimulate Swedish priorities abroad and render Swedish research more internationally competitive – it is clear that we cannot afford to lose the only dedicated funding stream for development research. Both for the sake of Swedish domestic interests, those in partner countries, and for tackling the global challenges that affect us all.

 

Paul Egan and Sara Gräslund – SLU Global

Wild food as a safety net: Food and nutrition security during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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This blogpost is written by Divya Gupta, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, India; Suchita Shrestha, Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies, Kathmandu, Nepal and Harry Fischer, SLU. This article was first published by SIANI.

Andheri Village in Himachal Pradesh, India. Source: Divya Gupta

Edible wild foods have been an important part of the diet for rural populations around the world, primarily in developing countries. They are also an important safety net and contribute to resilience by enabling people to cope with food insecurity in times of rural distress. This has become particularly apparent in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have conducted research on food security during the COVID-19 pandemic in the mid-Himalayan region of rural India and Nepal, where nationwide lockdowns were imposed starting last the week of March and continued for several months. The lockdown led to movement of all kinds being sharply constrained, which disrupted the food supply chain and created uncertainty in accessibility, availability and affordability of food. Working with local research assistants, we have been able to continue our data collection and conduct interviews (while following strict government guidelines) thereby providing an in-depth understanding of how the effects of the lockdown unfolded in the areas.

Wild mushrooms harvested by a household in Himachal Pradesh, India. Source: Subodh Kumar (Research Assistant)

Over the past few decades, a large proportion of the populations in our study sites have transitioned to cultivating cash crops. While these trends may have increased household incomes overall, they have led to reduced production of food for household’s own consumption and increased dependence on markets for both food and income. The lockdown constrained farmers’ ability to sell their harvest due to transport restrictions to the market, leaving many of them to face huge financial losses. This compromised the purchasing power of the people and increased their reliance on wild foods such as leaves, seeds, nuts, honey, fruits, mushrooms that they can collect from their communal resources, including forests, grasslands, and water bodies.

Rasnalu Village in Ramechhap, Nepal. Source: Divya Gupta

Edible wild foods have been an important coping strategy for households to deal with food shortages following the lockdown, especially for landless households and wageworkers who depend on off-farm employment. The lockdown has had a profound effect on the employment and income of such households. There were families that could not afford adequate food and reported consuming less food than before.

Rasnalu Village in Ramechhap, Nepal. Source: Divya Gupta

A woman from a landless household with eight family members in a remote village in Nepal told us, “my husband is a construction worker, and he lost his job immediately after the lockdown was imposed. This constrained our ability to buy food to adequately feed our family. I was constantly stressed out about this and often resorted to foraging edible wild foods that I was able to find in our forests”. Another smallholder farmer in India shared, “we did not have enough food left in our reserve when the lockdown was imposed, unfortunately it was also a bad season for our crops as we lost most of our harvest to pest infestation. The wild foods that we were able to gather from our forest was a huge respite and we were extremely grateful for that”.  In addition, wild foods were also a convenient option as some households preferred foraging as opposed to spending money buying vegetables from the market, as an interviewee from a small-landholding household from our site in Rasnalu Village in Nepal shared.

“We occasionally collect vegetables growing in the wild. However, during the lockdown owing to the shortage in supply of fresh vegetables and a consequent rise in their price, we relied more on foraging”.

Wild foods in our sites were also perceived to be safe from contamination. Although not based on scientific fact, many households feared consuming produce bought from the market. “We were scared to buy vegetables from the market because we feared they might carry the infection, so we substituted vegetables with wild foods that we would find in our forests”, said a farmer in our study site in India. He further added:

“Once when I had got vegetables from the market, my mother panicked and immediately threw them away. Market bought vegetables were strictly banned in our household”.

In addition, cooking wild foods was also perceived as a way of continuing traditional recipes. For example, in our sites in Nepal, households procured greens such as stinging nettle, fiddlehead fern, and others that are used as an alternate to market-bought/ cultivated vegetables. “These foods are a part of our traditional recipes that we have been cooking for generations”, shared a female respondent.

Fiddlehead ferns. Source: Rakshya Timalsina (Research Assistant)

It is important to note that under normal circumstances, a lot of the households in our study areas use diverse food sources to fulfill the dietary needs of their family, including farms/kitchen gardens, markets, and communal land and water resources. We observed that at the time of the lockdown, wild foods were particularly important for households that lacked adequate income and/or did not have the option of a kitchen garden. Thus, wild foods have been an important component of the food basket for our sample population during the pandemic

Observation from our research highlights the importance of wild foods as carriers of important cultural values and also their roles in helping households cope with food insecurity in the context of shocks and uncertainty, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Often overlooked as a resilience strategy, wild foods are a vital resource that demands more attention in ensuring mechanisms for managing and safeguarding habitats for their long-term sustenance.

This research was supported by the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet) research project 2018-05875 and a FORMAS Urgent grant 2020-02781.

For the love of the spud in spite of its beauty spots

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This article was written by Erik Alexandersson, Researcher at the Department of Plant Protection Biology, SLU

Small holder farmers together with Lerato Matsaunyane at ARC in Randfontein. Photo: Flip Steyn.

Today, 26 October, is the offical potato day here in Sweden and a good opportunity to look closer at this quite nutritional crop. The potato is grown and eaten all over the world and production is on the rise in many low income countries – primarily in Africa. The versatility and adaptability of this beloved spud is the key to it´s wide spread. However, diseases and drought due to changed climate present threats to yields in the future.

Potatoes have long been essential for Western cuisine. They are loved in many forms. Why not boiled together with meat and sauce, as fries accompanying that novel non-meat burger or simply as crisps, which can be seen as the centrepiece of cosy television time with the family. Worldwide potato is today the third most consumed crop.

The potato retains its popularity in spite the rise of the fast-boiling pasta and popularity of low-carb diets. Consumption in the industrialised world have been stable the last 20 years even if it now and again ends up in the dietary cold box.

In low-income countries, potato production is still on the rise though. In 2008, the total production even passed that of the industrialised world. Not the least in sub-Saharan Africa where incidence of malnutrition are among the highest in the world, and sadly more than 15% of the total population still lacks sufficient food.

In fact, its cropping area and production have increased more than those of any other food crop in Africa (1). Today, it is maybe foremost an important cash crop for small-scale farmers, but since the areal and demand are rising we can predict that it will have a greater importance to future food security in the region.

Potato has a fantastic ability to adapt and yield in different climate conditions. Originating from the Andes the potato is grown on all continents except Antarctica. Its ability to produce well in so many different environments is an important part of its success. Still many diseases affects the production. In temperate regions late blight is considered as one of the most dreaded plant diseases. Extensive research has gone into combating late blight and today we have both conventional bred and genetically modified potatoes carrying additional resistance genes with high level of resistance as well as efficient pesticides.

Potato trials in Roodeplaat. Photo: Flip Steyn

However, in an African perspective, other diseases such as early blight, which thrives in warmer climates and insect pests that destroy harvested tubers can cause larger problems. The underlying mechanisms of several other diseases than late blight are less studied and lesser known. Unfortunately, efficient resistance factors are unknown and remain to be discovered for use in breeding programmes. For early blight, there is also an increased problem with pesticide resistance.

For the small-scale farmers it is not easy to afford to protect their potato crop or take the right measures. One powerful way to convert research into practice are field demonstrations for farmers, advisers and policy makers, something we tried out with our colleagues Lerato Matsaunyane at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, South Africa and Tewodros Mulugeta at Kotebe Metropolitan University in Ethiopia.

Furthermore, for the farmers in Southern Africa, unpredictable rains have caused big problems for agriculture. In this context, potato will have a challenge as it is sensitive to drought, also to shorter micro-droughts and clearer focus on research on drought tolerant varieties is needed. Unfortunately, climate change is expected to have a very large impact on agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa. The need for a future drought tolerant potato is evident.

Luckily, the International Potato Center and other research institutes are doing multifaceted research to provide a disease free and drought tolerant potato suitable for different needs in African agriculture.

But, today is the official potato day here in Sweden, so let us just for a moment look away from these beauty spots of this loved spud. Did you for example know that the nutritional value of potato is not that bad! Tubers harbours fibre and important nutrients such as vitamin C, tocopherols and carotenoids! And with the right cultivar under the right conditions it can be one of the most high-yielding crops! With a production of 15, 40 or even 60 tonnes per hectare it can for sure feed many hungry stomachs.

References

(1) Ortiz, O., & Mares, V. (2017). The historical, social, and economic importance of the potato crop. In The Potato Genome (pp. 1-10). Springer, Cham

Smallholder farmers in Kenya know how to meet climate challenges, but lack the means to do it

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This article was written and first published by SIANI in collaboration with PhD Ylva Nyberg, Department of Crop Production Ecology, SLU. The findings and conclusions in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of SLU.

A more diversified farming system spread the risks better and has higher delivery of ecosystem services even if it needs more knowledge and labour. Photo: Ylva Nyberg.

Many smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are caught up in a negative spiral. Often farming on one hectare of land, they struggle to make ends meet and, in most cases, they cannot afford enough farm inputs, which leads to declining soil fertility of their farms, resulting in low yields. Many farmers have to look for casual jobs to get by. Poverty pushes them to reduce the number of meals they eat, so they also lack the energy to farm.

Climate change with its changing rain patterns, droughts and floods doesn’t make the life of smallholder farmers easier. Contrary to the popular belief, recent research by Ylva Nyberg, highlights that smallholder farmers are well aware of the climatic challenges and know how to adapt and cope. However, they would be reluctant to adopt sustainable agricultural practices due to the lack of access to credit, land, knowledge and labour.

Nyberg carried out her field work on smallholder farms across a gradient of landscapes in Kenya, from Kisumu by Lake Victoria to Trans Nzoia in the western highlands. She summarized her findings in her PhD dissertation which she defended at the Department of Crop Production Ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. 

Initially, Nyberg embarked on her journey to gain a better understanding of how small farms can increase yields without damaging nature. She used a variety of research methods, such as group and individual interviews, tree density measurement, soil sample analysis and randomized control trials. During the group interviews, Nyberg explored whether the farmers had experienced rainfall-related challenges and if they had planned to adapt to changing rainfall patterns. She quickly learnt that smallholders were well aware of climatic changes and also knew many adaptation and coping strategies, though men happened to be better informed than women

Then Nyberg spoke with farmers individually to find out how they applied their knowledge of adaptation measures. The results varied in accordance with access to social capital. Men tended to have higher education, better access to agricultural advisory services and more time for social networking, and they also were able to use more adaptation measures than women, especially those who lack education. Farmers with regular access to agricultural advisory services used more adaptation measures, especially those measures that they perceived most effective.

During these interviews many farmers also mentioned that having trees and livestock makes them less vulnerable, providing insurances or savings. Therefore, Nyberg has also considered these parameters in her work. It appears that higher tree density increased the workload on farms, but the income that came from these farms was higher too. In addition, trees were important to all farmers by providing shade for recreation. High livestock density showed signs of higher soil nitrogen turnover, even though collecting and using the manure can be challenging. Low tree and low livestock density were often an indicator of high dependency on off-farm revenues.

Agroforestry was one of the practices found to positively affect maize yields as well as being perceived effective among farmers. However, agroforestry is also labour-intensive. Photo by Ylva Nyberg

Lastly, Nyberg compared farms that took part in Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project over four years with those farms that weren’t engaged in carbon farming. She found that maize yields were positively related to terracing of fields and to growing more trees on the farm, the so-called agroforestry. Farmers working with the Carbon Project used more sustainable management practices, had higher yields and better food self-sufficiency as well as more savings than farmers who weren’t involved in the project.

However, the farmers who participated in the Carbon Project had higher yields to begin with and the difference in yield between the two groups of farms were similar in the first and the fourth year. Thereby, the increases in yield cannot be explained by the project only, unless the neighbouring farms outside the project had actually learnt methods and started practising them as well.

Smallholders have great potential to improve their production in a sustainable way, but they lack sufficient labour, land, money or knowledge to adopt sustainable agricultural land management practices.

Nyberg suggests that policy should address the farming and food production system as a whole, increasing inclusivity, particularly in regards to women with poor education. Agricultural advisors should also promote packages of simple but effective measures, encourage diversified farming systems where feasible and focus on the limiting factors, such as access to credit, knowledge and labour. This way, farmers will have the means to practice sustainable agriculture. Only then smallholder farmers will be able to build sustainable livelihood, supply ecosystem services and be climate action agents.

Check out Ylva Nybergs PhD thesis here.