Nine months ago, Coumba Sow, an agro economist and public policy Expert was appointed by Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to be Rwanda’s Representative. A proud Senegalese, Coumba has more than a decade-long expertise in humanitarian and development work in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In this Q&A, she talks to The New Times’ Glory Iribagiza on Rwanda’s journey to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2, which aims to achieve ‘zero hunger’, Agriculture transformation, the challenges and solutions the sector is facing, and the role of FAO in supporting Rwanda’s priorities. It has been nine months since you were posted to Rwanda. How has your work been in this period? I found everything extraordinary in Rwanda. Since I arrived, I took the opportunity to get to know the country, the people, to talk to government officials and partners, understand what their priorities are, what they are expecting from FAO and our support to the agricultural sector. We are in a country that has a clear vision, when it comes to agriculture particularly, and that vision is aligned to the FAO strategic framework. Our Director General came up with this strategic framework, aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals and which is very inspiring; better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life ‘leaving no one behind’. Now, after several months, it seems that we are already doing the job, because this is a country moving very fast, so you have to catch the pace. As an Agro-economist and public policy expert with more than a decade-long experience, what do you think your main contribution will be in Rwanda’s agriculture sector? My focus is on three things; getting information right with analyses, supporting the government with policy options and recommendations, and concrete actions on the ground. We are supporting the government’s priorities implementation of the PSTA4 (Strategic Plan for Agriculture Transformation 4), which is aligned to the NST1 (National Strategy for Transformation) but also the upcoming PSTA5 which will be aligned to the NST2. Of course, my contribution is together with everything that FAO can support Rwanda, tapping on the FAO subregional office in Addis Ababa, the regional office in Accra and our Headquarters in Rome. FAO provides a wide range of technical expertise in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, livestock, but also looking at the inclusive dimensions of gender and youth, climate change, and environmental conservation, investments, statistics, emergencies for plant and pest diseases, all for food security and increased livelihoods. We are working on anticipatory actions to reduce the impact of climate change on farmers and their farming systems using good technologies against drought or flood. My contribution is also looking at particularly how much we can support women and youth in agriculture, how much we can empower them with access to inputs, finances, adequate training, and make sure that it can be a profitable business for them. We are working with Rwanda Youth Agriculture Forum (RYAF) and also seeing Youth Connekt as a great avenue to support youth in Rwanda. How far do you think Rwanda is in achieving zero hunger? Before talking about Rwanda, the world is not on track to meet SDGs in general and particularly SDG2 related to Zero hunger; that is a fact. FAO is in charge of 21 indicators of the SDGs. That includes prevalence of undernourishment and food security experience but also in Forests, Fisheries, Water use efficiency, Women and land, public investments in agriculture, food price volatility among others. In 2022, 828 million people were still hungry with an increase of 46 million from 2022 and 150 million more after COVID19. Not only the SDGs that are in 2030, there is also the Malabo declaration, where African countries committed, for instance, to end hunger by 2025 on the continent, which is the most clock-ticking goal than 2030. 278 Million Africans are today suffering from hunger. Rwanda has been three years in a row, the country that is the best implementer of Malabo objectives. That shows commitment to global goals. The country has been doing well in fighting hunger despite challenges, if you look at the East African Region, we are currently experiencing severe food insecurity in the horn of Africa in 2022 with projections of famine in 2023 in Somalia. Rwanda is so far from that. Rwanda has put agriculture at the centre of its transformation and walking the talk. When the war in Ukraine started, prices of fertilizers hiked. The government immediately almost doubled its budget allocated to fertilizers. Africa is the continent where the level of use of fertilizer is the lowest in the world, 17 kg of fertilizer nutrients, compared to a global average of 135 kg. Today, figures say about 80 percent of the country is food secured. But as we often say: “when it comes to hunger, the only acceptable number is zero.” FAO is happy with the UN country team and the Rome based Agencies IFAD and WFP to continue supporting the government with measures to ensure all Rwandans have access to healthy and nutritious food and sustainable food systems. What do you think are the main challenges for Rwanda’s agriculture? How would you rate Rwanda in handling them? There are many; some are global challenges, like climate change, wars happening elsewhere but their impact reaches here, and the pressure on the food systems, distracted by conflicts, and pandemics as we saw with Covid19. These are great challenges for a country that is landlocked, small in size- and climate change, drought, floods are affecting. Here we can point out the problem of erosion and land degradation, access to water through irrigation, for farmers to be less dependent on rainfed production. There is the challenge of increasing productivity, through innovative and smart ideas that will lead to high produce with less input, reducing soil disturbance, maintaining a protective organic cover on the soil surface, producing larger sorts of plant species and adopting sequences and alternations that might include trees, grasslands and crops. It promotes, for instance, the incorporation into cropping systems of pulses and legumes that help restore and preserve soil nitrogen. Another thing is that when you have land that is not that big, you cannot afford having too much post-harvest loss. The government has a new strategy for post-harvest handling including improved processing, preservation of food. We will be working with the Government on the implementation of the Africa Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold-chain with focusing on Rwanda’s strategy. That will be a great milestone. As the world is becoming increasingly urbanised, urban food security and supply should be getting more attention. The fragility of current global food systems to respond to the food demands of cities is a challenge for many countries. The responses Kigali and secondary cities are developing take into account food consumption, infrastructures, food waste and circular economy, urban agriculture and others. I think Rwanda is handling most of these challenges quite well, and more than many countries in the region. What best practices do you think Rwanda can share with other countries? The performance commitment and evaluation by implementing entities such as districts is a good thing that helps to track development progress and to earmark funding to the right areas, it is also about transparency and accountability including in the Agriculture sector. The way Rwanda is trying to improve youth participation in agriculture. The age of the population as described in the recent census is an opportunity for the country, the demographic dividend, particularly for agriculture. An opportunity to embrace technologies that are even more modern. Innovation and technologies are extremely useful for Rwanda to unlock new opportunities and address some of Rwanda's most pressing challenges. The country is digitalizing agriculture more and more. This is the country where all the distribution of Government subsidized agro-inputs (seeds and fertilizers) is done digitally ; e-commerce has increased during COVID-19. Agricultural extension is being improved including a digitalization key to reach farmers wherever they are, on how best to use seeds and fertilizers, which best farming practices for crops, what to do with pests, diseases and outbreaks (including vaccination calendar). One Health, as an approach to mitigate the impact of animal health, human health and the environment has on each other, is adopted by the Government to facilitate management of related crises and risks. It is important also to note the efforts in the dairy sector on the processing and infrastructures, which makes the industry competitive in East Africa, actually in Rwanda, dairy imports are limited compared to other African countries. We still need to do more for the poultry sector. FAO is ready to further support the implementation of the Livestock Master Plan. Rwanda has also fulfilled the Maputo declaration, which requires countries to invest at least 10 percent of their national budget in agriculture. If there is one good practice that all African countries should learn from Rwanda, it is that. That is also why FAO works with Parliamentarians as they adopt budgets and laws in the agriculture and rural development sector. Rwanda understood that the restoration of forests is one of the cost-effective ways in which we can fight climate change. Rwanda works in climate change mitigation through the restoration to increase tree cover contributes to cooling the planet. Another important practice is the school feeding program piloted first by WFP, and now a national programme. It is not only good for children to be retained at school and to eat well, it provides a market for farmers because wherever there is a school feeding program, farmers around that school and beyond can have it as a market. What do you think Rwanda should do better to achieve food security and nutrition? I would say to promote good food from local production when possible. I come from a country that went to battle for years with Ghana and Nigeria on the origin of a meal: “Jollof rice”. Until UNESCO intervened, for our food “Ceebu jen” from Senegal to be recognised to be the original “Jollof rice”. That culture of food is important, and it is not about eating a lot, but eating the adequate portions from diverse foods, nutritious and fresh foods. Rwanda has that possibility because a very large variety of food is produced in the country. But, at FAO, we look at four dimensions of food security; we have food availability, the need to produce more. Then economic and physical access affected currently by global high food prices also experienced in Rwanda. Utilization is the third dimension of energy and nutrient intake, which comes with food preparation and its diversity. The way you prepare it, cook, and eat it, is important. The last dimension is stability. How regularly are you eating and is there any risk for the individual to lose his access to food. Another thing that could be improved is the processing of food at household level and for cooperatives and MSMEs. It helps reduce post-harvest losses, increase nutrition and even revenues if some are sold on markets. The stunting rate in Rwanda is reducing but it remains high, nonetheless. What do you think Rwanda is doing right and what better can be done? I always go back to high-level commitment. Rwanda is doing right by putting it on top of its agenda as one of the issues they need to solve very quickly, because a generation of stunted children is a lost generation. Utilization is where the issue lies. Make sure that households understand how best to cook and nourish their children? The school feeding program is for children that are already in school, while when you talk of stunting, you talk of babies that are still home and within the 1000 first days of their life from conception. Recognizing the efforts done on social safety nets such as the Girinka programme, kitchen gardens, there is a lot of education, reinforcement on dietary guidelines needed. Access to diverse sources of animal proteins including fish with increased aquaculture production, poultry for the production of eggs. All ingredients are there, it takes supporting families to understand better. What has been FAO’s role in Rwanda in fighting hunger and promoting sustainable agriculture? FAO has been in Rwanda since 1985, we have been here implementing projects. Right after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, for instance, FAO’s programme was solely to support restoration of Agriculture. We are just making sure agriculture and food systems are not disrupted even in difficult times. We have been supporting the development of policies and strategies, bringing knowledge, expertise, ideas; we have supported the government to make investments through the FAO Investment Centre. It is true the Ministry for Agriculture and Animal resources is FAO’s line ministry. But, we are also working with the Ministries of Trade and Industry, Environment, Youth, Gender and Family promotion, Emergency Management, Local Government, and others and we have a focus on small holder farmers. Currently we are developing a package of investments through the Hand in Hand initiative, which target areas where poverty and hunger are highest, limited capacities, or operational difficulties are greatest due to natural or man-made crises. It is for Government’s interventions to improve value chains for priority commodities, agro-industries and water management, use of digital services for both advanced geospatial modelling and analytics but also implementation for more income and better nutrition. Majority of Rwanda’s population is involved in Agriculture, most of whom are women. However, they continue to have limited access to agricultural inputs such as fertilizers, and they mainly practice subsistence farming. What will it take women to lead in agricultural produce and have tangible benefits from agriculture? Supporting women farmers and agripreneurs is critical if you want to transform a country. There is one milestone that I learnt when I just got here, that in 1999, the government of Rwanda passed and implemented reforms to give women the right to own and use land. That is the very first step that many African countries do not have. When that access to land is gained, access to input is required, and the government is giving equal access to input to any farmer irrespective of their gender, access to training, to best practices in farming, business including increasing literacy and use of digitalization, and cooperative management, and assist women’s access to finance, bigger finances. The potential economic game for that is huge. More women in the agribusiness, processing, and preservation, and getting access to more important markets, including the Africa Continental Free Trade Area with adequate standards and certifications, that is open for everybody. For me the objective is not about getting women, youth or anyone in agriculture out of poverty, it is about making them bankable and profitable. That is a change in mind-set that starts with changing even the semantic.