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Integrated science program drawing Rwandan students to UNL

January 6, 2019

One of the smallest countries in Africa in terms of geographic size, Rwanda is a relative speck of 10,169 square miles in the middle of the continent.

Still recovering from the 1994 genocide, Rwanda is also one of the fastest-growing and most densely populated countries in Africa, with a population of 12 million — most under age 30 — expected to double by 2050.

Government officials worry that even in a country where 80 percent of the population is engaged in agriculture, that rate of growth will outpace the ability of subsistence farmers to keep up.

Anything less than 8.5 percent growth in Rwanda’s agricultural sector may not be enough to meet the demand of future generations, according to projections.

There is a plan, however.

“To develop the next generation of leaders in agriculture who will provide the skills to teach and lead” the Rwanda government partnered with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, pledging to educate and train 200 of its best and brightest students to build the country’s future.

That means sending them to 77,358 square miles carved from the middle of North America, where agriculture is a driving force for a population of fewer than 2 million people: Nebraska.

Rwanda represents the third-largest population of foreign students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where the majority are enrolled in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CASNR).

Dean Tiffany Heng-Moss said the CASNR Undergraduate Scholars Program, better known as CUSP, will support up to 200 students from Rwanda to pursue a degree in integrated science.

CUSP enrolls the Rwandan students in courses centered on conservation agriculture, as well as leadership and entrepreneurship, while also giving the students freedom to explore a specialization within the agriculture and natural resources offerings before returning to their home country.

“The intent is for the scholars to return to Rwanda and invest their talents and energy into improving the ag sector there,” Heng-Moss said.

Divided into five groups of between 40 and 50 students, more than 2,600 Rwandans have applied to be part of the system to date.

Lisa Berwa was among the first group of students accepted to CUSP now in their senior year at UNL where she is focusing on community nutrition.

Berwa said those issues have been a passion for her since high school, when she and her classmates realized the primary school students they were tutoring for the national exam were not getting enough to eat.

The student club asked the boarding school if it could spare an extra piece of bread for each of the younger students, which led to a school breakfast movement there (on weekends), she said.

At UNL, Berwa has continued working in schools in Lincoln through Nebraska Extension’s nutrition education programs and researched the nutritional value of indigenous crops of Zambia, another African country, which she said could be one way to grow agriculture there.

“When I go back home, I see myself being part of rural communities and helping educate others on how to use research and resources that are already available,” she said. “Thinking global, but acting locally.”

Christian Kabanda, a junior from the Rwandan capital of Kigali, wanted to become a doctor. His father, an entrepreneur who grows mushrooms, corn and beans, dreamed his son would become an astronaut.

Kabanda instead decided to pursue agriculture, after learning about CUSP at the American embassy in Kigali. He applied and was accepted into the second group.

“I thought agriculture meant working on the farm, but the paper described agriculture differently from what I thought,” Kabanda said.

At UNL, he has concentrated on energy science, hoping to gain the knowledge and skills needed to transform Rwanda’s electrical grid, expanding the availability of power beyond the 40 percent that have access to it now.

Over the last two summers, he’s worked alongside extension educator John Hay to better understand how bacteria break down manure and other biological material and release methane gas, which can be captured and used to generate electricity.

The experience has taken Kabanda to Nebraska’s only on-farm anaerobic digester, in Colfax County, and led him to build a prototype in order to conduct experiments and learn the science on his own.

“This is pretty basic research, but at the same time it gives (Kabanda) a lot of opportunity to learn about the lab, learn how to do experiments and learn about statistics,” Hay said. “Hopefully, the application will come into play back home.”

Kabanda said organic waste is an ideal source for energy in Rwanda — “you don’t have to pay for manure” — so he wants to understand how to maximize the energy output.

“I’m going to try and find a way to make that system viable to all citizens, whether they are rich or middle-class,” he said.

Heng-Moss said CUSP has been enriching for the Rwandan students, UNL, and the state of Nebraska as a whole. Before CUSP, in the 2014-15 school year, just three Rwandans were enrolled at UNL.

A total of seven students, including Berwa, made up the first group beginning in 2015-16, bringing the total number of students from the central African country to 10.

Things really took off from there.

On census day for the 2016-17 school year, 58 Rwandans were taking classes at UNL, most enrolled in CUSP. That population grew to 107 for the 2017-18 school year, and finally to 157 this year.

Already the third-largest population of international students at UNL behind China (833) and Malaysia (211), Heng-Moss said a fifth and final CUSP group will enroll at UNL next fall, potentially taking the total number of Rwandans on campus past 200.

“The grand challenges we all face, like feeding a growing global population with limited resources, are going to be solved by diverse teams of innovators and problem-solvers,” she said. “Creating a collaborative learning environment, where diverse perspectives, disciplines and backgrounds come together is how we solve real world problems.”

Berwa said her experience at UNL has opened new doors and given her the opportunity to bridge cultures and backgrounds.

“I feel like here I’m an ambassador for Rwanda,” she said.

CUSP will make a difference in Rwanda’s future, Kabanda said. He predicted the country’s agricultural system will be among the world’s success stories in the next two decades, and said UNL will have played a large role in that story.

“There are opportunities on campus and in the state of Nebraska that are limitless,” he said. “I’ve learned your idea can become reality if you decide to take action.”

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