BY ABBY RUBLEY · PHOTOS BY ABBY RUBLEY AND KURT STEPNITZ
“When your country calls, you answer.”
Gerardine Mukeshimana speaks from experience.
In 2014, after completing her doctoral degree at MSU, Mukeshimana had just settled into a position as a postdoctoral scientist in plant molecular biology in Nairobi, Kenya, when the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, asked her to serve as the country’s Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources.
Without hesitation, she said yes and returned to Rwanda.
“I didn’t expect it at all,” says Mukeshimana. “But when I was appointed, I told myself this is an opportunity to serve my country and Rwandans and I’m happy about it.”
Although the opportunity was unexpected, Mukeshimana was not only willing but also more than able to help transform Rwanda’s agriculture industry, thanks in part to her Michigan State experience.
Located in eastern central Africa, Rwanda is about the size of the state of Maryland. The country’s economy suffered during the 1994 genocide, when an estimated one million people were killed over the span of 100 days. As much as 20 percent of the country’s population was lost. Today, Rwanda’s population is among the youngest in the world, with 70 percent of its people aged 30 years and younger.
“We are here to help Rwandans get to where they need to be,” says Mukeshimana about the Ministry of Agriculture. “We are not working for ourselves, but for all Rwandans and our country, so we are going to work as hard as we can to increase plant and animal productivity, although we are facing climate challenges.”
Taking on big challenges isn’t new for Mukeshimana. She began her education at the University of Rwanda (then the National University of Rwanda) studying agriculture engineering, a major that few women pursue.
“I was born in a male-dominated family, so I never felt that I was a special child or that I was different from my brothers,” says Mukeshimana. “So I can say I never felt that sciences were for only boys. I was lucky to go to a science school. Even in the field I never felt lonely. I fit in well with male students.”
It turns out, she fit in well with Spartans, too.
Becoming a Spartan
Mukeshimana was introduced to Michigan State at the University of Rwanda, where she was an assistant lecturer. As part of an MSU project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Mukeshimana was one of a group of 16 Rwandans sent to MSU to earn advanced degrees.
There she worked with James Kelly, professor in MSU’s Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, who has been breeding new bean varieties for more than 30 years. After completing her master’s degree in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology, she returned to Rwanda, but her relationship with Kelly remained strong.
“Dr. Kelly has helped me in so many ways,” says Mukeshimana. “We got along so well from the beginning. I didn’t even think of him as my professor. I don’t have parents, so he is the most important person in my life in that way. He is my number one.”
Back in Rwanda, Mukeshimana returned to the university as a lecturer before going to work in the Ministry of Agriculture on a World Bank project. That’s when a visit from Kelly presented another opportunity from MSU, this time to complete a PhD, with her mentor as adviser.
“She was running a World Bank project in the ministry for around $25 million and was making trips to Washington, D.C.,” says Kelly. “So she was quite skilled and familiar with the organization. She was doing really good work in Rwanda.”
Preparing to lead
While pursuing her doctoral degree at MSU, Mukeshimana’s research work with Kelly focused on the genetics of common beans. The common bean is an important food and nutritional security crop in Rwanda, which has the highest per capita consumption of beans of any country in the world.
In addition to addressing important constraints to bean productivity in Rwanda, she acquired knowledge and skills in molecular genetics that would be important for the future growth and competiveness of Rwanda’s agriculture sectors. At MSU, she was recognized by USAID for her contributions to Rwanda’s bean-breeding program, including the identification of genes for drought tolerance and the development of a fast and cost-effective method for screening for
Mukeshimana’s expertise in molecular genetics and more than a decade of work with MSU’s Kelly to improve bean varieties, educate farmers and train scientists in Rwanda opened doors and helped prepare her for many of the realities she faces as minister of agriculture of a country experiencing the uncertainties brought by changes in climate.
“It is a mix of experience, knowledge of the area, political skills and being interactive with a broad range of people, from the president to the subsistence-farmer level,” says Kelly. “Gerardine is an accomplished scientist who understands the ways science can be used to improve the agriculture sector in a highly populated society. She now has contacts within the agriculture research community in this country and beyond that she can reach out to when needed.”
These days Mukeshimana spends her time thinking, planning, working, collaborating and seeking solutions to bettering and transforming the entire Rwandan agricultural industry.
“I am the first one in the office every morning and the last one to leave every night,” she says. “There is so much to learn. But there are special reasons that we are here. Nothing happens by chance. This was the time for this assignment for me.”
Over the past 20 years, Rwanda has seen a steady rise in the role of women across the country, and they now fill important roles in
business and politics.
“They [Rwanda’s women] are changing the face of this country,” Mukeshimana says. “You will find that women are confident. They care about the community. Having them as decision makers helps.”
Despite this momentum, a new report from Rwanda’s Gender Monitoring Office confirms that women still lag far behind men in agricultural leadership roles. Raising gender awareness and adopting gender-inclusive strategies in higher education and across agricultural value chains is a critical component to enhancing the agriculture sector in Rwanda.
And that’s where a partnership between MSU and the University of Rwanda comes in: The Women’s Leadership Program, funded by USAID, has developed a gender-inclusive master’s degree program for women in agribusiness.
Rwanda’s first master’s degree program in agriculture was developed with women in mind. A team from MSU has been working for the past two years to train the faculty and develop the curriculum for the program and this fall enrolled the first cohort of students.
“This is a really great opportunity for the women of Rwanda,” says Mukeshimana. “It is targeting people who would otherwise be left behind. I have high expectations for this program, and I am watching this closely and with much interest.”
“Between MSU and Rwanda, we can make so much happen together.”
Funding and Awards
Mukeshimana’s work at MSU was funded by the Partnership to Enhance Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL) Project and USAID’s Dry Grain Pulses Collaborative Research Support Program (currently the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Grain Legumes).
She received USAID’s Norman E. Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program Fellowship as well as the Board of International Food and Agriculture Development’s prestigious Student Award for Scientific Excellence in a USAID Collaborative Research Support Program.