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Interview with Romain Murenzi, formerly Minister of Science & Technology in Rwanda
Hello, my name is Edward Lempinen—I’m with the AAAS Office of Public Programs. I’m here today with Romain Murenzi, one of the architects of Rwanda’s acclaimed science-for-development program. He joined the AAAS International Office earlier this summer as the new director in the Center for Science, Technology, and Sustainable Development.
Professor Murenzi traveled a remarkable route on his way to AAAS. He was born in Rwanda. Early in his career, he was a math teacher in the East African nation of Burundi. He received his PhD in physics at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. In 1992, he came to the United States to join the faculty at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia. He won tenure, and in 1999 became chair of the Physics Department.
Back home, Rwanda was undergoing an historic tragedy. It was already one of the world’s poorest nations. It’s landlocked and it has few natural resources. But then, in 1994, a shocking genocide left some 800,000 people dead and the nation’s economy in ruins.
Six years later, Paul Kagame became Rwanda’s president. Murenzi returned home the next year, in 2001. President Kagame’s government pledged to build the nation’s strength and stability, and reduce its need for foreign aid, by developing its human resources. Science and technology, along with education, were designated the engines of development—and hope.
Murenzi served as minister of education, science, technology and scientific research until March 2006. Then as minister in President's Kagame’s office in charge of science, technology, and scientific research, until July 2009.
In that time, Rwanda made advances that have been watched around the world—often with amazement. It has become one of the leaders in Africa’s increasingly vibrant economy, and a model for other developing nations in Africa and beyond.
Professor Murenzi, thank you very much for joining us today.
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak.
You were named to direct the Center for Science, Technology and Sustainable Development at AAAS in late July; I wonder if you could share with us your vision for the center.
Thank you. As you know, in 2000 the world decided to move for global development through the MDG, the Minimum Development Goals[link: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/], in particular, goal No. 7, assure environmental sustainability, and goal No. 8, develop global partnership. My vision would be to work around the two Minimum Development Goals No. 7 and No. 8 and also, in particular, be an advocate of using science and technology—not only existing science, but also new science.
Clearly your vision must have been shaped by your experience before coming to AAAS and I’m curious about the lessons you’ve learned along the way. For example, what influence did your early experience as a mMath teacher have on your later work?
My experience as a math teacher was very interesting because you have here students in the classroom and you want to achieve educational and learning outcomes. In that classroom, you have students who are very strong in mathematics and students who are very weak in mathematics. So I learned very, very early how to empower the strong but also how to work with the weak so that both can move forward and that was very, very important. Later on, when I became minister but also even just before, when I became chairman of the Physics Department [at Clark Atlanta University], I always managed to work with people. so that’sSo my early work as a math teacher helped me a lot.
Can you think of some specific experiences, whether in Africa or Europe or beyond, that have shaped your philosophy about development and also the role that developed nations play in assisting development?
Yes, development is related to knowledge. When I think about development I think about knowledge. If you look at the United States, around 1820, and Argentina they were at par. But the United States had developed to be a giant that we know because of two things: Governance throughout the years, stable governance, democracy; at those the same times investment in long-term scientific progress—innovation. So that became very, very important and as I travelled throughout Europe during my years as Ph.D student I was able to visit Italy, [the] U.K., Belgium, of course, France, and Germany and some other countries. You will see the focus on long-term education, long-term investment in science and technology so I believe that that is the key and science and technology can not only help to create wealth, at the same time it can help to reduce poverty, to reduce human misery.
Can you think of any specific one experience or two experiences that were pivotal for you in understanding the importance of development?
As, of course, I was living in Rwanda over the last decade and we’re going to be coming to that. When I arrived in Rwanda as a minister of education we realized actually most of the time we would have food scarcity, we had no food security and we would have to rely on the World Food Program to feed the children in the boarding schools and (00:06:38)later as we’re moving throughout the last decade, the Ministry of Agriculture and the government decided had to work very, very strongly on using science and technology for agriculture, in particular, the input. As you all know, if you take a coffee tree or you take pyrethrum [Anacyclus Pyrethrum, or pilletory], or a tea tree, it’s all about botany. So how do you use that? How do you use botany? How do you use zoology to be able to work on the things? So that became very, very important. And then later on, the implementation of the science and technology, in particular the use of agricultural input and also in other science and technology-based input. Rwanda now is considered to be one of the most secure countries in the region. The latest report just came out: Actually Rwanda is, in all the countries in East Africa, the most food-secure and this has come from actually a decade-long investment in science-based solutions for agriculture.
You talk about your return to Rwanda and I want to ask you a little bit about that. When you arrived back in your home country to join President Kagame’s administration, what was the mood of the nation? And I wonder if you could talk as well about the condition, at that time, of the nation’s science and technology infrastructure.
When I arrived in Rwanda in 2001, it was around 10 months after President Kagame had become president but also it was around seven years after the genocide. I considered the arrival of President Kagame in 2000 as a president was greeted with a lot of hope and you will see that actually happening in the eyes of people, you see that hope in terms of development because it’s somebody who actually, who implements things because knowing science and technology or educational policy is important but it is the implementation that is very important. But something happened around 1998; the government of Rwanda decided to have discussions about the long-term economic development of the country. These discussions are known as the Urugwiro Discussions or Dialogue. Urugwiro—that’s where the president’s office is located now. So they have long-term discussions and from that came several orientations for long-term development, in particular, the Vision 2020[link: http://www.gesci.org/assets/files/Rwanda_Vision_2020.pdf] [report].
But also during that period also, very interestingly, they shaped the Rwanda National Information Communication Infrastructure Plan, called NICI—NICI Plan, so NICI is N-I-C-I, for National Information Communication Infrastructure Plan. Although there was no policy around that but they shaped 20 years of a plan, evolving every five years. So when I arrived in 2001, you have that but you didn’t have a broad science and technology policy; that was only information, communication technologies. So I can say that, when I arrived. In terms of higher education, you have just the major university that existed before the genocide, the National University of Rwanda, but also Rwanda has already started some new institutions such as the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology which was very new, just started. But there was no such a thing as long-term science and technology, science and technology policy.
I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on how the country’s science and technology policy took shape. Where did the realization come from, in President Kagame and in the people he brought into his government, that science would be so important?
Kagame considered science and technology to be very crucial for long-term economic development of the country. When I arrived in 2001, there was, of course, an educational policy that we revised during my time and that educational policy also came up with a strategy to move in the next 20 years. Also, we revised most laws that existed before the genocide, in particular the Educational Law of 1984, in order to be able to be implement where we were with the Education Forum for All [link: http://portal.unesco.org/education/en/ev.php-URL_ID=42579&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html] goals but also and the Minimum Development Goals. But also we didn’t have a law on higher education, a policy on higher education, so from there we establish a law, we passed a law on higher education, we passed a council of higher education for accreditation but also what you would call a student aid, a student loan scheme, to make that we assure sustainability in the higher education because higher education tends to be very, very expensive compared to lower levels of education, primary education and the secondary, secondary education.
So after we finished that, the law for education, primary and the secondary, and higher education, then we moved to the science and technology education, science and technology policy in 2004. which was very interesting. Around 2004, President Kagame actually in a major speech he said that Rwanda would like to be able be, to create knowledge, to be part of the mainstream science and technology community; at the same time, to be able to get access to existing knowledge but also to use science for commercialization. It’s in a major speech that he made that [remark] and from the—around that, we did share the Rwandan policy, with consultation, first UNESCO gave us some funding to work with the CSIRO[link: http://www.csiro.au/] from Australia and then we had have a plan and then from there we moved forward and we worked with our development partners and our other partners in education. And in 2005, on May 25th 2005, President Kagame and other stakeholders, we had a meeting at the National University of Rwanda, to launch actually the policy, the discussion on the policy.
From there came about a draft of the policy that was submitted to Cabinet later on that year and then move towards that policy and that policy also outlined several things. In particular, the goals are as any other policy in science and technology, knowledge acquisition—what kind of knowledge? Knowledge-acquisition—what kind of knowledge? What kind of science in primary education? What kind of science in secondary education? What kind science in higher education? But what kind of science also in the general population, the public understanding of science, science literacy. And then you move toward the creation of knowledge, what kind of science is important for Rwanda? You look at the existing resources, our biodiversity, our rivers, our lakes and you look at the soil, you look at the geography. What kind of science do you want for your country to be able to move forward? And then you move toward science, knowledge, and they say, knowledge-transfer. So most people, in general, when they think about science, they think about the dissection that they had in primary or secondary education, all the little science that they had in school. But they don’t link clearly science with health, science with agriculture, science with water, science with population growth. So all these things are very important.
Rwanda and Africa in particular, Sub-Saharan Africa, we have water, but Africans don’t have access to water, this is just—this is just technology. What are the technologies that you need to be able to do that? Same thing, agriculture: We have trees, we have forests, but how do you harness that? How do you take a coffee tree, to consider it as a plant rather than just it to be as coffee tree as you put it there and then you go there and you expect to get the beans? You need to be able to trim it, you need to be able to give it some food, like fertilizer. So that becomes very, very important. And then, move toward the importance of knowledge, the use of innovation, and intellectual property rights. So if you think about the three four things, you have a tetrahedron[link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetrahedron] with—at the base you have knowledge acquisition, knowledge creation, knowledge transfer, and at the top you have innovation. Innovation brings you in three dimensions—innovation brings you three dimensions. you can educate people, they can have access to existing knowledge, they can do research but stay there. They can transfer the knowledge, existing knowledge, and they can do it. But you need to be able to promote innovation, create new things. In existing things you can shape new things, without going to research you can commercialize, can come up with the new things.
For example, the Wright brothers, in 1903, when they got the patent, in took them three years to get somebody to help them to be able to develop the aircraft [he chuckles] because people didn’t understand; they took this, “Oh, this flying box is not important! What is that?” So you have to be able to have innovators, how do you link innovation, commercialization, intellectual property rights? That becomes very important.
Was it difficult or in any way challenging to impart that idea of innovation in the government, in the private sector, in the country?
I think it is always difficult because those things, when they are new because people understand what education is but why do we need science and technology policy? Why do we need to be — say you’re going to be creating new knowledge; why do we want to do that? But when President Kagame was present, at the National University of Rwanda, to do the opening speech with the UK Ambassador representing the donors, representing the development partners, that picture gives you what you are going to lay ahead, not only the President and the whole government was ready to support the policy but also our development partners were also ready to be able to help us.
So later on that year, later on in 2006, after about six months later, I went to invite Sir David King, who was the Chief Scientist for the UK. He came to Rwanda and he addressed both chambers of the Parliament on the importance of science and technology so we continued, during that period, for almost, for one year, we continued actually to do advocacy on the importance of science in every major speech. Then later on, as you know, that President Kagame visited The Royal Society and also he came to (00:19:58) AAAS in 2008 and he went to MIT and he visited other places where he said, “Here we are, we are interested in science and technology, we think science can help us to move forward.”
But also you will see other leaders on the African continent inviting him, for example, at the African Union Summit in 2007 in January, he was invited to speak on the importance of science and technology for Africa’s development. And this year, in February, actually, he was also invited at the African Union Summit to speak about the importance of information communication technologies but also to talk to other leaders, other presidents, to understand the importance of it, not to put it at the back-side, but to say: ‘Information and communication is a revolution that is changing the way we do business.’ And then, from there, that meeting, actually, the president of the World Bank, the president of the African Development Bank, the secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union were there and also even President Zuma [Jacob Zuma of South Africa] spoke about the information communication, in particular he spoke about Square Kilometre Array[link: http://www.ska.ac.za/], the astronomical infrastructure they are doing for astronomy and how to link with information and communication. So I think this has become very important. You see, having that policy was very important to move toward the thing that I just said a few minutes ago.
It makes the progress and the effort systematic.
When you look at that systematic effort, over the last decade in particular, what has it helped Rwanda to accomplish so far?
During that period I was Minister of Education, Science, Technology and Scientific Research. The word technology is very important because during that period there was also a transition world-wide from telecommunication as you knew it, the telephony, and the telephone as you knew it, through the integration of information/communication technologies. So during that period also I was not the person, the minister in charge of Telecommunication, I worked a lot in the implementation of the National Information Communication Plan, not only for the first period, from 2001 to 2005, which was mostly setting up the governance and all the policies but later on from 2006 to 2010 for the infrastructure part, for example, fiber-optic and other infrastructure that are there. At the same time, also, what you see is the government moving towards saying, “Okay, in terms of human resources, we need scientists. So, we are going to supporting mostly scientists with our loans.” So most of the students in the government-sponsored university, 70% is science-based. But also at the same time, they also linked the high-level science with also vocational training, which became very, very important. If you read the news now, the Chinese government is going to build a $10 million vocational training center in the country side in Musanze, near where you have the mountain gorillas. They want to build a $10 million vocational center. That is very, very important.
If you look also in the news again, I was reading this morning the Japanese government is going to give around $20 million dollars, forty million dollars, for water project. When you talk about water, you talk about irrigation, you talk about irrigation, this is technology so you see, these things that happen, people are coming and saying, “Oh, you have the policy, you have a plan, let us help you, let us work with you and you will be able to achieve your objectives.”
In human terms in Rwanda, we’ve talked about technology, we’ve talked about policy, we’ve talked about education; but what has been the human impact so far in the last 10 years or so?
The human impact is very clear. It’s a country that is at peace with itself; you can see that. Over the last 16 years education has been at the forefront—this means knowledge at the center, the word “knowledge” is at the center. Primary education went from around 940,000 to close to 2.4 million now; this means more than double the population, on a 10 million population, 2.4 million are in elementary school.
Let now say if you just consider if we didn’t have that. If Rwanda didn’t have the 2.4 million children in primary school, now in elementary school, let’s say 1 million out on the street. Rwanda has around 15,000 subdivisions, if you divide a million by 15,000 you get around 600, you’d have 600 street children [in each city and town.]. Can you govern?
You cannot govern. So secondary school, same: It went from 50,000, these are numbers, to 500,000, close to 500,000—this means 10 times. In a country that is as small as the state of Maryland, do you see 450,000 teenagers in the street? [Chuckles.] Can you govern? You cannot. So this is a huge impact. We are talking about around 3 million, if you put higher education probably to 3 million and 200 [thousand], something like that, who are, on a daily basis, sitting somewhere and being given access to knowledge. And if you take that, you look long-term, we can talk about sustainable development.
Because if you’ve—if all these people were not in school, they would be around destroying things, they would be around in the street, they would be around, you know, you can have so many other things happening. But by putting them in school, you change completely the equation. As I told you, when I was in the classroom in Burundi, I look at two things: There are the strong students in mathematics and the weak students in mathematics. Higher education brings you economy growth. Primary education brings you poverty reduction. If you don’t go to primary school, elementary school, you will always be poor.
But if you go to—if you finish elementary and you can have some skill, you can have a dollar per day, $2, $3, but you’ll never have—most likely a dollar per day if you don’t have elementary school, if you cannot read and write, if you cannot add, you cannot do one plus two. If you don’t know how to count until a thousand, this means the year will go by without knowing that the 365 days have gone by. People, somebody who cannot—numerical literacy is very important. Somebody who cannot count until 30 or 100 or imagine a hundred, this person—a day will go by, a month will go by, a year will go by and you will not know that it has gone. In some circumstances you ask a grown man, “How old are you?” and he told me, I’m 66 years old. This is a very true story! I have asked people! So this means this person lives in the world but he does not know what he is! And then suppose and now you have a million of these guys, can you govern? Can you talk about democracy? Can you talk about liberty? No, cannot talk about those things so that’s become very, very important. That you see that they’ve shaped the way people see things so if you visit Rwanda you will see that.
Do you think there are lessons in Rwanda’s experience that are applicable to other developing nations?
Yes, there are two things in all these things and we probably may come back that later—the issue of leadership. I can give you bread and the bread, if it enters into your stomach, it gives you energy and then you can move. But you may decide not to eat the bread. [He chuckles.] So science/technology is the engine for economic growth. You can’t reduce poverty if you don’t have wealth, so we can talk about the issue of the distribution of wealth and ideas to help the poor to work with them—you can also work on that, science/technology can also have that to help the poor—we can work about that, you can discuss it.
For them the mobile telephone has helped a lot; other things can be discussed. But broadly we will say that science and technology help long-term sustainable growth. I say long-term sustainable growth—if you want to sustain your growth, you need to have long-term technological investment and I think that is, that is at the core of that. Then I can give—I can go there and outline some examples.
For example, I did say a few minutes ago, the agriculture, for example. In the early years of this decade that we just finished, Rwanda has had food security, Rwanda has achieved food security. But the next step will be full transformation. These people have produced so much, are producing so much potatoes, they produce so much maize. What do you do with the maize? Then what do you do with so much bananas? So how do you transform that banana? How do you conserve the banana? This issue of conservation becomes very important, transformation becomes very important, commercialization becomes very important. And the government has been working very, very strongly into that—you can see that.
This is why, for example, coffee, Rwandan coffee, is in Costco and also is in Starbucks. From working with the population, the farmers, working on the tree, coffee tree, trimming it, giving it the food—fertilizer, which is science—washing the coffee, drying it properly, separating the beans, and an aggressive marketing where you can do it. So those things have happened. So these are some of the lessons, I think, people can learn from Rwanda and they’re achievable. But you need to have somebody who is an advocate, the person will come around here, and say: “We have this wonderful product which is our coffee, it’s a good product. Can you try it?” And you try it and then you come, you see it and then [you see] yeah, this is good.
But if you stay home and think that somebody’s going help you on that—no, no, no, it doesn’t do work that way. You need to be able to go out, to be able to show what you are doing, that you believe in that and that is leadership, is governance. How do you meet with the farmers? How do you make the farmers really grow the coffee? How do you make the business partner, the business, the entrepreneurs? They build the coffee-washing stations, not just the government building them but you want to local entrepreneurs to come and build the coffee-washing stations. You need those local entrepreneurs to come to the U.S., to go to (the) U.K. to sell their product, to say: “We have this wonderful product”—that is backed by good technology. They are backed by—they are green, they are whatever you can say about that, but you need to be able to do that. All that chain is very important.
We have just a couple of minutes left, Professor Murenzi, and I wonder if you could talk about the biggest challenge facing developing nations generally as they move more now to embrace science and technology as the foundation for future development.
First the—globally, there should a consensus on the importance of science and technology for development and then later for sustainable development.
USAID on the 13th and 14th of July organized a conference on that, on science/technology and economic growth and I think USAID is organizing a science and technology innovation forum at the U.N. on the 22nd [of September] in partnership with the New York Academy of Science, so I’ll be there. I think that’s the major initiative, that’s very important. But you need USAID, you need other development organizations such as DfID, the [U.K.’s] Department for International Development, the U.N., they need to think that is very important. The World Bank, I do think that is very, very important because you cannot reduce poverty if you don’t create wealth.
And doing that also, you come back to the issue of sustainable development because the issue of energy—for example, biomass. In the developing world, in the tropics, it does not matter how much electric cars you have here. If you destroy all the tropical forests, the world will have a huge, huge problem and that may happen because the population is growing anyway. The population is growing—the world has, in 2000, hads around 6 billion, now they are around 7 billion. Rwanda hads 8 million; now it is at 10 million. Africa hads 800 million population; now they are close to 1.1 billion.
These people need food, they will be cutting the trees, they will be—so you’ll be seeing those things happening if the world does not put its energy in supporting science and technology for long-term economic growth, but at the same time also for sustainability. And I have not seen that happening in the development banks. Is the World Bank doing that? Is Are the regional banks, such as the African Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Asian Bank, the Arab Bank—do they think that science is very important? If they think is it very, very important, if they look at population growth now—the population continues to grow, because people are having access to drugs, they’re having access to other benefits, at the same time, people live much, much longer.
So all this means that we will have a huge problem on the Earth, on our planet but the population will continue to grow unless there is a catastrophe, the population by 2050, I understand, maybe it’ll be close to 10 billion, I think it’s going to be even more if you look at the—in 1970 there were around 3.5 billion, now we have already 7 billion. So these people; what are they going to be eating? What are they going to be [using for] clothing? Housing? Energy? They’ll be cutting more and more trees, more and more use of the soil. So these things are going to be happening if really the Millennium Goal No. 7 [ensure environmental sustainability], and also No. 8 [develop global partnerships], are not taken care of.
Do you see the AAAS Center that you’re now heading as being a bridge between the world development banks and the world development agencies and the governments around the world of developing nations?
AAAS, because of its position but also because of the experience that AAAS has, can be the bridge or the catalyst, as I said the other day, between the development institutions, being the government institutions such as the DfID or USAID or SIDA[link: http://www.sida.se/English/] in Sweden [the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency] or CIDA in Canada [the Canadian International Development Agency][link: http://www.acdi-cida.gc.ca/home], the banks. Because AAAS has developed a wealth of knowledge, has a wealth of network of scientists who are independent, who can give advice. So through the Center we hope to be able to tap into that, to work with the existing network of scientists who are members of AAAS but also to be able to work with these institutions and come up with an orientation, with an advocacy, a real advocacy.
I’ve been reading what’s been happening over the last decade in terms of sustainable development. But what you need to be able to do is to outline a few things that are very important. We need funding, we need implementation; at the same time, it does not matter if you have clean energy here, you have clean energy in the U.K. and in Russia—and you have the whole continent of Africa, the whole continent of Latin America, and some parts of Asia, and some other places where you have a huge concentration of people.
If nothing is happening there, the biomass is going to get used. I think that’s what I’m seeing. Because people will need to be able—they will use the tree anyway. That’s the fuel that they have, that’s the fuel of the poor. But any tree that is cut brings us toward serious problems in the future.
Dr. Murenzi, I want to thank you for joining us today. You are always fascinating to talk to and I hope we’ll have the chance to talk again some day.
Thank you very much
I also want to thank Carla Schaffer, who’s producing this podcast for the AAAS Office of Public Programs. Thank you everyone—goodbye.
2 November 2010