Extending the legacy of Umubano in Rwanda

CFID are delighted to host a guest blog submitted by a project Umubano 2017 alumni Dr Suzanne Bartington. Working with colleagues at the University of Rwanda College of Science and Technology (UR-CST) Suzanne has been able to extend the legacy of the first Umubano visit in a professional capacity.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors, and may not reflect the views of CFID.

As a Project Umubano volunteer visiting Rwanda in summer 2017, I had a unique opportunity to apply my professional expertise as a doctor and environmental health researcher in country recognised to set a ‘gold standard’ for integrated development in the global south.

A key focus was to learn more about health and environmental policies in a country which aspires to rapid economic growth through an inclusive national target known as Vision 2020. This government programme, launched in 2000 by President Kagame, articulates the need to establish an inclusive ‘green growth’ agenda to support the country’s development journey. The overarching aim is to transform Rwanda into a knowledge-based middle-income country therefore reducing poverty, improving health and achieving climate resilience.

As a consequence of this strategic commitment, for almost two decades the national government has placed environmental health at the centre of a range of bold public policies.
Firstly, Rwanda was an early adopter of single-use plastics action – a bag ban was introduced in 2008 and investment in municipal waste management has led to the reputation as one of the cleanest countries in Africa.

The country has set ambitious targets to increase forest cover to 30% of land area by 2020, generating nationwide landscape restoration and tree planting initiatives to protect the country’s forests, rivers and wetlands. National forests such as Nyungwe, Gishwati and Mukura have been upgraded to national parks to ensure long-term protection and legacy. These changes have also created investment opportunities, with the tourism sector contributing $1.4 billion to the country’s economy in 2018; an increase of 14% from the previous year. Habitat restoration has also led to water level recovery , increasing hydropower production to support industry and a boost for the country’s fishing sector.

Climate resilience has also been a key driver towards policies to champion health and active lifestyles alongside investment in modern, clean and efficient public transport systems. The ‘Car Free Day’ established in the capital Kigali as a monthly event in 2016, has been extended to a fortnightly event, becoming a reference point for an emerging international movement. Social action is also at the core of this participatory approach to health and social improvement – on the first Saturday of each month all able-bodied Rwandan adults take part in ‘Umuganda’ social clean-up and community projects before meeting to discuss and solve local issues.

Fundamental to the success of these green initiatives has been public-private sector partnership working, supported by establishment of a dedicated ‘Green Fund’ – the largest of its kind in Africa. The fund supports projects which will achieve transformative change, mobilising over $100 million investment in policy initiatives, demonstrating the impact of a well-managed climate financing in a low-Income country context.

Political commitment has also been critical to successful implementation of progressive policies – climate change has been placed high on the national agenda and the country’s Ministry of Natural Resources has been accredited by the International Green Climate Fund.

However, despite such successes and rapid progress, key challenges remain for Rwanda to achieve a climate-resilient and low carbon economy by 2050. Critically, over 80% of the population still rely upon solid biomass fuels in their homes – predominantly charcoal and wood used for domestic cooking and heating. Solid fuel demand not only contributes to deforestation but is also linked to serious and harmful health effects including heart, lung and eye disease, danger of burns and limitations for educational and employment opportunities. These risks are highest among those women and children, due to the disproportionate amount of time spent in close proximity to open fire stoves, which typically emit air pollutants at levels far in excess of World Health Organisation recommendations. Cleaner fuel transition is not possible in the short to medium-term - access to Liquid Petroleum Gas is limited particularly in rural and underprivileged areas and cooking practices have strong, deeply rooted socio-cultural determinants.

Working with colleagues at the University of Rwanda College of Science and Technology (UR-CST) supported by the University of Birmingham, I have been fortunate to extend the legacy of this first Umubano visit in a professional capacity. Over a two year period we have developed a collaborative research programme to measure air pollution associated with charcoal cooking and develop scientific evidence to inform less harmful cooking practices which are acceptable and effective in the Rwandan context. This programme has also enabled UR-CST MSc and undergraduate students to conduct high quality scientific research and to inform future environmental health policy implementation in their own country.

It has been a fascinating journey observing first-hand the health and development progress in Rwanda – a country which is not hesitant to deliver upon its national commitments. We hope that through research collaboration and partnership we will generate critical evidence to assist with development progress, policy delivery and build long-term higher education sector legacy. For achieving change in energy policies and practice will be a critical step in achieving health and development co-benefits, and indeed for achievement of Vision 2020.