Changing my community through science communication

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Habimana interviewing Mukarwego Gloria on how she fight disease which destroys carrots in Nyaruguru District, Southern of Rwanda.

BY HABIMANA JEAN CLAUDE

IT IS Saturday morning in southern Rwanda. Nyiramana’s face is drenched in sweat as she plants maize in her two-acre family farm. She expects to make a decent profit this season given she got the seed at a bargain. A couple of weeks later, Nyiramana’s hope begins to dwindle. The rains have failed, meaning she stands to lose her entire crop. To make matters worse, there are reports of a new pest devastating maize fields in neighboring Kenya.

Her only prayer is that the pest does not cross boarders and make her bad situation worse. Unfortunately, this story is common in this part of the world.

According to the latest FAO estimates, 30% of Africa’s population was exposed to severe food insecurity in 2017. In my country Rwanda, one fifth of our population is food insecure. Ironically, agriculture is the mainstay of our economy, contributing nearly 33% to national GDP.

Despite efforts to improve the sector, agriculture in Rwanda is still facing serious challenges such as climate change and emerging pests and diseases. In addition, our population continues to rise, and Rwandans are expected to increase from 12 million to 25 million by 2030.

Farmers like Nyiramana toil tirelessly to try to feed their families and produce surplus for the market. Today, there exists modern agricultural tools and techniques that can transform how they do agriculture. Nyiramana and millions of farmers like her need access to superior seeds that can withstand drought, reduce the number of sprays needed, and provide added nutrition in some cases.

However, although these seeds exist in certain parts of the world, misinformation and aggressive activism is blocking her from accessing them. I have made it my life’s goal to reach out to farmers in rural Rwanda and talk to them about their farming practices, document their challenges, as well as educate them about biotech crops.

How it all started

I stumbled into agricultural communications. My journey into journalism started in a newsroom, working on the infotainment desk.

A visit to a farmer’s farm exposed me to their hardships and desperation. I thereafter took it upon myself to make whatever little difference I could in the lives of smallholder farmers in Rwanda. To expose the challenges faced by farmers I interacted with, I took to social media.

I started blogging and tweeting about my experiences in the grassroots, and agitating for change. Little did I know that this endeavor would open a new world of opportunities and reveal possibilities that existed beyond my country, Rwanda.

In 2016, ISAAA AfriCenter and COMESA invited me to a science communication workshop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They had noticed my passion for agricultural communications on social media and wanted to enhance my skills on science communication, as well as educate me and other regional journalists and social media influencers on agricultural biotechnology and biosafety.

The only thing I knew about biotechnology then was the misinformation I had heard on GMOs. As a keen learner who is driven by the passion to help my farming community, I embarked on this journey and have never looked back.

Habimana interviewing scientist specialised in Biotechnology in ADDIS ABABA Ethiopia at National Biotechnlogy of Ethiopia.

From theory to practice

When the fall armyworm finally struck in Rwanda, I used my newly acquired skills, the internet, and expert sources, to learn more about the pest, and mitigation measures available, and produced a farmer targeted radio programme. To my surprise, my programme was awarded during the National Media Awards, and farmers benefited from my content.

Thanks to organisations like ISAAA AfriCenter and COMESA, my reporting has improved and I can confidently call myself a science communicator. My reporting is now based on evidence and not assumptions. I am considered an exemplary science journalist and I am always invited by various ministries to report on key issues. My questions during interviews with scientists or policymakers are focused and informed.

I strongly believe that the more we equip budding science communicators with the right knowledge and skills to effectively tell science stories, the more farmers like Nyiramana will benefit.

NOTE: HABIMANA Jean Claude, is an agricultural communication specialist based in Rwanda. He is also the founder of Rwanda Agricultural and Environmental Communicators Association. You can reach him on [email protected] This article is republished with permission from ISAAA AfriCenter.

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The Petri Dish is malaysia’s first dedicated science newspaper. Through The Petri Dish we aim to engage the public on the latest developments on biotechnology.