Profiles

Rising from a refugee camp

Kalibata

Dr Agnes Kalibata, president of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • As the president of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) she is focused to increase the incomes and improve food security for 30 million households in 11 African countries by next year. 
  • This is from the back of her success in Rwanda as the Minister of Agriculture (2008- 2014) where she is credited for driving programmes that helped lift more than a million people out of poverty.

Dr Agnes Kalibata has things to do. Important, pending things. As the president of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) she is focused to increase the incomes and improve food security for 30 million households in 11 African countries by next year.

This is from the back of her success in Rwanda as the Minister of Agriculture (2008- 2014) where she is credited for driving programmes that helped lift more than a million people out of poverty.

She seems up to that task given her track record; a Ph.D in entomology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the recipient of Yara prize (now the Africa Food Prize) in 2012, National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal in 2019, and her recent honorary doctorate from the University of Liège.

“My happiness comes from getting things done,” she told JACKSON BIKO in a recent Zoom interview.

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What kind of teenager were you?

Very quiet. I was never the difficult type. I read a lot because I was interested in stories. I was also hard-working, coming home with good grades. I always tried to say the truth. Yes, I guess a pretty boring teenager in short. (Chuckles)

When in your life would you say you were most truant, going against the grain, revolting, being difficult….

I do a lot of that. Many of us represent lots of people who are not in a position we are in, people whose voices are not around the table. I feel like I have been speaking up for the people who are not in the room and they are being heard as well; farmers, young people without jobs.

I have been doing this all my life. That’s who I have become. I’m drawn to that responsibility. Also when you go for meetings and you feel you are the odd one out, you represent a constituency that isn’t represented, you have to speak up.

Please advise your 30-year-old self.

Go out and have fun. There is a lot of room to be comfortable with your life and have fun. This is something I didn’t do and now I tell my daughter to just have fun. Life goes by so fast while you are working and suddenly you realise your life is gone and there are so many things you didn't do. (Laughs)

What’s stopping you from having fun now?

There is just too much going on in my life right now. (Pause) Do I even know what having fun is...what is having fun according to you?

Living for yourself?

I’m actually doing that. Probably 15 or 20 years ago, I decided to live for myself. There are certain times that you can't afford certain luxuries but that doesn’t stop you from being you, doing the things you care about and the jobs you want to do.

What was your best decade in life?

(Pause) So you want to know how old I am, right? (Laughs) I’d say the 40s because I was done with everything about school. I could explore my potential to grow but also give back. It was a very fulfilling period because I had the means and the capability to do them.

What's the last book you read that had a great impact on you?'

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. We have been here for a very short period but when we look back at how much havoc we have caused the world, it’s just ridiculous. The book opened my eyes to how humanity works.

What does success look like for you from where you are seated?

Success is being able to have a vision of what you want to achieve and being able to achieve it. Success is also not a one-man show, it's something you do with other people, a team.

Success is about advancing mankind. It’s about bringing other people along because you can do many other things alone.

How was the experience of growing up as a refugee?

(Pause) I would say it was difficult but when you look around in a rural environment in Africa there are no differences between how we lived and that setting. The major challenge was that we couldn’t access school.

Schools had to find us. We studied under trees and didn’t have the right materials or teachers, so there was a lot of improvisation.

One of the things that used to annoy me was always being referred to as the ‘other person’ as if you belong somewhere else. I didn’t appreciate it because I felt my dad was doing everything to fit into society.

I didn’t count myself unlucky because many Ugandan children were living in an environment like that.

How have you found that experience to have shaped you as an adult?

You are made to feel you don’t belong so you find yourself being too careful. You don’t want to annoy people. You are careful. I finished my PhD as a refugee. But we were given land by UNHCR and we lived a life as normal as our neighbours.

Who is the one person that greatly shaped your life?

So many people in the world, but my dad comes to mind immediately. From an early stage, he stressed to me that there was more to life than what our circumstance was at that time.

That I didn’t belong where I was and I needed to work hard. He told me that the kind of life I would lead in the future depended on how hard I worked. He was impatient, like me, and he would not settle for anything less than the best.

His thinking and what he embodied really shaped my life.

What interests you outside work?

I love places where I can connect to nature. I love gardening and agriculture.

How would you rate your happiness on a scale of one to ten, ten being very happy?

Honestly? Six.

How can it get to an eight?

(Laughs) Some things need to get done. My happiness comes from getting things done. I need to fix the food system, together with other people. It’s just not my problem but everybody's problems. I have no complaint about my daily life but with the responsibility I have.