Rwanda Had Different Plans: Yale
Partners with Environmental ‘Rising Star’

In recent years, Rwanda has become a global leader in sustainability and environmental stewardship. A new reciprocal partnership between Yale and the African nation will create opportunities for collaborative teaching and research, foster an exchange of resources, and allow Yale students to study, intern, and conduct research in Rwanda.

rwanda plant canopy
Rwanda Green Fund
In 2017, Rwanda opened a multi-million dolar e-waste recycling facility which aims to properly dispose of potentially hazardous materials found in electronics.
Nearly three decades ago, a brutal war ripped Rwanda apart at the seams. Years of conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups came to a head in the early 1990s, culminating in one of the darkest periods in recent world history. The genocide against the Tutsis led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans and the displacement of millions more. The horrific ordeal tore families and communities apart and crippled the economy, ruining the country’s infrastructure.

The international community looked at Rwanda, a fledgling nation formed just over 30 years prior, and saw a familiar narrative playing out; one of war and poverty on the African continent that would require constant aide to avoid becoming a failed state.

Rwanda had different plans.
canopy cover fall 2018
This article originally appeared in the fall 2018 issue of Canopy magazine.
According to the United Nations’ publication African Renewal, Rwanda has one of the world’s fastest growing economies, averaging 8 percent growth per year from 2004–2014. In 1994, 78 percent of Rwandans lived below the poverty line; today, that number has been cut nearly in half. The highest primary school enrollment on the continent, affordable and reliable internet service, a clean and safe capital city — all part of current-day Rwanda.

“We took control of the situation,” said Parfait Gasana ’18 M.E.M., a Rwandan, born a refugee in Burundi, and now an advisor to the Rwandan government. “Our leadership determined that we couldn’t wait around for other countries to step in and do the work that Rwandans should have done in the first place. We could begin anew and craft something that the world would look at as an example for developing a nation.

“Today, Rwanda is providing leadership on issues of peace, security and, most importantly, environmental stewardship. When you think of sustainability in Africa, you think of Rwanda.”

Vincent Biruta is a jack of all trades — and he’s something of a master of them, too. A trained physician, Biruta has spent the last 20 years heading Rwanda’s departments of health, public works and transportation, education, and serving as the president of the Rwandan Senate for varying lengths of time. In 2014, he was appointed to his current role as Minister of Natural Resources.

He is a statesman who warrants attention. So, when he shares his views on tackling environmental challenges, they carry considerable weight.

“Containing the warming of our planet is the single most important action we can take,” Biruta told an audience at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies last fall. “This is not a choice — this is a must. Any sector, anything you do, the environment has to be taken into consideration.”

Biruta visited Yale to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to formalize greater collaboration between Yale and Rwanda in the areas of education and research in sustainability, environmental protection and conservation. The memorandum was also signed by Yale President Peter Salovey and F&ES Dean Indy Burke, as well as the deans from the schools of engineering, nursing, and public health. The reciprocal Yale-Rwanda partnership will pursue opportunities for collaborative teaching and research in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, foster an exchange of resources, and create new opportunities for Yale students to study, intern, and conduct research in Rwanda.
Today, Rwanda is providing leadership on issues of peace, security and, most importantly, environmental stewardship. When you think of sustainability in Africa, you think of Rwanda.
— Parfait Gasana ’18 M.E.M., advisor to Rwandan government
The partnership fits well into Yale’s Africa Initiative, which promotes greater collaboration between Yale and the African continent in areas of scholarship, research, and student recruitment. But while the arrangement will provide opportunities for undergraduates and several graduate programs, the most important connections will be forged across disciplines around sustainability.

Rwanda is increasingly seen as a leader in sustainability efforts, not just in Africa but across the world. In 2008, the country banned the use of plastic bags. They also embarked on a massive reforestation initiative, aiming to increase forest cover to 30 percent of the total land area by 2020. National parks have been created and wetlands have been restored, increasing hydroelectric power. Rwanda established the Green Fund, capitalizing more than $100 million USD to date to support public and private projects aimed at building a green economy, while additional funding has been obtained through accreditation from the International Green Climate Fund. And, in October 2016, the capital city of Kigali played host to the signing of a landmark amendment of the Montreal Protocol, which phases out hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, for next-generation technologies with a lower environmental impact.

“Rwanda is a perfect partner at this point,” said Coral Bielecki ’18 M.E.Sc., a co-coordinator for the partnership and a research assistant for Marian Chertow, at associate professor of industrial environmental management at F&ES. “They’ve integrated the environment into all of their policies. They’re a rising star.”
rwanda canopy
Government of Rwanda
The capital city of Kigali.
Bielecki has teamed up with Gasana and Chertow for roughly two years to build this partnership with Rwanda. The wheels began turning in 2017, when Rwanda partnered with Nigeria and South Africa and launched the African Circular Economy Alliance to create a new model of sustainable development in Africa. A circular economy is one in which resources are used for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value, then recovering as much of the materials as feasible at the end of their service life. It is a popular concept related to the interdisciplinary field of industrial ecology in which F&ES, through the Center for Industrial Ecology, is a world leader.

Under the direction of Minister Biruta, Gasana was tasked with pursuing efforts that promoted the circular economy in Rwanda. Fortunately for him, he didn’t have to go far to find Chertow, one of the world’s experts on circular economies. An F&ES team was swiftly assembled to create an assessment of what the circular economy could bring to Rwanda, impressing Biruta enough to seek out further collaboration with the School.

The seven-year partnership is still taking shape — Gasana said they’re “in the programming stage” right now. But he and Bielecki stressed the desire for this effort to be based on the values of reciprocity and cooperation, where Yale students and faculty can learn and conduct research, while Rwanda uses Yale’s resources and knowledge to implement effective policy.

“We’re all looking beyond seven years — to what could happen 50 years from now,” said Gasana. “We want to look back at what Yale has done in Africa and see that we were part of a legacy that helped make a substantial difference in the world.”

“And even though Rwanda is a small country, they can play a big role. They may not be the biggest emitter of carbon emissions, but they suffer as much as anyone. They want to be among the players in finding a solution. They want to roll up their sleeves and get to work.”
PUBLISHED: February 6, 2019
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.