Like so many of you, when I’m hungry, I open the fridge and get myself something to eat any time I want. This is something most of us who live in a developed country don’t think much about. However, it is a luxury that I didn’t think I would ever have in my life when I lived in a refugee camp in Tanzania 23 years ago, or even seven years ago, when I was living in my home country of Rwanda before I moved to the USA.
I was only seven years old when my home country of Rwanda went through the tragedy of the genocide that took so many lives, and they made us flee the country, and we became refugees. Life in a refugee camp — it wasn’t life.
It was survival. I saw a lot of people dying from disease, poor sanitation, hunger. Food became a rare commodity. There were bad days. My family and I would survive on the leaves and grasses from the forest.
There were also worse times, when we would go two or three days without anything to eat at all, only drinking water from the swamp. After three years in a refugee camp, we decided to return back to Rwanda.
And our struggle with food continued. However, farming proved to be the only reliable source of food. But our food lacked the nutritional diversity, and we continued to depend on food assistance from the United Nations World Food Program to balance our diet.
Still today, more than 70 percent of Rwandans, they work in the agriculture sector. But malnutrition and stunting remain rampant. I came to realize that food insecurity and malnutrition were not happening because people were not farming enough; it was because people were not farming the right crops.
I eventually left Rwanda and moved to the USA for graduate school and discovered the possible solution to that problem. And that solution is quinoa. Quinoa is indigenous to the Indian regions of South America, in countries like Bolivia, Peru … And it’s very well-known for its powerhouse nutrient, and the crop has all the nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. But unfortunately, quinoa is not cultivated as much in different parts of the world.
In Rwanda, for example, beans are the only thing that kept so many of us alive during those times of hunger and starvation. As a matter of fact, Rwanda is the number one beans-consuming country in the world per capita.
In this part of Africa, beans are one of the only crops that provide immediate food source, because you can eat beans at every stage of growth. We eat beans, leaves and green beans before harvest. Unfortunately, you cannot cultivate beans in the same field season after season.
You need to ensure there is regular rotation to avoid disease and pests. Like beans, farmers can enjoy the nutritious quinoa leaves. While beans are considered nutritious, quinoa has far more micronutrients, and with quinoa, you can make many [more] different food products and drinks than beans.
In 2015, alongside my research team at Washington State University, we introduced quinoa in Rwanda for the first time. We tested 20 varieties of quinoa to see the adaptability in three ecological zones of Rwanda.
And the results were astonishing. Among the 20 varieties we tested, 15 of them showed the potential to grow well in Rwanda’s climate. And later, we started Quinoa Model Farmers Program. We gave those potential varieties to farmers to grow in their farm and community.
We started with 12 farmers, and three years later, we are now working with around 500 farmers, including my mother, who is locally known as “the queen of quinoa” because of her work in helping other farmers adopt this crop.
We give them seeds, train them how to grow it and how to cook it. And farmers are pretty creative, coming up with recipes of their own. And we’ve started seeing remarkable changes in their lives, including success stories that many of them can now have access to nutritious food three times a day.
I’d like to note that quinoa is not meant to entirely [push out] other crops. We introduced quinoa as a supplement to create overall health and nutrition, rounding out diet to combat chronic malnutrition.
We have started this model with quinoa in Rwanda, but it can be replicated in different countries experiencing hunger and malnutrition. About one in nine people in the world suffer from chronic malnutrition.
We have started research collaboration with institutions in countries like Kenya, Malawi, Uganda and other countries experiencing hunger and malnutrition. And quinoa isn’t the only magic crop. There are several crops with high adaptability and nutritional value, crops like millet, sorghum, fonio, barley, oat, to name a few.
These crops have high adaptability and respond well to climate change. You can grow these magic crops in different parts of the world, bridging the gap, so that there is accessible nutritious food for everyone.
I know how it feels to be hungry. I’ve been there. And I know how it feels to be malnourished, because I’ve been there, too. Introducing crops with high biodiversity, adaptability and nutritional value will play an important role in creating food security, seed sovereignty and sustainable production in communities and countries that are experiencing hunger and malnutrition.
Having nutritious food should not be a luxury. There is a need to ensure that there is accessible and affordable nutritious food for everyone. And this is a step towards making it a reality.