Rwandan university students aim to leverage education to better their homeland

October 08, 2012

Ephrem Rukundo and Ivan Mutabazi share a common goal: they both want to further their education. In their native Rwanda, where many youngsters must work to help support their families, that is often an unattainable dream. Both have navigated their educational journeys with assistance from the Kittelson Charitable Foundation (KCF). Established in 2007, KCF contributes money, computer equipment, and school supplies to underprivileged youth in Rwanda.

Many Rwandan youth have lost family members to genocide and, as such, need to take jobs on family farms or earn money in other ways to support remaining relatives. Per capita income in Rwanda is about $200 a year, while tuition, books, supplies, and school-related living expenses are about $500 a year.

Since KCF was founded, nearly 50 Rwandan students have continued their studies through its Rwanda Rising initiative, which aims to create transformative educational opportunities for students who have the ability and the personal motivation to succeed in school and life, but are unable to continue their schooling without the foundation’s support.

In addition to students enrolled in Rwandan primary and secondary schools and at the university level, KCF is supporting Ephrem and Ivan as they attend colleges in the US.

Growing up in a small Rwandan town, Ephrem saw firsthand the difficulty subsistence farmers have in producing enough food to feed their families and sell at market. This experience has led him to study ways to reduce commodity losses through post-harvest technology. He notes that about 40 percent of the food farms produce is lost due to a lack of such technology. In developing countries, losses are due to lack of storage.
“I’m interested in figuring out the best technology that is available for developing countries to use to prevent that loss,” he says. “Once people invest in their farm, they put in a lot of money, so it’s really sad if they lose the product before it reaches the table.”

Ephrem earned his undergraduate degree in agriculture from the National University of Rwanda and was then invited by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to come to the US in 2010. Having completed coursework at the University of California Davis studying international agriculture development with a specialization in post-harvest technology, Ephrem will begin his doctoral studies this September, which focus on increasing food safety and reducing losses through post-harvest technology.

Ivan also spent part of his childhood in a rural village while attending school in the city of Kigali. He is a full-time student at George Fox University and is studying global business and computer science. Over summer break this year, Ivan often visited KAI’s Portland office, where he shadowed its Business Development staff and learned about contracts, risk management, and other aspects of the firm’s operations.

Ivan hopes to stay in Oregon to attend graduate school, a goal he could not have imagined before he learned about KCF. He says the experience has given him a completely new perspective.

“When I talk to Wayne (Kittelson) he says, ‘You can do this,’ and nobody had ever told me that before. It really motivates me to want to achieve something because the people here see something in me,” Ivan says.

Ultimately, Ivan and Ephrem both want to use their training and knowledge to contribute to Rwanda’s continuing economic recovery and growth. Ephrem says being from a farming family and seeing the challenges farmers face provided the motivation to help make a difference through his educational opportunities.

“I grew up in that environment and realized how difficult it is to actually work on your small farm but at the end of the day not have enough food for your family,” he says. “They eat what they produce, then have to sell at market to cover expenses like health care and to send kids to school. I saw all the challenges, so I thought I could study in that area and figure out how to address those challenges.”

KCF will be holding a Gala Event on October 13, 2012. The Del McCoury Band will be playing at the Strand Theater in York, PA. Tickets are still available and you are encouraged to attend in support of KCF!

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