Why Giving Matters

A Scholar Plants New Roots in Rwanda

ernest habanabakize

Photo: Owen Egan

In the mountains of Rwanda, Ernest Habanabakize (pictured above) is making things grow.

It’s no easy task: while 80% of the Rwandan population relies on agriculture, the country’s mountainous landscape makes soil erosion and the impact of drought constant threats to food security and sustainability.

For his master’s project, the Water Resource Management student is helping to understand how the use of radical terraces – gradated planting systems that reduce erosion – may have an impact on water quality in catchment areas further downhill.

Habanabakize came to McGill from his native Rwanda through the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, which provides academically talented young people from sub-Saharan Africa with access to a world-class university education. The program began in 2013, and McGill has already welcomed 81 MasterCard Foundation Scholars from 16 countries. The first cohort graduated in 2017.

“I wouldn’t be here if it was not for the MasterCard Scholar Program,” he says. “And that’s what has pushed me farther, to go and give back.”

Crucially, the program’s built-in program of internships back in Africa has allowed him to stay connected to his work in Rwanda. Before coming to McGill, Ernest worked as a community development professional on an Oxfam initiative that is developing disease- and drought-resistant strains of the tree tomato plant.

“We were grafting the existing variety to the wild variety, just to see what would happen,” he explains. “But we had a tremendous outcome – and our farmers are now enjoying high production from that variety.”

ernest habanabakizeHabanabakize explains that once developed, this grafting work is simple: something that independent farmers can replicate for themselves. So the impact is quick to take effect. Habanabakize also leads agricultural workshops that help farmers, especially women, increase production and move from subsistence farming to bringing their products to market as entrepreneurs.

Scholarship support has allowed him to keep all of this valuable work going, in what spare time his studies allow. “It stems from the spirit of giving back to those who need it the most,” he says. “It stems from the fact that I was helped, to be who I am and where I am today.”

Now, Habanabakize is looking forward to graduating with his Master’s degree this coming semester. It will be his second McGill certification: already quadrilingual, he completed an English proficiency certificate at the School of Continuing Studies in 2017.

“Generosity can have a substantial impact on lives of many,” Habanabakize says. “Looking back on my life, I am a strong believer in the fact that all great progress is fueled by great compassion.''

Read our full Report on Giving 2018.