Tania Rugamba graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources’ Undergraduate Scholarship (CUSP) Program that equips Rwandan students with the knowledge and skills to become leaders and entrepreneurs within the agriculture sector. Tania is currently interning at the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture (RICA) in Agronomy and Conservation Ecology.
Tell us about the CUSP program and what you studied. How did your education at UNL prepare you for what you’re doing today?
The CUSP program is in place to create entrepreneurs, visionaries, and leaders in the field of agriculture in Rwanda. Every scholar in the program is set to major in Integrated Science, a combination of conservation agriculture, leadership, and entrepreneurship, and minor in a field of their choice within the agricultural field. I chose to minor in Environmental Restoration.
UNL equipped me with tools and knowledge to work in very diverse environments. My experience at the university allowed me to adapt and embrace new situations. More than anything, it broadened my perspective of what agriculture is and could be.
How did you feel as you were preparing to graduate and start your career? What were you most nervous/concerned about?
With the pandemic and all the anxieties attached to it, I was quite uncertain if I’d make it to the last day of college. That alone can tell you my stance toward the next chapter. I was frightened by the thought of drafting new plans because I had no clue where to start. My greatest concern was to leave the person – or should I say the character – I had constructed in college and rebuild a new one.
What advice would you give to CUSP Scholars who are nervous about graduating and returning home to launch their career?
My advice to fellow scholars who are preparing to graduate is to leave every worry in its due time. What I mean by that is to let time pilot through the journey and all its mysteries. The error that I committed while in my last semester was to try to resolve worries that weren’t existent in the present moment. Worries like: where will I find a job, who will I talk to, where will I reside, etc. That alone deprived me of the joys of the present moment, the opportunities and wonders that accompanied it.
Tell us about your work at RICA. What’s your current position? Give a brief overview of the work you are doing and what has been the most rewarding and impactful part of the job for you.
Right now at RICA, I’m working as an intern in both Agronomy and Conservation Ecology. It has been a fun ride, truly. I had never worked on farms as big as 50+ hectares before and it is truly thrilling. One thing I knew when I graduated was that I did not want to work in an office. I wanted something that energized me physically and mentally. I wanted adventure in the vast outdoors.
The first two months I was at Nasho, an extension site of RICA. We drove through the immense corn and soybean fields glancing at the type of work that awaited my partner and me, as agronomists. My partner was an agronomist with a Master’s and years of experience, while I was just an apprentice who had just graduated from college with very little real world experience. I fed myself with knowledge by appealing to my supervisors and the local farmers we worked with. My agronomy knowledge grew exponentially during my two months at Nasho, simply from my will to learn from everyone around me.
I have now moved to RICA, where I work in Conservation Ecology and Agronomy. I don’t limit myself on what I should learn, though. It’s where the adventure resides, especially when you’re still an intern, and allows me to discover the different facets of agriculture and what triggers my brain to explore and find out more. So, when you visit RICA, you’ll probably see me drive a tractor in the field and the next minute you’ll see me in the forest documenting plant species.
What are some of the misconceptions/stigmas around pursuing a career in agriculture? How has your personal experience supported/discredited these ideas?
One misconception I had myself is that you don’t really need that much knowledge to farm. And I’ll tell you why it’s wrong. Agriculture requires a lot of knowledge. The tricky thing about it is that it’s not static. Methods of farming change with time, particularly when we adopt modern techniques. The way we farm today is very different from farming practices ten years ago and you better believe it will be different ten years from now.
The changes that occur within the agricultural field are driven by different factors: environmental, cultural, climatic, economics, consumer choices, population, disease, etc. As a farmer or anybody who works in the field, you absolutely cannot afford to cease feeding on new knowledge. I like to think of a farmer as a doctor of plants. As a doctor, you need to constantly examine your plants, familiarize yourself with them, inspect the environment in which they grow, and document every single detail that adds to plant health. I’ve met farmers who have been farming for their entire lives and none have dared to mention that they have it all figured out. Sometimes different seasons baffle them because of new occurrences on the field and they still need to acquire additional knowledge.
How do you see the agriculture sector changing today? What inspires you about the work being done in the agriculture sector in Rwanda today?
Agriculture is a very dynamic field and I honestly wouldn’t be able to state all the changes here, but I’ll talk about the one thing we need to address very quickly and smartly. Landmass in relation to population. For one thing, I know cultivable land can not increase, but it certainly can decrease. With this ratio (landmass/population) it’s undeniable that all fields that humankind engages in need to converge to one common point. That point is how we feed the earth’s population in the coming years.
In this field, I’m inspired by the people I work with and really every other person on this journey. People now understand the urgency with which we need to feed the world, protect it, recycle and renew. This is reflected in people’s daily decisions, lifestyle, and advocacy. When I look at our leaders and the routes they are willing to traverse, young people and our inquisitive minds—the challenges and risks we are willing to undertake and a world created by the people and for the people we want to build for our children—then I am certain that there is nothing time won’t heal.
Why do you think it is important for more young, globally educated professionals to consider careers in agriculture? What would you say to CUSP Scholars who are questioning whether they should really pursue a career in agriculture? What impact can they have?
Agriculture and all its different facets need people with fresh minds and thinking. People who engage and connect with the world effortlessly. With the times we were born in, I don’t see anyone who does it better than young people. Young people have the hunger to understand, the innovation and creativity to birth what we think is impossible. For the last five months, I’ve been involved in this field, I’m experiencing a purposeful journey, a desire to wake up every morning waiting to see what the next 24 hours will bring. I’m not quite sure how certain this statement is, but the world might witness a second agricultural revolution, one that will forever change the physical world our children will live in. Hop on board with me, and let’s re-revolutionize agriculture.