June 30, 2022

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Exclusive Interview with John Foster, the Rwanda-U. S Embassy’s Economic Officer in charge of agriculture, energy, climate, youth, and labour

John Foster, the Rwanda-U. S Embassy’s Economic Officer in charge of agriculture, energy, climate, youth, and labour

By Ange de la Victoire DUSABEMUNGU

Last Week TOP AFRICA NEWS had an exclusive Interview with John Foster, the first tour Economic Officer at the US Embassy in Kigali to discuss various Environment initiatives that the U.S is supporting in Rwanda.

Although the interview focused on Air Quality Monitoring, throughout the discussions, John Foster also tackled other sectors including Energy, climate change, food security among others.

John Foster is in charge of agriculture, energy, climate, youth, and labour.

Below are the excerpts of the Interview:

Before starting our conversation? Tell us who you are?

Sure, well, and first of all, once again, thank you for interviewing me today. I am really excited to discuss a topic that’s near and dear to my heart and that’s also a priority of the US Embassy in Rwanda: Climate change and the importance of climate.

A little bit about myself. I’m John Foster. I’m a first tour Economic Officer here at the US Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda and in the embassy, I cover agriculture, energy, climate, youth, and labour.

So, all five of those topics have some climate focus to it. And so, I’m really looking forward to having this conversation today.

What is your comment on the management of environment and nature conservation in Rwanda?

Sure, I arrived in Kigali last June and since then, I’ve had the opportunity to go to Akagera national Park as well as Umusambi village, just two examples. And I’m just so impressed with the conservation efforts that the government of Rwanda has undertaken thus far and we can see that climate is a priority not only for Rwanda, but also for the United States as well.

Now, could you tell us about the U.S Embassy’s Air Quality Monitoring Equipment?

So, the air quality monitor: to give you an overview of what the air quality monitor is: it’s a joint effort between the US Department of State and the US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and what the air quality monitor is, as it’s a programme overseas and many US embassies, I believe right now, it’s over 60 US embassies have installed an air quality monitor on top of the embassy roof.

And what that is: it’s an opportunity for more information on what the air quality is in a given city and this information is public, and it’s available to anyone that’s interested. So, whether you’re in Kigali or Kayonza, or Karachi or Kabul, anyone can access the data and I want to be clear on what the air quality programme is and what it isn’t.

What it is: it’s another opportunity for information sharing. It’s public. It’s just to show individuals, not just US diplomats and their families, but also Rwandans, what is the air quality for today? What it isn’t: it’s not an opportunity to contradict or lecture the government of Rwanda on air quality or the challenges it faces when it comes to air quality but rather, it’s just a show, it’s information sharing, which I believe is very important to having an open conversation of what are the challenges facing air quality? And how are there opportunities to solve those challenges?

Sure, may go into details, how the Air quality Monitor stationed at the U.S Embassy roof is going to support Rwanda in terms of Climate Change?

This is the main topic I would love to discuss at length. It is the importance of air quality. So let me just take a step back. First and foremost, Rwanda, United States are champions of climate. We are partners when it comes to addressing the issues that we’re facing when it comes to climate change. For starters, on the US side, on President Biden first day in office, he rejoined the Paris Agreement that just shows the United States ‘strong support in dealing with climate change. We also see our Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who stated that climate and science diplomacy can no longer just be addons to our foreign policy towards.

It has to be a priority and everything we do when it comes to foreign policy and you see the government of Rwanda having an overarching whole government effort when it comes to fighting climate change for instance, you can see the Rwanda Environment Management Agency (REMA), they are leaders on this issue and they show that in Rwanda, they have an ambitious climate agenda and their climate action agenda is important to just see that Rwanda, a small geographic country, but already showing that they want to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by over 30%. I believe it’s 38% by 2030. And so, you just see the importance and the focus, the laser focus that the United States in Rwanda has, when it comes to mitigating climate effects, things are in our control, and things are not in our control.

Headquartered in Kigali, Rwanda, Ampersand assembles and finances electric motorcycles known locally as ‘emotos’ or ‘e-bodas’. Image: Ampersand.

And so, when we look at the importance of air pollution, and why it matters: it affects all of us, it affects you, it affects me as an individual, but also as a society.

So, let’s start with the health effects of how air pollution can affect us. I have an eight-month-old daughter and my wife, we love to explore the city of Kigali, there are some beautiful landscapes, and we love to go out. However, when we look at the air quality monitor, we can see that there are some times where the air quality may not be the best and so we shape our day around that.

And so, if there’s a moment where air quality might be in the red, because there might be an increase in vehicle emissions, neighbours may be cooking using the charcoal or wood that may have a detrimental effect to those that are sensitive to respiratory issues and so same thing to everyday Rwandans, you know, maybe it stays not the best day to go for a run, it might be better to go for a walk. And I saw a few months ago, the Rwandan Ministry of Health had an article that talked about over 3000 Rwandans a year passing away because of air pollution diseases, because of respiratory illnesses.

So that affects us as an individual, the health, but also there’s the economic impact.

Back in 2016, the World Bank did a study that the deaths associated to air pollution related diseases was over $226 billion lost in labour revenue and so you see, more importantly, the health effects that it has on each and every person but also you see the economic impact that it may have on a country as a government.

And so, there’s this nexus that we have to look at how can we combat air pollution? How can we look at finding solutions to lessening the detrimental effects of air pollution? So, it’s a priority that affects all of us in different capacities.

We believe that this air quality monitor allows anyone to have access to the information and that’s what it is. It’s a partnership, information sharing between the government of Rwanda and the United States Government on the importance of air quality.

One can think that the reason why you brought your Air Quality Monitor is because Rwanda’s Air Quality Monitoring system is not working properly. Is this the real fact?

There are two reasons. One, I do believe that having an additional data point of another air quality monitor will assist and benefit Rwandans just as much as it will Americans.

I do not think that the air quality that was being produced, the data was insufficient. I believe that Rwanda has a robust air quality monitoring system. This is just another opportunity to share another data point on the importance of Air quality and I believe that having that ongoing conversation with our remote colleagues is important. It’s not just this is what the United States is saying when it comes to climate, but, where’s the conversation. REMA has been a great partner working with the US Embassy on the importance of air pollution and climate change and the reason why I think that this air quality monitor will be successful, is that Rwandans are already taking the necessary steps to decrease air pollution in many ways.

 For instance, you can look at car free Sundays that we’ve seen throughout the country. You can also look at the increased usage of E-bikes and e-motorcycles. I believe there’s a US company Ampersand that I saw a little while ago that they received a $3.5 million capital investment. So, you see that Rwanda is walking the talk on how we can cut back on-air pollution.

Another data point to think about, as I saw, was in the Rwanda news about how there’s this government push for having Rwandans use cleaner alternatives when it comes to cooking where you’re not just necessarily relying on coal and wood or grass but you might be relying on gas or electric stoves.

So, I believe that Rwandans are aware of the challenges that they face when it comes to air pollution and air quality. And so, when I look at what the United States can do, it’s being a partner with Rwanda.

Through a Power Africa investment, OffGridBox installed modular solar energy systems to power six off-grid healthcare facilities in Rwanda’s Nyamagabe, Kayonza, Nyagatare, and Muhanga districts – the solution providing power and clean drinking water to Gasagara healthcare center was inaugurated on March 25, 2021.

We have great resources here at the US Embassy, for instance, let’s look at our USAID colleagues, when you look at the Power Africa USA programme, thus far Power Africa has contributed to over 183 megawatts here in Rwanda, so ensuring that there’s access to electricity. So, this receives this on grid off grid project. So, the importance of that is that Rwanda, United States are working together to find tangible solutions to the challenges that we face when it comes to climate.

Just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take our Chargé d’Affaires Deborah McLean out to Lake Kivu to see ContourGlobal, there are methane extractions barrage and you can just see the innovation that ContourGlobal and the government of Rwanda has and just extracting the methane that’s already naturally in the lake, and using that to generate electricity. That’s just one example.

The second aspect was, I also had the opportunity to take the Chargé d’Affaires to Trinity Metals, to one of their mining sites and she saw the proactive effort Trinity metals is doing to ensure that there’s not any environmental degradation concern, and when they’re doing the mining throughout the country.

Visit to Trinity Metals

So, you see that there’s this conscious effort between the government of Rwanda, the United States and businesses here in the country to ensure that they’re doing their due diligence to ensure that we’re not destroying the environment worse than we need to, but also just taking that proactive step.

The other thing that I just recalled from the meeting we had at Lake Kivu with ContourGlobal, they mentioned that in order to burn off some of the excessive methane gas, they have a limit. They’re limited in how much they can burn and that’s a limit that’s imposed by REMA. So, it shows that REMA is well aware of the challenges and the safety guards that we have to implement to ensure that we’re not doing worse damage to the environment.

I believe that because Rwandans are just well informed and well educated on the issue, and are already taking proactive steps, this is going to be just another complementary aspect to our relationship on the importance of air quality.

How far does the U.S Embassy’s Air Quality monitor reach?

That’s a great question. So, the system primarily focuses on the air quality in Kigali. So that’s the max extent that it goes to. So, it’s just focusing on the surrounding area of Kigali. It doesn’t go out to the western province or the Eastern Province, just focused in Kigali city.

What about other parts of the country?

In my brief time here in Kigali, I’ve had the opportunity to go out to the Western Province, also go down to the southern province in Huye. And again, I just think you see the collective effort that everyday Rwandans are doing to ensure that they’re trying to find cleaner alternatives when it comes to air pollution.

I do believe that there’s just this awareness campaign. So, for instance, after the volcanic eruption that took place, there was a recent study done by REMA where there was poor air quality levels and REMA reassured the public that it wasn’t due to necessarily the volcanic eruption and sulphur dioxide, but rather there was a human aspect, a human component to increasing levels of air pollution.

And so, by just having that awareness of saying, okay, what are we doing to contribute to this problem? Now, how can we solve this issue and so that’s where, again, you see Rwanda being a pioneer and an innovator on clean energy looking at cleaning cooking alternatives.

So, in my brief travels throughout the country, you can see that there is a proactive effort to ensure that everyone’s doing their part. You’re seeing a decrease in neighbours burning, you know, charcoal or wood in their backyard. And so, I do believe that there’s this concerted effort that everyday everyone enjoys doing. And I believe that, again, that this is just an opportunity for the United States and Rwanda to partner and while this air quality monitor station is on top of the US Embassy, it benefits all of us who live here in Kigali and who live in Rwanda.

That can lead me to another question. How does it function?

It runs 24 hours a day. It stations on top of the embassy roof. It’s able to withstand heavy rains so you can see it at all hours of the day. And again, so once you see the system, let’s just say today’s Thursday, tomorrow morning, you wake up, you can see data from now, up until the moment that you’re looking at the screen and you’ll see historical trends.

So right now, if you were to go to https://www.airnow.gov/, you can type in Kigali and you would see what the current air quality is right now, in Kigali.

Let’s say you’re interested in what was the air quality last week, so you can see historical trends.

You can see, again, another opportunity for partnership, you can see REMA discuss how, at certain hours of the day, air pollution is higher, that may be in the morning that may be in the evenings, and we have peak hours, due to more vehicles on the road, due to maybe individuals burning in their backyard. So, you can proactively look at the data and kind of make sense of, okay, when’s a good time for me to walk and again, you’ll see that it changes drastically throughout the day, even from morning to afternoon.

So, I believe that it’s functioning well. The air quality monitor was installed back in February, we haven’t had any issues since we’ve installed it. And again, I believe that this is just one of many other embassies that has implemented this air quality monitor programme. And just to be clear, the reason why the air quality monitor was installed in the first place, is to underscore the importance that the Biden administration, the US government has on air quality and the fight against climate change. And it was never to say, well, there’s a problem in Rwanda. That’s not it whatsoever. Rwanda is a champion of clean energy for climate change, and mitigating air pollution. And so, this is just a complementary effort to the efforts that are already being done here in Rwanda.

Let’s say that I am in the village outside there, how can I access the data from the system?

Sure. That’s a great question. So, it’s publicly available. I understand that the government of Rwanda also has their air quality monitor systems, as well as the US air quality monitor. It’s all about access to the internet, and it does not need to have a science background to understand the data to make sense of it.

John Foster, the Rwanda-U. S Embassy’s Economic Officer in charge of agriculture, energy, climate, youth, and labour

So, for instance, we have a colour coordination system and you see, just by different colours, if it’s green, we’re in the good. If you see the yellow, it’s kind of okay, it’s moderate, and you may have some issues. But then as we move to the orange: It is unhealthy for sensitive groups, and then we have unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous.

From what we’ve seen with the data, which also aligns with what REMA has produced at times, Rwanda, Kigali, to be specific, can fluctuate between moderate to unhealthy. And we can, you know, hypothesise that that may be due to increased construction and preparation for CHOGM, it may be with more truck deliveries coming in throughout the country. So, for us as a family, you know, when we look at that, okay? When it fluctuates between unhealthy and unhealthy for sensitive groups, then we may change our day, you know, I may not exercise outside, but rather I may stay inside, or I may not go for a walk.

One of the things that I find with that is that the weather is absolutely beautiful here year-round. So, I love to walk to and from work living over in Kacyiru. And it just allows me to meet new people and just explore the city. And when we find that, okay, today, the air quality may not be the best, then that’s when I may drive to work. But on average, you relatively see that Rwanda is sort of in the yellow. It’s a liveable condition for everyone. As far as just going back to the point of accessing, this data is publicly available on https://www.airnow.gov/, and anyone can access it, whether you’re here in Rwanda, or if you’re in a different country and we want to make sure that people have that ability to access that information.

In the past, the United States was not heard much in environment, or climate change politics. But this time around the country is stepping up its effort to combat the effects of climate change, while also supporting various initiatives in the same sector, both at home and on international level. Can you tell us why the US is now making such a move?

I believe it’s twofold. First and foremost, the science is clear. The world is getting warmer, you see the effects of global warming, and you see the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. We have to do something. And the administration has made this a priority that we cannot stand idly. As someone who’s a new father, we have to make sure that we’re preparing the world for the next generation. And so, when you look at what the United States has done, and will do, it’s all because of international cooperation. We see that the world is having a concerted effort to do something about climate change, to help mitigate it.

And so, there are things within our control as the United States as a government, but also in general as an international community. And that’s what we’re already doing. And so, when we look at the United States, rejoining the Paris Agreement, when we look at the United States being supporters of COP 26, and as we’re preparing for COP 27 in Egypt, it just shows you that the world is going to move on and the United States is going to be a part of that conversation.

We believe in the importance of climate and science diplomacy. And we know that this is what’s needed. As someone who covers agriculture here in Rwanda, we see the challenges that farmers are having when it comes to droughts, or when it comes to the irregular rain patterns. How do we adapt? How do we adjust to that? And so, it’s through partnership with the ministry, the Ministry of Agriculture, with REMA, how we can provide capacity building to our Rwandan counterparts, helping provide technical assistance. That’s what we’re doing and that’s what we continue to do.

When we look at what our colleagues and USAID are doing here at the Embassy, they have large programmes that are reaching out to the villages, reaching out to rural farmers. I recently had the chance to take the Chargé d’Affaires to Cyizi primary school down in the southern province right near Huye. In that area. When we were there, we have a partnership with the World Food Programme under our US Department of Agriculture, McGovern dole school feeding programme and when we were there, we stopped at the World Food programme’s field office in Huye and they were talking about how farmers are having the challenges of drying their crops because of the irregular rain patterns.

And you’re seeing this increase in aflatoxin. And so, WFP, the World Food Programme, created these little aflatoxin cards where they can be put inside the storage facilities to see the levels of aflatoxin. And so, knowing that that’s a challenge, we have our USAID colleagues who are working with these farmers to ensure that they have proper drying methods and that they have the institutional capacity to properly store their crops. And so that when it comes time for them to harvest or time to sell their produce, they’re able to do that without this fear of an increase in aflatoxin.

 So, I believe that when we look at what the United States can do, and is already doing with Rwanda and the local people, we’re already seeing the success of that.

So, I believe it’s through continued partnership, through the US government programmes that we have here in Rwanda, through capacity building, it’s also through technical assistance and one of the things that I find is that in my brief time here, everyone’s open to having a conversation, whether it is REMA, whether it is MINAGRI, whether it’s NAEB, National Agriculture export board, you see that everyone wants to have a conference, they want to be partners.

And that’s why it’s so critical for us as an embassy, for us as the United States government to ensure that we’re doing our role in providing technical assistance, capacity building to everyone and colleagues. And it’s an ongoing conversation. And that’s the key part is, that it’s not the United States lecturing, but how can we collaborate and partner on these critical issues that affect all of us?

As we approach the end of the Interview, is there a message that you have for Rwandans, as we approach the Celebration of the World Environment Day?

 Sure. I would say my message to everyone is twofold. First and foremost, the United States is a partner. And we have a long-standing relationship that we hope to continue to strengthen through many engagements. Again, as I see my role in agriculture, energy, labour, youth, and mining, you see areas of cooperation. So that’s just my portfolio. When we look at all the work that is being done as a US Embassy in Rwanda, It’s a partnership. And we need to continue this partnership, we see the support and technical assistance and capacity building that we’re doing. And it’s just the beginning. So first and foremost, the United States is your partner. And there’s much more for us to do and work to be done. And it’s just the beginning of what’s to come.

Second, the importance of air quality. At the start of May, we had air quality Awareness Week. As I mentioned earlier, air quality affects all of us, air pollution is serious, and it has health effects, as well as it has economic consequences. So, we have to be aware and know that there are avenues to look at the data to show us how we can take proactive steps to ensure our health and our survivability here in Rwanda, throughout the world for other embassies that had these programmes. So, strong partnership as well as knowing the importance of air pollution and what we can do.

The other aspect is, each of us has a part to play when it comes to mitigating air pollution, whether that’s driving less, whether that’s cooking with cleaner alternatives. It can be small, as I mentioned before I walk to work almost every day. That’s my role in doing that. I don’t drive a diesel truck, but it’s a little thing like that. And so, I challenge everyone, Rwandans or Americans, anyone who’s interested in air and air pollution and air quality, what can you do as an individual within your family unit, to do your part to help contribute to mitigating the negative effects of air quality and air pollution.

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