May 20, 2024

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Insights from a Senior Officer: Michelle Defreese Reflects on Her5+ Years at GGGI Rwanda

Michelle Defreese

Michelle Defreese is a name synonymous with environmental sustainability in Rwanda. For five and a half years, she served as a senior officer at the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) Rwanda, leading the charge towards a greener and more sustainable future. Her unwavering dedication and tireless efforts have not only earned her respect but also made her a role model in the field of environmental conservation. In this exclusive interview, Michelle shares her insights, experiences, and challenges as a sustainability champion. 

1. What inspired you to pursue a career in sustainable development, and how did you become involved with GGGI Rwanda?

I began working on sustainable development issues as an intern in Rome, Italy with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in 2009. It was part of the work experiences I had while a student at the Geneva Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland. I first heard about the Global Green Growth Institute in 2013. I remember I applied to a position and wasn’t shortlisted, but I kept GGGI in mind as I continued my career. In 2016, I saw an opening for the GGGI Rwanda office. I was completing a fellowship in Morogoro, Tanzania at the time and the role in Rwanda seemed like it would be a good fit. Luckily it was and I joined the GGGI Rwanda country program in 2017.

2. Can you describe some of the major initiatives or projects that you worked on during your time as Senior Officer at GGGI Rwanda, and what impact these had on the country?

We worked on a number of different projects and initiatives over the past few years. I think the main project that people are familiar with is the Waste to Resources project. It started as an idea in 2018 to work on waste management practices and was championed by Honorable Minister Biruta, who was the Minister of Environment at the time. He discussed the concept of a project while meeting with the Minister of Environment, Climate and Sustainable Development with the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. From there, they decided to engage GGGI as a delivery partner. The project was launched in 2021 and is now in the final year of implementation. This project came at a time when circular economy was attracting more interest and attention. Kigali hosted the World Circular Economy Forum (WCEF) in December 2022. During WCEF 2022, the Ministry of Environment also launched the Circular Economy Action Plan and Roadmap with UNDP. I hope that the project will support the shift from business-as-usual waste management practices to ways that we can conserve resources, valorize materials where possible, and in general raise awareness and consciousness about our habits around waste. If the interventions being put in place in Kigali work as we hope they will, it will have a demonstration effect for other municipalities not only in Rwanda but in the region. There is a lot we can do when we change our approach to waste and there are countries that are really pushing the boundaries by adopting comprehensive zero waste strategies. That’s one of the reasons the project included a study tour to Luxembourg. There, they plan to completely phase out landfills by 2030. In order to do that, you have to change so much more than just thinking about what happens when waste enters the dumpsite. So, the project won’t change everything, but we hope it will start shifting mindsets from the concept of municipal solid waste to the approach of resource management and valorization in Rwanda.

3. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during your tenure, and how did you overcome them?

I think we have to acknowledge the impact covid has had on so many things. It really challenged us to do things differently, to approach work differently. It was a challenging time, but I think it also made us better in a lot of ways. Every project under implementation had to come up with different ways of accomplishing the same goals with new tools and use creative problem solving to adjust to the restrictions that were put in place. A lot of these changes also had benefits such as reducing travel costs, emissions, and being more efficient and effective overall.


4. How has GGGI Rwanda evolved since you first joined the organization, and what changes have you seen in the sustainable development landscape more broadly?

A lot has changed since I joined the organization. In the sustainable development landscape, it seems that more people are becoming interested in pursuing different careers that encompass sustainability, climate action, and development. We used to have 200 applicants for internships. Now, the number is over 700. I think there is a greater awareness about climate action, especially due to the activism of people like Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate, and Rwanda’s own Ineza Grace and others! They have done a lot in terms of raising awareness, especially among young people. I think that sustainable development in general is also becoming more multi-dimensional. You see a lot more interaction with the private sector, financial sector, and other actors. These are all positive developments that I think will add to the effectiveness of sustainable development initiatives.

5. What role do you see GGGI Rwanda playing in the future of sustainable development in Rwanda, and what steps do you think need to be taken to achieve this vision?

I have many ideas about this… but time will tell!
6. Can you discuss any particularly memorable experiences or accomplishments from your time at GGGI Rwanda that stand out to you?

I really liked the e-mobility showcase that we put together in 2021. In general, people tend to really underestimate Rwanda quite a bit. We wanted to put together the event to raise awareness about what was happening in the e-mobility space in Rwanda. It was also an opportunity for industry to meet with and discuss different challenges they were facing with policymakers. It was during that the time that the incentives for e-mobility were being announced by the Government of Rwanda. It was an opportunity for the Ministry of Infrastructure (MININFRA) and Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to present them to potential investors (both in and outside of Rwanda) and to promote the country as an emerging destination for both startups and for established e-mobility companies to start looking at Rwanda for expansion and new country operation strategies.  

7. What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career in sustainable development, and what qualities do you think are necessary for success in this field?

I think that sustainable development attracts people for different reasons. It’s important to acknowledge and understand what motivates you the most. When people know what drives them, it helps to make decisions that are aligned with your personal values. There are a lot of different types of organizations and sub-sectors that young people can engage in that are connected to sustainable development. I also see how it has become more difficult for younger people who are just getting started. Being persistent helps. If you know what is really important to you and what drives you, it becomes easier to withstand any challenges and overcome any hurdles you may face.

8. Looking back on your time at GGGI Rwanda, what are you most proud of, and what do you hope your legacy will be?  

I think I’m most proud of the people that I had a role in supporting their professional development. Many of them are now doing fantastic things with the skills and experience they developed during their time with GGGI. There are people who have gone on to pursue doctoral degrees, work for the government, others have been hired by other development partners. For me, this is what makes me the most proud. Some interns come to GGGI Rwanda with really specific skills, but not a focus on sustainable development. Others come to GGGI Rwanda with an interest in sustainable development, but not necessarily specific skills. I like how we were able to work with both types of young professionals. Some of the people we have trained were not initially aware of just how applicable their skills are to sustainability. In my experience, investing in people is always rewarding and a fulfilling endeavor.

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