Éliane Ubalijoro: “The lungs of the planet are here in Africa”

A conversation with the new CEO of CIFOR-ICRAF

Earlier this year, Éliane Ubalijoro joined CIFOR-ICRAF as CEO, making her the first African woman at the helm of a CGIAR research center in its 52-year history.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from her remarkable journey, it’s that – in her own words – “no effort is too small. We each do all that we can.”

In this exclusive interview recently aired on GLF Live, our new CEO opens up on what inspires her in her work, how we can rethink our global systems, and why Africans must rally together to demand climate justice.

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

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Éliane Ubalijoro
Éliane Ubalijoro takes over the reins of CIFOR-ICRAF at the CIFOR-ICRAF Nairobi campus in Kenya. Joyce Wambui/CIFOR-ICRAF

Could you tell us about your personal journey in your connection to the Earth and its landscapes – where it began and where we are now?

I was born in Rwanda in 1972, and I spent a lot of time in the countryside, with smallholder farmers and enjoying the beauty of forests. I grew up on three continents: Africa, North America and Europe, and my memories of my childhood are all connected to the Earth and the lessons I learned from my mother around how to take care of the Earth. Composting, recycling, living a circular economy, because that’s how people lived in the countryside in Africa for millennia. That is my grounding.

Having grown up all over the world, I realized that the things I took for granted around reusing, recycling and regeneration have become, in the 21st century, really central to how we’re looking at growing green economies around the world. At 17, I moved to Canada, where I studied general agriculture, and during my undergraduate studies, the civil war started in Rwanda, so when I went home and worked in research in agriculture, that was very difficult.

I realized that my dream of working with smallholder farmers would have to be put on hold, so I decided to study molecular genetics, because I was interested in the cutting edge of innovation: working at the interface of genetics, of discoveries that were going to change how we relate to DNA. 

During my studies, the first human genome was sequenced, and bioinformatics was born. I realized that to be at the cutting edge in North America, I needed to be working at the interface of molecular genetics and bioinformatics. When I finished my PhD, I joined a biotechnology firm in molecular diagnostics.

Many people assume biotechnology means you’re working on genetically modified crops, but that’s not the reality. Biotechnology is a vast field that uses DNA as a tool. And in my case, it was how to use DNA as a diagnostic tool for the food industry to know whether there are microbial contaminations in food, environmental contaminations or bioterrorism.

After that, I had my daughter, and I wanted to explore doing work back in Rwanda. At that point, things were much calmer when my daughter was born in 2000, and it was a new era. I was part of a workshop on building African bioeconomies in 2007, which was an eye-opener: I realized that innovation ecosystems had major gaps in Africa, and we needed visionary leadership to work from academic, nonprofits, governments to the private sector to build these local innovation-based economies that would harness our natural resources.

That was the beginning of a journey for me, working at the interface of agriculture, environment and health, and how the three interacted and were critical to building a strong bioeconomy.

My journey since then has been working at the interface of biodiversity and health, and discovering new medicines at the interface of the environment and markets that have been emerging. When I started looking at carbon markets back in the early 2000s, Africa only had 5 percent of them. I thought, to grow Africa sustainably and to build prosperity, it had to be green, and so I knew we would have to focus on climate funding.

Today, we’re in a much different space around nature and finance. We had a very successful COP15 in Montreal, with the most private sector presence ever for a biodiversity COP. It’s a great place to be.

Nyungwe National Park
A road in Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda. Faustin T, Unsplash

How did the Rwandan genocide affect you? Where were you at the time?

During the 100 days of genocide against the Tutsis, I didn’t know if most of the people I loved in Rwanda were alive – I was writing my master’s thesis around plant–virus interactions. So, the contrast of what was happening in my motherland and what I was doing in my student room in Canada was so huge that it was very difficult to reconcile.

What’s been very interesting to me is that in the years since, I’ve met some of the people who worked with bean genebanks. Beans are really critical to the Rwandan economy and to our traditional food systems, and when the genocide happened, people were unable to harvest their crops. When the economy restarted, we needed to replenish the stocks of beans for the country. And because there were genebanks around the world that held copies of the genetic diversity of beans from Rwanda, we were able to restart. 

People don’t really understand the relationship between seed banks and what needs to happen when you have conflict or other terrible situations in the world and need to restart economies. It’s important to understand that genebanks are very central to keeping hope alive, especially for our food systems.

Éliane Ubalijoro
Dr. Ubalijoro on her first day as CIFOR-ICRAF CEO. Joyce Wambui/CIFOR-ICRAF

What are the hopes that drive you from where you sit now, looking at this planet in crisis?

Here today, I have the privilege of being at the helm of CIFOR-ICRAF here in Nairobi between the UN Campus and the Karura Forest, and every day, I’m reminded of the work of Wangari Maathai to establish this sanctuary that so many of us in Nairobi get to enjoy every day. She started with small groups of women preparing seedlings to go out there and plant trees. And if we look at her legacies, billions of trees have been planted because of the leadership of this amazing woman. This is a critical example of the importance of leadership and building innovation ecosystems.

How do we take where we are in 2023 and think about 2030? How can CIFOR-ICRAF and our partners help accelerate the work that we need to restore forests around the world, to bring more trees on farms? Being here, how do we help Kenya achieve its 15 billion tree agenda? There’s just so much amazing work to be done.

But we also need to ensure that we plant the right tree at the right time in the right place so that those seedlings can grow and thrive. We know that about 65 percent of Africa’s soils are degraded, as are a third of soils around the world. The health of our soils will determine the health of our food systems, which will determine the health of our global population. That interlinkage is a critical one around the work we do.

Regreening Africa
In Ghana, local people restore land as part of the Regreening Africa initiative. World Agroforestry, Flickr

Here in Africa, we’re bearing the brunt of the climate crisis despite having contributed the least to it. How can we address that?

A friend of mine, who’s a Nigerian environmental lawyer, once shared a phrase that I keep central to the work I do: “You don’t get what you deserve – you get what you negotiate.”

Historically, in Africa, we have not gotten what we deserved. So, we need to negotiate our space in the world. We hold 26 percent of the biodiversity on the planet. We hold immense potential in terms of carbon sequestration. We hold immense potential around harnessing renewable energy to power our economies. But we still live in a time when most Africans don’t have access to energy.

So, how do we accelerate green growth to become central to how we live and work in Africa? How do we ensure that the needed investments are de-risked to accelerate that growth for us to contribute to a global economy that is positive for people and the planet? How do we, as humanity, live our interconnectedness to collectively invest in Africa to bring back biodiversity, to have Africa grow in the greenest way possible?

That combination helps us reach the net zero and nature positive goals that we collectively need for the planet. This is a global issue, not just an African issue, and we need to remember that they’re critical: the lungs of the planet are here in Africa. We have to ensure that areas like the Congo Basin are preserved, taken care of and restored, and we have to accelerate this work to make sure Africa can contribute to helping us reach our global goals. 

Éliane Ubalijoro and Wangari Maathai
Dr. Ubalijoro cites the late Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai as one of her inspirations. Megan Caroll
Éliane Ubalijoro and Wanjira Mathai
Dr. Ubalijoro with Wanjira Mathai, a Kenyan activist and daughter of Wangari Maathai. “It was a great honor for me to meet her and delight in how she is pursuing her mother’s legacy,” says Dr. Ubalijoro. Joyce Wambui/CIFOR-ICRAF

As you said, we need to critically change how we function as a planet to tackle these crises. How can we achieve that?

I think we need to be really careful to not put all the onus on citizens. We have to understand that our global governance systems are very critical to what we as citizens of this planet have access to. We’re still in a situation where we have significant investments in non-degradable plastics and in the petroleum industries, and they add up to what we should be investing in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. You can’t put that on behavioral change on one citizen at a time. We need our global governance system.

We need our financial systems to completely align with what is needed for green growth, but we also have to plan the transition. We can’t say we need to stop the petroleum industry tomorrow – we can’t. So, we need to plan a just transition to ensure that we create access to sustainable energy and digital information to everybody on the planet, while at the same time, we proactively invest in the transition and accelerating that transition.

We know that we’re underinvesting in climate, particularly in Africa. We need to accelerate those investments, and for us as researchers at CIFOR-ICRAF, we need to help bring about the needed data to de-risk those investments. We need to accompany the governments, the private sector, the smallholder farmers, to create greater interconnectedness in terms of our global and local innovation systems that support that just transition

That’s where leadership is needed to fill those gaps – and this is where the legacy of amazing women like Wangari Maathai is so important.



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