The Coalition Secretariat holds a one-on-one conversation with the newly appointed Minister of Education in Rwanda, Honourable Gaspard Twagireyezu.

The launching of the Eastern African Regional School Meals Coalition Network in Kigali, Rwanda in June this year is a welcome development in the School Meals Coalition as the network of nine countries demonstrates its commitment to collectively reach universal access to school meals by 2030. Rwanda’s Minister of Education, Mr. Gaspard Twagirayezu says his country is championing an idea born in Helsinki, Finland, two years ago, to create regional networks that can strengthen regional cooperation in scaling up school meals. He shares his insights on the importance for the Eastern Africa region to put their heads together in ensuring every child receives at least one nutritious meal on each school day.

Rwanda was at the forefront of organising the launching of the Eastern African Regional School Meals Coalition, tell us why Rwanda is championing this initiative?

The Minister of Education in Rwanda, Honourable Gaspard Twagireyezu, speaking during the School Meals Powering Food Systems Transformation session hosted by the School Meals Coalition in Rome, Italy.

The Minister of Education in Rwanda, Honourable Gaspard Twagireyezu, speaking during the School Meals Powering Food Systems Transformation session hosted by the School Meals Coalition in Rome, Italy. Photo: SMC/Tsitsi Matope

We are passionate about achieving universal access to school meals and promoting partnerships to reach our goal as a region. Our School Feeding Policy supports this goal. Rwanda wants the region to become a shining example when it comes to delivering quality school meal programmes. To achieve that we must support each other, and that is why we have committed to become good partners in the School Meals Coalition. After our meeting in Helsinki, Finland, we decided to volunteer as a country, through the Ministry of Education, to bring together our colleagues from the Eastern Africa region to create a regional platform where we can collectively advance the school meals agenda. In June, in collaboration with the World Food Programme (WFP) we brought together nine countries that expressed interest to build a regional network of the School Meals Coalition. There are 21 countries in the East African block, and we would like our work and results to speak for themselves, to convince other remaining countries to also join the network.

What changes should the Coalition expect?

Network member countries standing stronger together in support of progress in school meals. We are targeting many areas, including improving the nutritional value of school meals, complementary services and partnerships that will stimulate the economy and social wellbeing of our region.

Our mission is to exchange solutions on how best we can sustainably grow School Meal Programmes looking at our own regional context. We would like to learn from each other, and this network is a very big asset to advance school meals especially when most countries are now at the expansion phase. When we launched the regional network, it was encouraging to see that the political will is there, and the issue is how fast can we all scale up and reach every child.

Through this network, we will demonstrate the power of regional cooperation in improving information and knowledge sharing, and our ability to champion and influence this to become a top regional agenda for all countries to join us on this life-changing journey.

One of the things we would want to work on for the future is the sustainability in our school feeding programmes, of course governments will still need to invest, but we also need to consider school feeding as one of the tools for education outcomes. In most cases, if you see different partners partnering with ministries of education, these partners are not necessarily partnering for school feeding. The network will demonstrate that school feeding is also part of the education system, and we are inviting different organisations to come and partner with us to deliver excellent school feeding programs. Education cuts across all sectors and therefore we should all contribute to efforts working to grow our human capital.

What would you say are threats to realising the goals of the regional network?

The shrinking fiscal space and limited financing is a big threat to meeting our main goal to collectively achieve universal access to school meals. In Rwanda we have made significant progress in providing meals to children in pre-primary, primary and secondary school and developed a ten-year financing strategy, but there are a lot of improvements that will come through learning from other countries. We have countries at different levels of progress. Some are progressively adding onto their numbers in terms of reach while others need technical and financial support. With financial support many countries can transition to self-financing in a few years. As a network, it is our responsibility to collectively seek new partnerships and mobilise resources to accelerate our programmes.

Another threat is how extreme weather events are causing long dry spells or drought and floods triggering hunger in some regions of countries such as Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. This is where we need to ensure that where there is hunger, meals are not cut in schools. The network will contribute practical solutions to help build climate resilience and for all of us to be able to adapt to recurring extreme weather conditions.

The network is aware that we need to strengthen multiple interventions, including using the platform to advocate for more food assistance for school meals as a tool to promote undisrupted learning, foster peace, and the protection of children in countries in conflict such as Sudan. When kids are not in school and are not eating, that’s a big problem for the roll-out and expansion of school meals. However, it should not end there, that it is a problem, as a regional network we need to find solutions to make sure that nutritious meals are getting to the children and their learning is continuous.

You spoke of new partnerships and mobilising resources at regional level, tell us more about that strategy.

One of the things we would want the network to focus on is the sustainability of our school feeding programmes. Of course, governments are investing, but we have all learnt from crises such as the Covid-19, that we need partnerships that can support designing school-based programmes that promote resilience to enable schools and local communities to cope with shocks.

We would like to work more closely with partners such as the School Meals Coalition’s Research Consortium to generate new evidence showing the importance of investing in school feeding in the education system.

The network also needs to have partners to support innovations for funding of school meals, and our emphasis is on improving nutrition and shift eating habits of kids in our region. Our partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Rockefeller Foundation is having tremendous impact in doing exactly that, fostering healthy eating habits. We have scaled up fortified wholegrain maize meal from a pilot with 18 schools in 2021 to 81 in 2023 across Rwanda, and we needed this partnership to help us understand more on the impact of wholegrains to our efforts to improve the quality of our school meals. So far, we are noticing positive changes because the children say they are enjoying wholegrains, they are active in sports and attentive in class.

The network is mobilising partnerships from outside the region, in the region and in our respective countries. For example, we now know that school meal programmes have a positive effect on many sectors. As we scale up, programmes are generating many economic benefits such as creating jobs for women, improving incomes of smallholder farmers and local businesses by buying from them, increasing production of a variety of nutritious food, and creating centres of excellence where communities can learn about building climate-friendly schools and communities. When you strengthen such a value chain, as a network we aim to multiply social and economic benefits at community, country, and regional level.