An approach to global aid where all are treated as equals

Feb 6, 2014 /

By Lisa Katayama

In a developed country where the dialogue around human rights is very charity-minded, it’s rare to find young people with visions of engaging rural farmers in developing countries as equals. That’s why Tokyo native Doga Makiura stands out.

When Doga was 13, he left his home in Japan and enrolled himself in a boarding school in England. “I was weird, I wanted to meet different people,” he says. Now a student of social policy and economics at the University of Bristol and the author of a new book (in Japanese) that debunks stereotypes of Rwandans, the now 20-year-old spoke to us about how he went from being just a regular private school kid to catalyzing win-win business scenarios between his native Japan and Rwanda using technology and agriculture. Our first question:

What first inspired you to explore the developing world? Here’s Doga —

I saw an opportunity to raise the potential of the 1.2 billion people who are said to be in poverty. Rather than just helping them out, I wanted to go and work with them together as equals, as business partners. After high school, I took a gap year. I knew developing countries were dramatically changing every single minute, and that things would be too different if I waited four more years.

Can you tell me more about your first trip to Rwanda? What brought you, and how did you launch into the work you ended up doing there?

It was in August 2012 when I first visited Rwanda. A friend in Japan had started a project in Bangladesh called e-Education Project, a Japanese non-profit that uses IT to solve educational problems in developing countries. He wanted me to undertake a huge project in Rwanda. I didn’t have any specific plans during my gap year, so I accepted.

I found out that students taking chemistry practical exams in rural schools were at a great disadvantage compared to urban students because they don’t have a lab or tools to experiment with. So we shot videos of lectures given by the best urban chemistry teachers, burned them onto DVDs, and disseminated this content to rural schools. Most e-learning platforms require internet access, but DVDs don’t. Rwandan students could now watch chemistry experiments from anywhere as often as they want. In 2013, national exam results in chemistry increased by an average of 46% in 5 rural schools with over 700 students using DVDs from e-Education.

Can you tell me a little bit more about how you structure the work you do with rural farmers in Rwanda? How do you stay in touch with them, and how do you connect them with your contacts in Japan who are trying to get them to adopt advanced agricultural techniques?

Over 80% of the population in Rwanda is employed in the agricultural sector, yet these farmers often only produce the food they feed themselves. It’s logistically very difficult for rural farmers to sell their products in the market, but there is always an abundance of surplus crop piled up in front of their farms every year.

Due to an influx of refugees from the conflict in the Congo, the demand for more food was getting higher, and I thought I could connect these two parties, the farmers in rural Rwanda with surplus crop and the Congolese refugees, whose food supply was being managed by UNHCR. So I became a middleman, coordinating with agricultural cooperatives in Rwanda to understand how much surplus each cooperative or farm has, and finding out how much food the UNHCR was needing where. I went to the farms with a truck, purchased their surplus crop, and transported this food to the UNHCR refugees. The farmers now had extra income, and the refugees had more food. Win-win. The team I set up with the cooperatives work on this even when I’m not there.

I then began to tackle the inefficient production process that many of the Rwandan farms were using. I began working with a venture company in Kigali that owned smart-agriculture technology to make agricultural logistics more efficient using information and communications technologies (ICT). In Japan, there are a few companies who adopt ICT in their farming production processes; they were looking to export their technology to an expanding economy. I connected these Japanese people with big cooperatives in Rwanda and the Ministry of Agriculture. Rwanda also hosts numerous international events advocating for the using of ICT in agriculture, so I brought the Japanese people to these events and set up meetings for them to understand the agricultural situation and make the necessary contacts for business opportunities.

The traditional model [of global aid] was the developed country helping the developing country, but in the 21st century we have to work together to be mutually beneficial, and not just provide one-way help. For example, Japan could provide technology to Rwanda in exchange for resources, creating a win-win situation, an equal stance. It’s fair trade in a greater sense.

Are there any existing models of this kind of bridging that you would like to model after, or do you think a whole new model is necessary?

The conventional model has had a propensity to only benefit the host country. If a successful model in a developed country is to be adopted in a developing country, it should be adapted with a bottom-up approach. Technologies such as Google’s HelpOuts that connect skilled people with people who want to learn these skills can support this movement. There are plenty of opportunities to match the people with right people and make a difference in their lives.

Tell me about your book.

I recently published a book in Japanese that portrays the recent image of Rwanda. It’s a very, very optimistic book. Many people have this image of Rwanda from the film Hotel Rwanda, of the genocide of 1994. That was less than 20 years ago, yet it’s very different now. The capital city of Kigali is known as the Switzerland of Africa. It’s one of the safest place on the continent. If you just look at the crime rate in Kigali, it’s lower than Tokyo. Rwanda is actually being focused on by many international corporations as a country full of opportunities, not for sending aid but for foreign investment and cooperation. It’s quite amazing. I’m planning to write another one that focuses more on the culture.

I imagine that Japan and Rwanda are quite different culturally, right?

There are actually some interesting similarities between Japan and Rwanda. They’re both mountainous, tiny countries with no natural resources. The Japanese have bushido mind; we tend to listen to people first before stating our own opinions. The Japanese don’t talk unless spoken to, and they’re quite shy. Negotiations thus tend to be quiet and entail a lot of listening. A lot of Japanese who went to Rwanda realized that the Rwandans are like this too — very different from other Africans –who tend to be more like Americans and say their opinion first before asking for the other’s.

What is one thing you know that you wish everyone knew?

The potential of developing countries. Whenever people start up something, a charity or a business, they see things too domestically. The Japanese market is shrinking because of the aging population, but there is potential everywhere in the world, and developing countries are fairly untouched. We should keep reminding ourselves that we can do business like we do domestically between Japan and developing countries. There are so many new opportunities for people to explore, they just have to look more broadly.

Lisa is the founder of The Tofu Project (, a nonprofit organization that empowers social entrepreneurs and creative innovators through storytelling, design, and events.