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Podcast: A UN Top Official’s Inspiring Journey To Leadership

Article – UN Department of Global Communications

Awake at Night Podcast: Finding the Thing you Love UN Under-Secretary for Global Communications Melissa Fleming speaks to Agnes Kalibata, the Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit , about her journey as a woman leader from growing up …

Awake at Night Podcast: Finding the Thing you Love

UN Under-Secretary for Global Communications Melissa Fleming speaks to Agnes Kalibata, the Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit, about her journey as a woman leader – from growing up as a Rwandan refugee in Uganda to becoming Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture and now a top official at the United Nations – where women now serve in equal numbers at the top leadership level.


Dr. Kalibata visits Super Seki Investment Co milling plant based in Iringa, Tanzania. Under Kalibata’s leadership, AGRA’s work in Tanzania is complementing the government’s efforts to improve agriculture industrialisation in the nation and build a middle-income economy by 2025. Iringa Region, Tanzania, 2019 – Photo: ©AGRA

“We all need to be convinced that we don’t have a plan B. We only have one plan. And that one plan is to correct how we do business around our food systems and what our environment can handle. Our planet can take care of itself. It will eject us and move on. But is that where we want to be?”

Dr. Agnes Kalibata, UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit, shares her remarkable story of growing up in a Ugandan refugee camp with her Rwandan parents. Her father, a trained doctor, was forced to retrain as a farmer after relocating. But his passion for learning drives his daughter and she’s admitted into the best girls’ school in Uganda, receiving a UNHCR scholarship to support her studies.

Agnes discusses how an encounter during her Ph.D led to her becoming the former Minister of Agriculture in Rwanda and why it’s so important to build resilience around climate change at this year’s Food System Summit.

Full Transcript +

Melissa Fleming 00:00

From the United Nations, I’m Melissa Fleming and this is Awake at Night. Today, my guest is Agnes Kalibata, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit. Agnes is also former Minister of Agriculture in Rwanda, where you are from, and I’m going to get to that in a little while. But Agnes, I wanted to begin by asking you about your childhood and your youth. You spent 35 years in a refugee camp in Uganda. How did your family come to leave Rwanda? How did that all start?

Agnes Kalibata 00:58

So thank you, Melissa, and thank you for inviting me on this podcast. My family left Rwanda during the independence period when there was a war, so my parents found themselves as refugees in Uganda. At the time I was born, they had probably been there for just three hours, so very fresh refugees. We were very lucky, this group of refugees — actually UNHCR bought land for us. And I haven’t seen that happening in many places. So my growing up was against that backdrop that my parents could farm so my father had learned.

Some of my earliest memories is when he was selling food to neighbors. People would come home to buy food. He was a very entrepreneurial person. He had been a teacher. He had been a mechanic. He had been a doctor because he was one of the earliest educated Rwandans. It shaped us because he understood and knew that there was a world out there that we needed to be part of. So he made sure that before I could even understand what was going on around me, I could read.

And he would come to school where we were as kids, and he would make me stand up in front of other kids and read. He was pushing very hard for us to understand that there’s a whole world out there that is beyond the refugee camp. My school was just trees — like, we would sit under those trees. And our teachers were some of the kids that had dropped out of school in Rwanda. As my parents really got to understand that there was no going back to their country, they settled into farming. Later, when I was 10 years, UNHCR gave us schools, primary school, built an actual building. They started sending us teachers. So I was really lucky in a way to say that I was able to have a rural education that is typical to any rural kid. But again, it was a typical refugee environment.

Melissa Fleming 02:54

Well, you were lucky to have a father who had previously been a teacher. Maybe just describe that scene when he came over to your classroom, that was under a tree, and made you stand up. Did you feel embarrassed? Or were you proud? What was that scene like?

Agnes Kalibata 03:10

So my dad had a few cows. He had been able to buy a few cows in Uganda once we had settled down. So he would be taking these cows to graze, and he would pass my class — my tree class — and then he would tell the teacher: ‘Excuse me? Can you ask her to stand up and read?’ And I would stand up and read in front of everybody. It was so embarrassing, but that was just exactly like him. He knew what he was doing. He was trying to make me strong, trying to make me survive that type of pressure. And he would check my reports every end of term.

So what happened exactly is at the end of all that when I finished, I got admission to the best girls’ school in Uganda. And I got a UNHCR scholarship. I was one of the few kids that during our time as refugees was able to get a UNHCR scholarship. And that’s how I made it out of there.

Melissa Fleming 04:03

Those scholarships, I know, are very rare. Did you realize, or when did you realize, that you were a refugee?


Dr. Kalibata meets maize farmers participating in an AGRA programme to help teach them about improved early-maturing maize varieties and good agronomic practice. The programme is a partnership between the Kiambu County Government and AGRA to improve maize production and livelihoods of farmers in the county. Kiambu, Kenya 2020 – Photo: ©Stanley Njenga

Agnes Kalibata 04:15

That’s a very, very interesting question. I think part of realizing that I was a refugee was once I got out of there and went to this secondary school, I was really lucky. Like I said, I went to the best secondary school in Uganda. One of the things that occurred to me is that I was alone. I mean, the people that I knew, there was nobody around me. Then I was asking myself: how is it possible that I’m the only person around here? And I actually realized I had only been able to get there because someone had picked up the bill and was able to pay for me. The bulk of the kids that I had grown up with were out there remaining behind and then I started asking myself, so what is going on?

And I realized actually — yes, this is your life. You’re actually refugees in Uganda. Many of you are just not going to be able… Most of those kids were not able to make it because their parents could not pay school fees for them. I started feeling a certain burden of responsibility. I would go back home and feel like I needed to go around the village telling people what the world out there was like. Even now, as I’m saying it, I’m choking up. I would feel like, I need to tell them that there’s a world out there. You know, it’s like this. This is what school is like. These are the things that I see every day.

And just being able to know that many kids were not able to make it out of there is one of the things that haunts me until today. Knowing that those parents had no ability to be able to push those kids forward also breaks my heart. But also knowing that some of my friends that I was visiting, going back home just a year or two years later, were already married with kids. And I couldn’t even relate to what was going on in their lives. Then it actually dawned on me that, yes, we are refugees in the real sense of refugees. In the sense that there are a few things that you probably don’t have access to.

But yes, I had grown knowing that we were refugees because when we were in the camp, we spoke one language. We had people that spoke a different language than us and would ask our parents: ‘So what’s going on?’ And they would say, ‘Oh, these are Ugandans and we come from Rwanda’. But that had never meant anything to me until I went to secondary school and I realized I was alone, and I had left everybody else behind. Probably mostly because they could not afford to be with me.

Melissa Fleming 06:34

Camps are very different in different countries. What did a refugee camp look like for you in your growing up in Uganda?

Agnes Kalibata 06:43

I think for me, the fact that we had been given that land and were allowed to use land made us a little bit different gave us a decent rural livelihood. It also meant that people could start redefining themselves once they understood that they were not going anywhere, anytime soon. They started looking at ways they could settle down. They accepted their fate. My father actually went to a place in northern Uganda to look for cows that were supposed to be more resilient to that condition, that environment we were in. He brought them, that they were producing more milk. That’s what he told us later: ‘These cows produce more milk. They are more resilient than the cows we got from Rwanda.’

After some time, we just settled in and became like Ugandans. We learned the language. We started accepting our rural life and integrated ourselves. There were challenges, of course. Schools came later, hospitals came later. I was lucky again: my dad knew about medicine. He knew which plants would treat malaria. He knew which plants would treat what. And, again, until I got to secondary school and looked around me and saw the people around me, I thought I had a perfectly decent upbringing. During school, we played like other kids. We jumped around. On weekends, we collected firewood, we ate wild berries and stuff like that, you know. I feel a lot of gratitude towards the fact that we were given an opportunity to have land, which is what I don’t see most refugees out there have. It completely reshaped how my community settled down.

Melissa Fleming 08:16

Yes, even today, Uganda is offering refugees a piece of land. Did your family ever talk about Rwanda and what it meant to them and whether they hoped or dreamed to be able to return?

Agnes Kalibata 08:34

I think by the time I was eight years old, and that was early ‘70s, they were pretty resigned to the fact that they would not be able to return to Rwanda. So that, in a way again, facilitated the ability to settle in and start looking for alternative livelihoods.

Melissa Fleming 08:53

What were those circumstances that prevented them from being able to return?

Agnes Kalibata 08:58

Politics. The Government in Rwanda had decided that the country was too small. And so it was not going to be possible for Rwandans who had moved out to be able to come back in. They had no means to be able to get back to Rwanda, right? Again, they were refugees. They had to reconstitute their lives from zero. And I guess there was also that understanding between countries that there was no way they were going to go back because the country was too small.

Melissa Fleming 09:23

Do you think that you and your family have, perhaps, a different sense of home? I mean, particularly your parents, who left Rwanda, and your father who had to transform himself from being a doctor and a teacher into being a farmer? What was home?

Agnes Kalibata 09:41

So it’s very funny because home is about… It all takes me to food these days. And I think about all the things I learned about food. You see there’s no single time that I don’t remember my mum saying, ‘This potato tastes different. Rwandan potatoes taste better. This banana tastes different. Rwandan bananas would have tasted better.’ There is no single Ugandan food that was acceptable in terms of taste to them. And I was always like, ‘You can’t be serious. You know, it can’t be that every food is not as good as Rwandan food.’ There was nothing that was ever good enough. You know, everything that was good was in Rwanda.

Melissa Fleming 10:21

When you finally did go to Rwanda, was it true that the food tasted better?

Agnes Kalibata 10:30

You know, I’ve been thinking about that. And I think there’s some truth to that. Rwanda is mountainous and high altitude, right? High altitude means that things grow slower and they accumulate more richness, more nutrients as they’re growing slower. So if you look at the world market, Rwandan coffee is one of the best coffees. If you look at the world market, Rwandan tea is used to blend other teas. It’s one of the best teas. So I actually began to believe that there was some truth to what my parents were saying when I couldn’t tell the difference.

Melissa Fleming 11:02

So it wasn’t just nostalgia. Let’s go back again to when you were a teenager, and you were in secondary school: what ambitions did you have then? What did you want to be when you grew up?

Agnes Kalibata 11:16

I wanted to be… definitely, I wanted to be a doctor. So when I got into school, I realized that these are horizons that were open to me. Definitely I was like, I need to be a doctor and really show people that I can be a doctor and help them. And maybe even have a hospital where I can work. And they can all see that their daughter became a doctor so they would be very proud of me. So those are the kinds of aspirations. I mean, that’s the aspiration I had. But I became a scientist. I ended up going into science.

Melissa Fleming 11:46

So you ended up getting a scholarship. Maybe talk to us about that very competitive scholarship that UNHCR was offering to a small group of refugee students and that enabled you to leave your refugee camp and your community to study. Tell us about, first of all, the day when you learned you got that scholarship and then what happened next.

Agnes Kalibata 12:10

So I was the best kid in my school and I just didn’t know how good that was. But I got to know later because I also got into the best school in Uganda. The best girls’ school in Uganda. I will never forget the day when I told my dad that I had gotten the UNHCR scholarship, because none of us had seen it coming. He was prepared to go all the way to work hard and pay for me. But he had other kids younger than me. And he was pretty worried.

So I told him: ‘I have gotten a scholarship. I’m going to go to this school which is run by nuns.’ It was extremely important for him that it was run by nuns. Because, at that stage, they really believed in missionaries and Catholicism. You know, religion was everything. It meant good behavior. It meant that you’re going to be looked after well. So he was very excited. He bought a beer. I had never seen him drink a beer. He bought a beer. So he said, ‘This is my day to celebrate’.

I will never forget the excitement in his face. But also to know that I had brought him that joy, that pleasure. It was amazing. And I just never really appreciated how much that meant to my family until I started, you know, going through school.

We used to walk a long distance to get to school. I used to walk, like, 12 kilometres from the refugee camp to get to the train, which would take two days to get me to Kampala. And, during that journey, it really became very lonely. I started realizing that I was the only kid that was doing that journey. In a way you feel like, ‘Why am I not like other kids?’ But then you realize it’s an opportunity, right? That you’re privileged to be in that position.

And then you realize the community-ness of your society because sometimes the train wouldn’t come and, do you know what, I would sleep in one of the homes nearby. And they knew my dad because they all knew each other. For some reason, as refugees, they all knew each other. So it really built in me a sense of, I owe these people. I have a community out there that has looked after me, that has been there for me. It really made me understand later that a child is brought up by a village.

Melissa Fleming 14:26

Describe what it was like when you first arrived at your new school, your new boarding school.

Agnes Kalibata 14:32

I’ll never forget that day. Let me first tell you when I got the admission. So this is a very elite school. So they sent me…my admission was a whole list, like five pages, of things I needed to bring. So one of the things that we could not understand what they meant in my village, the whole village, was an iron with a three-pin plug. I had never seen an electric iron. I could understand what an iron was, but I could not understand what a three-pin plug meant. And nobody in the village would help me understand what that meant.

So, first of all, there’s that excitement. But also trying to understand a world that is different than yours. Now, going to school, my dad put some money together and sent me shopping. I bought two dresses, shoes, but these shoes were like flops, you know, where you slip in your feet. I bought a bed cover or something like that. So I had a bag full of things. I felt very rich. I saved some money, I still had money.

Then I went to school. And I completely remember the face of the headmistress when I walked into her office. She was like, ‘Is this it? Are you coming to school?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m coming to school.’ She says, ‘OK, sit down. Where are your things?’ So I said, ‘These are my things’. I showed her my bag. ‘These are my things.’ She said, ‘Where are the suitcases?’ I said, ‘I didn’t bring a suitcase. You told me that you have mattresses. You have blankets. You have sheets so I didn’t think that was necessary.’ She was like, ‘OK.’ She didn’t discourage me. She was an Irish nun. So, she looked at me and she was like ‘OK, OK, that’s good. So how did you get here?’ So I described to her my journey to school: train, three days, Kampala, three days. And when I was in Kampala, listen to this: everybody I saw, I would say: ‘Good morning!’ Because that’s what we did in the village.

Anyway, so she looked at me and said, ‘Sure.’ I could see in her face that she was like, ‘I’m not sure how long this one is going to last here.’ I felt comfortable in my skin with what I had, of course until I started seeing other kids come with four or five suitcases and really beginning to understand why she was shocked. But she also told me she said, ‘OK, UNHCR is paying for you. I said, ‘Yes.’ Because they had reached out to her. They were pretty efficient. They had reached out and told them I was coming and told her where I was coming from. And so she really was managing, trying to show me that she wasn’t as shocked as she was feeling inside her. But I will never forget her face.

Melissa Fleming 17:16

How did the other students react to you? Did you feel any discrimination?

Agnes Kalibata 17:22

Not really. I didn’t feel that. I spent a whole lot of time trying to take it in. I was distracted. I was looking at kids. I was looking at how they’re dressed. I was looking at how they’re talking. I was looking at how sophisticated they were. I was just perplexed. So one day I see this kid getting a whole loaf of bread and throw it in the dustbin. And I was like, ‘What is going on here? How do you throw food away? There are other people that need these things.’ I spent most of the time distracted. I was distracted. I was watching how they speak. I was worried whether they saw that I was a bit different. But I decided that I had it in me.

So the first term of my school ended and they gave me a report. And I actually didn’t do well. And my headmaster said, ‘Agnes, this is not acceptable. You’re 35 out of 40. It means if this happens by the end of the year, you’ll have to leave the school. This school is highly competitive.’ From that time on, I was in the top 10% in my class. I made a decision and I was like, ‘I can do better than this. I cannot disappoint my dad.’ So that whole thing — ‘I cannot disappoint my dad’ — started.

And that’s what took me through but also it helped me make friends. And you start forgetting most of that. But what stood out for me is I never got… We had very strong visiting days, where parents would come and visit children. And I never got a visitor because it was expected that my parents were going to come from the middle of nowhere on the train to come to visit me. I didn’t take offence. But what was really disappointing is my school wouldn’t cook on visiting day. And so sometimes I would sleep hungry just because they assumed that every kid had a visitor/

Melissa Fleming 19:19

And the visitor would bring food and they would eat together, or?


Dr. Kalibata with a smallholder farmer in Tanzania benefiting from improved post-harvest technology. Addressing post-harvest losses is key to unlocking the tremendous promise for enhancing inclusive economic growth, food security, and nutrition in the country and across the African continent. Iringa Region, Tanzania, 2019 – Photo: ©AGRA

Agnes Kalibata 19:23

Usually when you have your parents visiting, they bring food. So they forget that there were kids like me who were not going to be receiving any visitors so they would not cook. That night I would just say ‘OK, one night won’t kill me without food.’ So you accept that that’s the way it’s going to be and you start working your way around it.

Melissa Fleming 19:43

So you rose to the top of your class and your boarding school as well, and then you applied for university?

Agnes Kalibata 19:53

In Uganda at that time, university education was available to everybody that passed. I didn’t go to medical school, but I went to do sciences. I started focusing back on the agricultural sector and what it means for people. I started learning that my parents could have done more with agriculture if they had had better seeds. I just made the decision then to actually move into agriculture. I did a master’s, paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation. When I finished my master’s, they asked me if I wanted to do a PhD. And again, I said, ‘Why not?’

I had come to appreciate that there’s a whole lot of people that were stuck in agricultural systems, and yet agricultural systems can’t function, and that I could do something about it. Especially that was also the time that Rwandans were going back to Rwanda. So I took on my PhD seriously and strictly because I thought that when I come to Rwanda, I might be helpful in terms of how Rwanda takes on its development path and the role I might play in that.

Melissa Fleming 21:00

So you were already thinking when you were deciding, ‘I’m going to do a PhD in agriculture’, that you were going to go back to Rwanda and, for the first time, apply it? That was your dream goal?

Agnes Kalibata 21:15

My people had already gone back. I got to do my PhD in 1998 and the genocide happened in 1994. Rwandans had actually gone back to Rwanda in 1996. So I was asking myself, under the circumstances, what would be most helpful, you know. I thought that what would be most helpful is really being able to come at this from a development perspective and use what I have learned. What will Rwanda need the most? So I started asking myself.

Melissa Fleming 21:40

Just describe, maybe in a little more detail, the period of time and the circumstance when all the refugees in your community were able to return to Rwanda. Were your parents and your siblings also included in that?

Agnes Kalibata 21:57

I told you that my parents fled in the late ’50s/early ’60s so we actually grew up in that environment. Then other issues started coming up. Issues like, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re not Ugandan.’ ‘Oh, by the way, you’re Rwandan.’ And you’re like, ‘OK, so I’m not really Ugandan. Why?’ Then you start thinking that you have rights, like other people. Then you realize — no, you’re not. You don’t have this right because you’re Rwandan.

I remember the first time I applied for a passport and this person told me, ‘But you’re not Ugandan.’ I said, ‘Then what am I if I’m not Ugandan? I was born here.’ He said, ‘No, you’re Rwandan.’ I said, ‘But my dad pays tax, like every Ugandan parent. Like all the Ugandan kids I grew up with, their parents pay tax, and my dad pays tax. So why is it that they are Ugandans and I’m not Ugandan? And why is it that they would be entitled to a passport number which entitles you to a passport?’ He said, ‘Because you’re Rwandan.’

I remember one time I was stopped by an army man who was watching a facility. He stopped me and he said, ‘You, Rwandan, stop.’ I was like ‘OK, why?’ I stopped. Then he said, ‘OK, where are you coming from? I said, ‘I’m coming from school.’ He said, ‘But you’re Rwandan. I said, ‘No.’ I had to lie. I said, ‘No.’ You said, ‘Where are you from?’ I told him — I had learned that there are tribes in Uganda that closely looked like Rwandans — so I said, ‘I’m from such-and-such a tribe’. So he said, ‘Oh…’

As he was saying that, some other guy came, he was a policeman. He said, ‘Hey, you from my tribe.’ But actually that guy, at that particular moment in time, I was 100% sure that if that other policeman had not showed up, I was going to be raped. So those types of things are the ones that started making us feel like we actually don’t belong here. You know, these people don’t love us. They don’t like us. We don’t belong here. We don’t seem to have any rights here. So that’s how Rwandans started thinking about maybe it’s about time to go home.

You know, what happened in 1990, where refugees took up arms and it lasted about four years ending up in the terrible genocide that happened. After the genocide, then the Government was overthrown. But in 1996, and probably after 2000, then the exodus. Rwandans started going back home.

Melissa Fleming 24:26

Including your family?

Agnes Kalibata 24:28

My family, yeah. My dad died in Rwanda. We’re lucky that he had an opportunity to go back. He died in Rwanda, but he lived long. He died at 99. So he was able to go back to Rwanda.

Melissa Fleming 24:42

Tell me about when, and under what circumstances, you went back to Rwanda, and what happened next.

Agnes Kalibata 24:49

I got a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation. I did a PhD. I was about 30 and I’m saying I should really be thinking about getting married. And my dad made it worse by telling me, ‘No, no, no, no, you don’t need another degree. You need a man now. You need to get married.’ But then again, I felt this sense of responsibility. So that’s why I did a PhD. After I came back to Rwanda and I visited the Ministry of Agriculture and the Minister there, who I knew from Uganda, told me that they were having a challenge with the World Bank programme. The $48 million World Bank programme that is going to have to close because they’re having capacity issues. And I was like, ‘Are you serious? You have $48 million to invest in this poverty that I’m seeing here and you’re going to lose the money?’ She was like, ‘Yeah, and we have challenges.’

One moment that I remember very well. My first trip to Rwanda. As you’re coming from the Ugandan border, you basically are going up, up, up. You start seeing all these mountains. So my first trip to Rwanda — that was in 1996 — I saw kids on the roadside and I looked at them. And I looked at how they were dressed. Even in Uganda, I had never seen that depth of poverty in my whole life. So yes, Rwanda was coming out of war. Yes, these were rural communities. But I grew up in a rural village and I had never seen that depth of poverty.

So when I came to the ministry and the Minister told me that we are about to lose this money, I said, ‘If I dropped my job in research, would you give me this job so that you don’t lose the money?’ So she’s like, ‘Yeah, give me your CV.’ In a few days, I was told you have the job. And I just went to work. In fact, that’s probably how I ended up being a minister. Because I guess everybody was like, ‘Where has she come from? Who is this woman that is bulldozing everything around here?’

Melissa Fleming 27:00

Amazing. So you found yourself elevated and, in a very short period of time, to be a Minister of Agriculture? What are you most proud of?

Agnes Kalibata 27:11

First of all, Rwanda is a largely agricultural country so being able to use agriculture as an opportunity for transformation was definitely the thing that was there. So I started calling around and saying, ‘I need seeds. I need good seeds that can change people’s lives.’ I mean, for me, there’s nothing that is as gratifying as seeing a farmer whose face was completely resigned to his way of life, completely transformed because of the type of yield he has gotten because he used a good seed. It’s like night and day. It gets you hooked to these types of things. You see him, and you want to see more. You get hooked. We reduced poverty in five years by about 12%. We reduced hunger. But most importantly, the smiles on people’s faces were everywhere, you know, so we actually managed to do it.

Melissa Fleming 28:00

You also around this time, we’re able to satisfy one of your father’s priorities for you. You met your husband? Tell me about that.

Agnes Kalibata 28:12

Yeah. We actually got married before I finished my PhD. It just happened like that. In fact, one of the questions I asked him was like, ‘OK, I can understand why I’m not married. Why aren’t you married? What have you been doing?’ He was like, ‘I just never had the time.’

Melissa Fleming 28:32

What does he do?

Agnes Kalibata 28:35

He was in the Government. Again, like many Rwandans, he had been in the army. And so he was really deeply entrenched in the work of government. And the truth is, he probably had never had the time like me to think about it.

Melissa Fleming 28:48

And then you started having children as well?

Agnes Kalibata 28:51

No — I should have listened to my dad. I had probably waited for too long. We got children in our 10th year of marriage. So getting children was not easy. It was a struggle. But we did get children. We have got twins now. We have a boy and a girl and they’re eight years old now. That struggle, we have forgotten.


Dr. Kalibata with a smallholder farmers in Tanzania benefiting from improved post-harvest technology. Iringa Region, Tanzania, 2019 – Photo: ©AGRA

Melissa Fleming 29:11

Wonderful. Now, you are the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to the Food Systems Summit that’s going to take place this year. What does that mean?

Agnes Kalibata 29:25

We now are in the Food Systems Summit and we have drawn out the key goals that really show that food systems are part of ensuring that we come through zero hunger, which is not impossible. I know it’s possible to come through zero hunger. I have seen it with my own eyes.

So the Food Systems Summit gives me an opportunity to start helping people understand that climate change happening in so many, in whatever places, is impacting communities. And for these communities, it takes away everything. It’s just not acceptable. We have to work to help build the resilience of these communities. We have to work to help build adaptation to climate change. But more importantly, we have to deal with the climate change issue and the Food Systems Summit gives me that opportunity to highlight all these issues, to show people how interconnected our world is. COVID-19 has definitely shown us that. But also, even before COVID-19, we are interconnected. You’re hurting us by what you’re doing in places that are so far removed. But maybe we are also hurting you by cutting down trees for charcoal, wherever.

And the thing is, we can all do something about it. And we need to fix it, because I think we’ve come to a place where our world can’t take it. Our planet can’t take it any more. And the people that are suffering today the most don’t even understand what is going on in the world or how this is happening.

Melissa Fleming 30:54

I can see that there’s a lot of drive, but also aggravation and frustration and anger. I’m just wondering: Agnes, what keeps you awake at night these days?

Agnes Kalibata 31:07

What keeps me awake these days is the fear that I would let these communities down. Those people are me. Those people are my parents. I grew up in that environment, in that landscape. I now know, having been a scientist and seen the opportunities that are around the world, I know that they can get out of there. I’ve seen it when we try to get them out of there, that they can get out of there. I hope that we can come through for them.

Hunger is increasing every year, why? So that’s number one. Number two is I actually need to convince the world. I know the world is nearly there, but we actually need all to be convinced that we don’t have a plan B. We only have one plan and that one plan is to correct how we do business around our food systems, around the environment, and what our environment can handle.

You know, our planet can take care of itself. It will eject all of us and move on. But is that where we want to be? Is that where we want to be? No, we are human beings. We are people. We are innovative. We are creative. We’ve come this far. We need to scale back and live in harmony with our world. You know, I wake up planning. I wake up and I find myself saying, ‘OK, did I have this meeting? Did I not have that meeting? Did I talk to so-and-so? Who did I bring on board? Who did I not bring on board? Will I be able to convince people that the time has come? That it’s now or never?’ You know, those are the things that keep me awake.

Melissa Fleming 32:46

My last question, Agnes: what would you say to a young refugee girl growing up in a camp, if you had the chance now?

Agnes Kalibata 32:57

Get an education. Work very hard. There’s a whole world out there. Being a girl should not be a constraint. It’s really, really important that young girls understand that they can make it through life. And I think for me, the thing that was most important: working hard was not enough. It had to be also making sure that I picked the hard stuff. I was always looking for the hard stuff, the things that nobody wanted to do. It helped me stand out. It helped me be around the table because I was doing something that somebody says, ‘That’s a drag, you know, do we really have to do this?’ So, I think, find the thing that you love. Find the thing that makes you feel like your life has value to other people and do that with everything you have. But stand up for yourself. Don’t be pushed around.

Melissa Fleming 33:53

Thank you, Agnes, for joining me on awake at night and for sharing your remarkable story.

Agnes Kalibata 33:59

Thank you for giving me the opportunity, Melissa. I really appreciate it. And thank you, Melissa.

Melissa Fleming 34:11

Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. We’ll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of global crisis. To find out more about the series, and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org-awake-at-night. On Twitter, we’re @UN and I’m @melissafleming. Agnes is at @agnes_kalibata. Subscribe to Awake at Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us. It does make a difference.

Thanks to my producers, Bethany Bell, and the team at Chalk & Blade: Laura Sheeter, Fatuma Khaireh and Alex Portfelix, and to my colleagues at the UN: Roberta Politi, Darrin Farrant, Angelinah Boniface, Hilary He, Tulin Battikhi and Bissera Kostova.

Thanks very much also to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for their support. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.

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