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Undergrad student’s work in Rwanda helps connect isolated villages to roads

q le 500x350_2There were times last summer in Rwanda while Quan Le was making maps for a World Bank road project that he wondered what some people might think if they knew the cartography was being done by an undergraduate student from the University of Toronto.

He needn’t have worried.

A short while later, his professor reported he had visited the office of a Rwandan government official and spotted one of Le’s maps hanging prominently on the wall.

“That was pretty cool,” says Le, who came to Canada from Vietnam in 2010 when he was still in high school and just four years later became a research assistant for U of T economist Marco Gonzalez-Navarro through Ontario’s work-study program.

The chance to travel to Rwanda and do economics research in the field was the result of that relationship. Gonzalez-Navarro was charged with evaluating the impact of a five-year project to connect isolated villages to the rural road system in Rwanda, funded by the World Bank and Innovations for Poverty Action, a U.S. non-profit.

terraced farms cling to rugged hillsides

Terraced farms cling to rugged hillsides near Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Quan Le.

Le became part of Gonzalez-Navarro’s team, serving as the professor’s eyes and ears in Rwanda for six weeks in July and August 2015. Overall, Le’s been working on the project since 2014, and after graduation this year, will begin a two-year contract as a research assistant at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

“During that interview, the professors at Stanford expected me to be very knowledgeable about this Rwanda project, because I’m part of the team that’s running it,” says Le. “I think if I didn’t have this position, I would never have gone to Stanford.”

The only undergraduate on the project, Le’s field research experience in Rwanda was the highlight of his work collecting data to help create algorithms showing the impact of constructing better feeder routes for isolated villagers trying to get to national markets.

The opportunity to actually go to Rwanda helped make all those numbers very real for Le.

“Even putting the market just 500 metres closer makes a big difference when you are carrying 20 kilograms of bananas or sweet potatoes back and forth on the road every day. I was able to make those numbers concrete, because it’s kind of hard to interpret data if you don’t know what it really means,” says Le.

“You can read papers and you can look at pictures of the roads, but there’s always the value of experience nothing beats being there.”

The trip also helped Le understand how rural surveys and field research are organized and conducted by agencies like the World Bank, with their vast experience in development economics.

Le plans to focus on development economics in his future career and is interested in how “poverty traps” such as a lack of market access impact poor people in terms of income, opportunity and the costs of goods and services. Most Rwandans in rural areas have to walk or ride bikes to reach the markets in the hilly African nation.

“There are people in these pocket villages with no viable transportation to the general highways, because the existing feeder roads are so bad, but if you have a better road, the cost of trade is lower, and that facilitates access to national markets,” says Le.

“This experience in Rwanda helped provide a lot of context for that kind of situation, because I want to be able to run one of these studies myself one day.”