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Impact Magazine

Cougar Quinoa: The Sustainable Superhero

The long, green stalk of leaves with purple blossoms stretch toward the sky. A closer look at the bloom reveals that it’s comprised of hundreds of tiny spheres bunched so close together they look like small flowers. But the blooms aren’t flowers—they’re quinoa.

BYU researchers Rick Jellen and Jeff Maughan from BYU’s Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences collaborate with farmer Cedric Habiyaremye, a quinoa breeder at Washington State University (WSU) and a native Rwandan. Together they are breeding new varieties of the protein-rich quinoa that can thrive in the harsh weather conditions of Rwanda’s tropical climate. Rwandan land suffers from deforestation, overgrazing, and fluctuating rain patterns, so the need for sustainable crops is increasing as farmers find it harder to grow staple crops like corn, wheat, and rice. Jellen, Maughan, and Habiyaremye are addressing this problem by developing new quinoa varieties for diverse climates, which will enable African farmers to successfully grow quinoa regardless of soil or weather conditions.

New quinoa varieties for diverse climates will enable African farmers to successfully grow quinoa regardless of soil or weather conditions.
Illustrations of the mature cougar quinoa, which has green leaves and vibrant pink flowers.
Photo by Lydia Henry

Jellen and other quinoa researchers sent their first set of seeds to Rwanda 18 years ago. Since then, they’ve developed more strains to meet a wider range of agricultural and nutritional needs. Jellen believes that crossing multiple quinoa breeds, including a wild North American strain, has created more sophisticated varieties. “Bringing that wild material in has dramatically increased the amount of genetic variation [in the quinoa], which is what breeders need in order to make progress in improving a wide range of [quinoa’s] characteristics,” Jellen says. According to him, new variations of quinoa could yield higher amounts of product, be more resistant to disease, have improved nutritional characteristics, and be more adaptive to warm environments.

In November 2022, Jellen sent Habiyaremye the seeds for several new populations to breed with their previously developed quinoa. “[Habiyaremye] is going to help us identify not only the material that’s going to be potentially higher yielding and more well adapted in Rwanda, but also material that could be beneficial for breeders and farmers in other parts of Africa, especially Malawi, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and potentially Ethiopia,” Jellen says. His hope is that having a network of quinoa breeders across East Africa would make their seeds, data, and resources more widely adapted.

Habiyaremye and the Rwandan quinoa farmers gave the new variations names. Two names are in Kinyarwanda, a Bantu language and a dialect of the Rwandan language.

Illustration of the Washington State University cougar, wearing a white t-shirt with the WSU logo and red shorts, and the Brigham Young University cougar, wearing white shorts and a blue t-shirt with a blue Y on a white oval background, with their arms wrapped around each other's shoulders.
Photo by Kate Olsen

Gikungu quinoa:

Gikungu is the Kinyarwanda word for “economy.” This name was chosen by Olivier Ndayiramije due to quinoa’s high nutritional profile and its important role in socioeconomic development. Healthier populations contribute to a stronger local economy, and a stronger local economy contributes to a healthier population—quinoa enables this.

Shisha quinoa:

In Kinyarwanda, shisha means “to flourish.” Rwandan farmers selected the name because quinoa has improved the lives of their children, helping them grow and develop in a healthy and vigorous way. With quinoa, Rwandans are building thriving, healthy, and vibrant communities. This name was given by the very first model farmers who pioneered quinoa farming in their respective communities in Rukira, Eastern Province, and helped scale up quinoa farming in other communities and regions of Rwanda.

Cougar quinoa:

Co-released in 2023 by WSU and BYU, the name Cougar was chosen to reflect the decade-long collaborative efforts of researchers at WSU and BYU—universities that share a cougar mascot. Scientists at WSU and BYU worked closely together to develop this quinoa variety, and the name Cougar embodies this fruitful collaboration built on mutual goals, trust, and the open sharing of germplasm.

“This has been a great project, including extensive international collaboration and decades of work,” Maughan reflects. “It assists the university [BYU] in emitting a unique light to the world by solving real-world problems like food insecurity in developing nations.”

Jellen, Maughan, and Habiyaremye believe quinoa could help Rwandans overcome their food shortages and malnutrition. Being a Rwanda native, Habiyaremye is passionate about helping his home country thrive, according to Jellen. “I have problems with the perception that international students turn their backs on their home countries [after] getting an education and landing a job in the United States, because most of the time it’s not true,” Jellen says. “[Habiyaremye] is an example where it’s obvious to see the love and devotion he has for his country.”

A dark-skinned man wearing a gray t-shirt stands in a field of green-leafed quinoa blossoming yellow flowers.
Photo by Olivier Ndayiramije


Crops for a Better Future: Cedric Habiyaremye’s Personal Journey

Cedric Habiyaremye was only a child when he lived through the devastating famine that struck Rwanda in 1997.

“I vowed that if I survived, I would go to school and find a way for people to never go hungry again,” Habiyaremye reflects.

Now, he’s doing exactly that. Habiyaremye attended WSU and discovered quinoa, which he theorized could help address hunger and malnutrition in his home country. After doing extensive research on the nutritional and growing benefits of quinoa, he introduced it to Rwanda in 2015.

Habiyaremye gave a batch of quinoa seeds to his mother. Neighbors saw her growing it and were curious to try it out for themselves. Since 2015, more than 700 Rwandan farmers have started growing quinoa.

“I want to use quinoa to combat hunger and malnutrition,” Habiyaremye says. “I don’t want children to go through what I did. When kids have access to nutritious foods at an early age, there is hope for a bright future.”