Postgraduate studies awakened my zeal to contribute to a food secure Africa


By Njeri Njau, RUFORUM Alumnus (MSc Agronomy, Kenyatta University)

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Njeri Njau front, training farmers on how to maintain healthy bananas during a Farmers’ Field Day

Growing up in rural Kenya, with parents who believed in education being key to my future, has shaped who I am today. Having no electricity and piped water back then did not bother them as long as my siblings and I were in school. For a village girl, joining university made me a role model for the younger girls in my family and the wider community. After completing my undergraduate degree, I was thirsty for more knowledge, but this time my parents could not afford the costs associated with postgraduate training.

I was thus fortunate to merit a scholarship from the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) to pursue a Master’s in Agronomy at Kenyatta University, under the auspices of the RUFORUM Graduate Research Grants (GRG). GRGs offer a unique opportunity for graduate students to be part of a focused research team led by both senior and junior academics that take on the supervisory and mentorship roles. The research project to which I was attached worked on “Promoting macro-propagation technology to improve small-scale farmers to access affordable high quality seedlings of banana cultivars with high market demand” (RU GRG 2009 GRG 11). Coincidentally, this scholarship funded the first group of master’s degree students in the Department of Agricultural Science and Technology at Kenyatta University. I was the first student in the cohort to complete my coursework and thesis research, and graduated on time. The RUFORUM scholarship made my dream a reality.

I thoroughly enjoyed my course, including the research work, despite the long hours I spent in the laboratory and the many sleepless nights I spent working on my publications.  Interacting with farmers was, however, my greatest highlight. I developed deep respect for the wealth of knowledge they have gathered over the years, and learned to appreciate the intricate challenges they face.

One of the major challenges farmers faced was the destruction of banana plantations by diseases and pests, majorly the fusarium wilt, plant parasitic nematodes and the banana weevil. One particular cultivar which is on high demand in the market, was being rapidly wiped out by fusarium wilt disease. This resulted in huge losses to farmers’ incomes from bananas and shortage of fodder for their livestock. To mitigate this problem, the research team carried out a baseline survey to establish the course of action to assist the farmers. From the survey, it was clear that the farmers needed clean and affordable seedlings to revive their plantations. We thus introduced macro propagation technology to help them get high quality healthy seedlings of their choice cultivars. The research team worked directly with the farmers by setting up the technology in their fields. Further, we engaged them in capacity building activities such as training during farmers’ field days, workshops, and invited them for short courses.

Solving the problems farmers were facing gave great meaning to my research and placed a burden on my heart to make a difference in the community. It was heartwarming to hear Jacinta, one of the farmers on whose farm we set up the macro propagation technology say, “I have been empowered with knowledge and a technology that will help me increase my income from bananas”. Now that I reflect upon it, I think that aside from the relevance of the intervention, the participatory manner in which this project was implemented helped promote uptake of the technology. I will certainly incorporate this same approach as I progress in my research career.

My RUFORUM scholarship experience was not limited to coursework and research alone. Through the scholarship, I was able to attend, for the very first time, an international conference. This was the 2nd Africa Higher Education Week and RUFORUM Biennial Conference which was held in September 2010 in Entebbe, Uganda and focused on the theme, “Building Capacity for Food Security in Africa”. The conference provided an opportunity for me and other RUFORUM-funded students and research teams the opportunity to disseminate our research and interact, as well as, learn from our peers and seasoned scientists. It was an inspirational moment for me as throughout the sessions, the call to carry out research that had positive impact on the beneficiaries was echoed again and again.

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Njeri Njau (left) with the then Vice Chancellor Prof. Olive Mugenda (centre) and a colleague, Kwame Ogero, during Master of Science Graduation Ceremony

I most sincerely thank RUFORUM for giving me this great opportunity to pursue a Master’s in Agronomy which stirred in me a burning passion to join the many other scientists that strive every day to make Africa food secure. I am currently pursuing a PhD in horticulture under the DAAD in-country scholarship which I believe i won largely because of the quality of training and mentorship I received at master’s level.  In my free time, i train farmers on good agricultural practices. I am optimistic that upon completion of my PhD, I shall take on more significant roles in the research for development that will enable me to make further contributions to food security in Africa.

At times it scares me that I am pursuing a cause much bigger than myself, but  the desire to make food security a reality and improve farmers’ livelihoods keeps me going and has caused me to break out of my comfort zone. I have decided to be the change that I want to see for indeed “A food secure Africa will be a stable and prosperous Africa.”

For more details please contact Ms. Njeri Njau via email: njau.njeri@gmail.com

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