The JKUAT Master’s in Research Methods: what a course!


By Nancy Chege

nancyThis is the story of how my life was beautifully transformed.

Many years ago, I enrolled for a Master’s degree in Agricultural Education which later turned into a nightmare. My statistical skills, data and information management skills were minimal and I felt completely helpless every time I thought of testing hypotheses. I could not differentiate between type one and type two errors, did not know there were assumptions guiding the use of ANOVA tests, and could not tell when to use regression, correlation or even simple descriptive analysis.  When people talked about p-values, f-tests, t-tests, chi-squared tests, post hoc analysis and the like, I had no clue what they were talking about! In an effort to address this challenge, I contacted my colleague lecturers in the TVET institution where I worked, but all was in vain.

As a last resort, I went online looking for answers, even though I had minimal computer skills. This quest became a turning point in my life as that was how I discovered the MSc Research Methods course sponsored by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM). Even though I doubted I was going to get such a competitive scholarship, I applied anyway. I therefore could not believe it when, after a few weeks, I got a congratulatory message. RUFORUM had granted me a scholarship to undertake the MSc Research Methods course at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in Kenya!

This marked the beginning of a journey that would transform my life.

The course captivated me so much that I felt I could do things i previously thought were impossible! Before commencing the face-to-face classes at JKUAT, students had to complete a pre-requisite online course on “e-Statistics Made Simple” . My computer skills were low at the time, making it difficult for me to navigate through the Statistical Service Centre website where the course was hosted. Besides, I thought my fingers were too big to press the keyboard keys and the cracks on my palms, resulting from many years of peeling bananas when cooking for my family, would be rejected by the computers. I owe a lot to my friend, Mary Onsarigo, who encouraged me and gave me initial lessons on navigating the course.

After a while I became an expert in doing assignments and some of my online classmates started asking me for help because of the speed at which I completed assignments. I started enjoying online facilitation too and learnt the online etiquette (netiquette) within a short time, thanks to our online facilitator.

We eventually qualified to enroll in the MSc Research Methods course and, on 13 October 2009, reported to JKUAT for the start of the MSc course. Our class was diverse, with some of my classmates coming from other African countries including Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda and Ethiopia. Some of these students were learning English for the first time and I had given up on ever communicating with them due to language barrier. But wait… the facilitators had a plan to overcome that. We were placed in different discussion groups such that by the end of the course I had interacted with everyone, not to mention that my closest friend turned out to be my classmate from Burundi who had just learned to communicate in English. Through him I learned to be patient, even as he often scratched his head looking for English words to contribute to discussions. I endured such moments by continually saying to myself “patience patience patience…”. It paid off, because once we crossed the language barrier I was able to unravel the golden qualities in these classmates. These interactions contributed to my first transformation and raised the performance level of the class.

The way the course was delivered was superb! Difficult statistical concepts were simplified, even using games to simulate research designs.  All the courses offered were very useful, interesting and presented by excellent facilitators. Slowly, all my previous challenges were addressed one after the other. Descriptive statistics, inferential statistics, statistical modelling, data and information management, statistical computing, geographic information systems, mathematics, and research projects among other course units helped to unravel difficult mental blocks I had encountered previously.

My greatest joy from this course was that, as my understanding of statistical concepts grew, I was able to complete my other unfinished masters’ degree single handedly, including data analysis that had seemed insurmountable. I therefore graduated with two masters degrees in the same year!

Upon graduation, the first beneficiaries of this course were my boss and his deputy who were struggling to complete their master’s degree research. I helped them redesign their project proposals and showed them how to simplify their work by developing a plan for data analysis. It is perhaps no wonder that when the deputy’s term of service ended, my boss nominated me to become his deputy, a position I hold to date. Prior to enrolling for the MSc in Research Methods, I taught Agriculture and Biology. However, after the MSc training I started teaching Statistical Methods and Research Methods as well. I requested for further training in online facilitation and today I head the e-learning section in my institution.

Some research supervisors from universities have discovered my abilities and continually refer their students to me for guidance in proposal designing, data and information management and data analysis in addition to giving me part time jobs at their institutions. I have written two guides; one in Research Methods and the other in Statistical Methods (awaiting publication).

Today, when I go to libraries and come across theses and project reports, my first stop is the methodology chapter and the objectives. I regret to say that there are so many recommendations out there based on wrong data analysis. When I think about which of the recommendations we are implementing were generated from wrong analysis, I shudder in fear.

The training has helped me make new connections is the research community. Today, I can read complex scientific journals, understand statistical jokes, engage statisticians in logical discussions and hold an argument from a point of knowledge.  I am a member of the International Biometric Society and many online research methods groups where I answer questions about research methodology. I have also created online research methods groups to assist scholars. PhD students flood my inbox for help with data analysis because I am proficient with many statistical packages including GenStat, R, SPSS, and InStat. Recently, a student shed tears in my office after I gave her tutorials and supervised her data analysis. When it was over, she offered me some money which I declined to take. In tears, she explained how a statistician had asked for 500 US dollars for what I had done for free!  To me, helping her was a way of giving back to society. What I was given freely by RUFORUM I will give back freely, at least for now.

Aside from the technical knowledge, the greatest discovery I made through the MSc course was that, collapsing the artificial “African walls” gave us power to interact with each other. It is my commitment to continue shrinking these walls even further. My Vilakazi photo, above, is a symbol of this commitment. Partnerships that help to strengthen TVET institutions will further make this dream a greater reality for the several young people seeking opportunities to meaningfully engage in agriculture across Africa.

Long live RUFORUM and my facilitators:  Prof. Kihoro,  Dr. Ateka, Dr. Mary Mugo, Dr. Mamati, Prof. Obanda (all from JKUAT) Dr Oeba (KEFRI), Dr. Margaret Mangheni (Makerere University), Ric Coe (ICRAF), Jane Poole (ILRI),  Rodger (University of Reading, UK), Kurji and Mrs. McDonald (University of Nairobi), Jayne and Cheka (Zimbabwe). I pay special tribute to Prof. Adipala (RUFORUM) who even visited us in person to encourage us!

The Master of Science in Research Methods course at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture is a tailor-made regional programme developed through the support of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM). The programme opened its doors to the first students in 2009.

Contact Nancy Chege by email at: waithereronancy@gmail.com

Testimony of career opportunities for young scholars in agricultural sciences


By Lijalem Gebrewahid, PhD Student at Mekelle University

lijalemI was born and raised in Shire-Endaslassie, a town in the  Tigrai Region of Northern Ethiopia. My love for agriculture must have been borne out of my experience of growing and caring for plants in the backyard of our home during my childhood. After completing high school, I went on to study a Diploma in Plant Sciences at Jimma University, Ethiopia. Thereafter, I served as a Research Assistant at the Tigrai Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) for three years before joining

Mekelle University in 2004 in the same position. Being a staff at the university accorded me the opportunity to advance in my career and, in 2009, I successfully completed my Bachelor of Science degree in Horticulture from Mekelle University.

The next year, I got a scholarship from the Regional Universities Forum lijalem1for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) to enroll for a Master of Science degree in Plant Breeding and Seed Systems at Makerere University in Uganda. I was delighted to be admitted at Makerere University because it is one of the top ranked universities in Africa. During the course of my masters training and research, I met great people and made lasting friendships with professional peers.  Initially, I had anticipated a great challenge in completing the course, but the load become easier with institutional support as well as support from my peers and supervisors. By the time of completion, the program was less intense than I had earlier anticipated.

I was glad to have the opportunity to undertake the research component of my MSc back in my home country. This accorded me more time with my family as well as the faculty staff at Mekelle University who served as co-supervisors with the team at Makerere University. The exposure to studying outside my home country as well as joint supervision by both faculty at Makerere University and Mekelle University made me appreciate my journey from a diploma certificate to a postgraduate degree. My MSc thesis focused on evaluation of certain barley core collections for stability in terms of earliness, scald disease resistance, and yield performance  in central and northern part of Ethiopia. The study demonstrated that genotypes by environment interactions can be minimized through selection of widely adapted genotypes. This is important for plant breeding programmes focusing on barley and other related crops.

The training exposure at Makerere University energized me to look for opportunities for further studies. Fortunately, I was lucky to merit another RUFORUM scholarship, this time under the Community Action Research Program (CARP), to study for a PhD in Plant Breeding and Seed Systems at Mekelle University.

lijalem2Currently, I am part of a research team working on the RUFORUM-funded project “Enhancing wheat value chain through participatory action research in Northern Ethiopia” Project (RU 2014 CARP 05) of which my PhD research is a component. Led by the Principal Investigator, Assoc. Prof. Dereje Abera Assefa, the research team is focusing on improving yield and yield stability of superior quality wheat, particularly under stress and future climate change conditions. Our overall target is to minimize dependence on local and obsolete varieties through use of improved high yielding varieties to enhance production and productivity of wheat in turbulent environments.

Involvement of farmers in evaluation and selection of wheat varieties helps researchers to have deeper understanding about the existing situations and vice versa. As a result, the right measures can be can be taken to tackle challenges in a relatively shorter time. This participatory approach has enhanced the university’s engagement with the community and promoted ownership of the research agenda by farmers. The team firmly believes that this approach, among other factors, will also facilitate the transfer of knowledge and technologies to other farmers along the wheat value chain.

So far, data for one season has been collected and analyzed, a Farmers Day has been organized, and stakeholders from various sectors including model farmers, Bureau of Agriculture, Tigrai Agricultural Research Institute, researchers from Mekelle University, factory representatives and administrative people have observed the trial sites.

lijalem3lijalem4During the Field Day, a farmers’ research group from Atsela, one of the research sites, welcomed participants, by holding up the motto “From bread in GTP1 to pasta in GTP2”. This was an expression of their wish to have a good life during the Second Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP2) set by the government and perhaps also a reminder to us, the research team, of the impact that we are trying to achieve. I look forward to completing my PhD which will no doubt equip me to make more significant contributions to crop improvement for food security in Africa and perhaps help bring to reality the aspirations of our farmers.

I am greatly indebted to RUFORUM for the financial support for my MSc and PhD studies. I have attained knowledge in plant breeding that is very relevant to my country and I see opportunities to put this knowledge into use for the benefit of smallholder households and farming systems in general.  I would also like to take this opportunity to appreciate my mentors, particularly Professor Paul Gibson, undoubtedly one of Makerere University’s most valuable assets. As an MSc student in his class, I was not only impressed by his expert knowledge, but also by his profound teaching style and readiness to help students even outside class hours.

The RUFORUM Network promotes inter-university collaboration to facilitate quality graduate research and training. This testimony, one among many others, presents evidence of collaboration between members of the Network (Makerere University and Mekelle University) to co-supervise and train proactive graduate students.

Contact the author by email at: lijalemgebrewahid@gmail.com

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Improving productivity of indigenous chicken in Northern Uganda


By Christine Nakkazi

Over 80% of rural households in Northern Uganda keep chicken, mostly local breeds kept under the free-range production system. However, these indigenous chicken exhibit low turnover and low growth rate due to poor management and inadequate feeding which challenges their ability to play their role as sources of food security and income.

The Enhancing Local Chicken Productivity through Strategic Breeding and Nutrition Management in Northern Uganda (ELOCHIP) Project, funded by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) under the Competitive Grants System, sought to enhance the productivity of indigenous chicken in this region through improved nutrition and breeding.

As a graduate student and member of the research team, I was engaged in the nutrition and chicken management component of the project. My research aimed at improving the performance of indigenous chickens through improved feeding and management. Since the majority of farmers left their chicken to scavenge freely, the birds did not meet their nutritional requirements for optimal growth and production because scavengeable feed resources were scarce, highly variable and of questionable nutritional value. Therefore it was prudent to identify local feed resources in the area, determine their chemical composition, formulate diets, and encourage farmers to adopt better management systems of rearing indigenous chicken such as semi-scavenging and intensive systems.

Formulating nutritious diets

Together with 120 farmers, the project team identified the local feed resources available for feeding chicken as well as the management practices in Northern Uganda and used this information to design feeding strategies. The research revealed that feeds were not compounded into simple diets. Farmers were indiscriminately providing energy-rich grains such as maize, sorghum, millet to all chicken groups. After determining the chemical composition of the local feedstuffs, the team formulated diets with varying levels of protein and energy and tested them on-farm to select the diet that resulted in best growth performance of the indigenous chicken. Farmers were engaged at all stages of the research and were trained on aspects of improved flock management such as brooding, disease control, record keeping, and synchronized hatching.

Because of the increasing market demand for indigenous chicken, some farmers sought to commercialize their production. These farmers made use of the diets recommended by the study under the intensive management system. They were further trained on how to synchronize hatching and brood using locally made pots as a source of heat to allow the mother hens an early return into lay. With these improvements, the chicken reached market weight in 4.5-5 months compared to the 6 month minimum required in the traditional management system.

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Meet Rose Nangonzi: Producing virus free planting materials for cassava farmers


Ms. Rose Nangonzi born on 11th, November, 1992, holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biotechnology from Makerere University. She previously worked as a team leader (Research and Innovations) with BioCrops (U) Limited on tissue culture of cassava and banana germplasm.  She also received training on virus identification and indexing for sustainable production of sweet potato planting materials at KEPHIS, Plant Quarantine and Biosecurity station, Nairobi Kenya in 2015. Although she undertook a broad-based undergraduate program in Biotechnology, she is keenly interested in advancing her knowledge and career in the specific areas of molecular biology, plant tissue culture, and plant virus diagnostics.

She is currently volunteering with the National Crops Resources Research Institute Namulonge and at the same time, pursuing a Master of Science in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the College Of Veterinary Medicine, Animal Resources & Biosecurity funded by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM). This funding is provided through the RUFORUM Graduate Research Grant (GRG) being implemented by Dr. Grace Nakabonge of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Makerere University.

Rose’s research focuses on “Optimization of Thermotherapy and Meristem Tip Culture Techniques for efficient elimination of Cassava Mosaic Viruses and Cassava Brown Streak Viruses.” The study will embark on production of Virus free planting materials and conservation of farmers preferred varieties which are currently affected by the two deadly diseases of cassava. Her outstanding ability to work with minimum supervision is unmatched with her peers, being able to set priorities right amidst colossal workloads. She can be reached by email on nangonzirosettee@gmail.com, or phone +256702932597.