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A fellowship to champion climate research

Updated: Oct 8, 2019

To help smallholder farmers in Eastern and Southern Africa access advice to mitigate the effects of climate change, a US$20 million 5-year initiative is investing in young researchers. WREN correspondent, Alis Okonji, spoke with one of the scientists at the initiative's launch.

Climate change researcher Saumu Shaka during a recent trip to the UN Headquarters in Nairobi © Alis Okonji

The launch of the One Planet Fellowship held this September in Nairobi, Kenya, presented a new strategy to help smallholders access advice on how to mitigate the effects of climate change – an issue that continues to top the agenda of development meetings and summits worldwide.

Under the Fellowship, 45 young researchers are paired with relevant mentors in similar fields to enable them to share knowledge on past and existing climate research. This is a unique opportunity for the agricultural research sector to see young scientists from Africa and Europe mentored by veteran scientists, in a bid to learn and understand climate change in context.

Each researcher has a unique approach to impact smallholder farmers in their specific country. One such scientist is Saumu Shaka, a strong, bubbly and highly ambitious young lady. Shaka’s ambitions are to curb the effects of the well-known impacts of climate change through her work at the weather forecast unit of the Kenya Meteorological Department. “Every day, I work with data reflecting changing temperatures, rain predictions or impending drought. And every day, I am convinced that the most vulnerable victim of climate change is the smallholder farmer,” said Shaka, in our recent interview.

Regular visits to her parents’ farm in Voi, Kenya, exposed Shaka to the woes and challenges of rain-fed agriculture. This led her to specifically target her research at disseminating new and existing knowledge and information regarding weather patterns through extensive social media campaigns and new technologies, such as smart mobile and web-based apps and USSD phone services. Shaka’s research enables smallholders to access key information on social media on when to plant, how to irrigate crops, and how to increase soil fertility using additives and inputs like fertilisers and climate-resilient crop varieties. “As a young girl, I always wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. However, the older I became, the more I realised that my interest was, and still is, primarily with food!” laughs Shaka as she munches on fresh pineapple. “I am privileged to have received this award! The climate is changing, we must change with it!”

Stereotypes of the typical African farmer as a grumpy old man carrying a hoe, toiling on his farm each day in his overalls and gum boots, are evolving with the dynamic change in farmer profiles. Smallholders are adopting new agri-technologies like weather forecast apps, e-commerce platforms, and online marketing and distribution services to become more well-informed farmers, who use research and knowledge to enhance productivity.

The One Planet Fellowship programme has a keen interest in ensuring that the viability and adoption of the research conducted will last for generations to come. With this in mind, Shaka’s research will not only be looking at how best to package climate change resilient practices for smallholders today, but aims to equip farmers with knowledge capable of improving the future of agriculture.

As she smiles behind her hijab, Shaka admits to the challenges facing her – not only as a young female researcher, but as a Muslim woman, less common in the agricultural development field. “It’s not about what I wear or what religion I subscribe to, we all eat, don’t we?” grins the smart young scientist.

Alis Okonji

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