Women and Girls in Science: A Horticulturalist on a Mission

Originally published on February 10, 2017.

Speaking with Dr. Jane Ambuko, one would be forgiven for thinking that her journey to the top of academia as a renowned scientist has been smooth and easy. The Head of the Horticulture Unit at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Plant Science and Crop Protection, Jane is the recipient of the prestigious AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development) Fellowship, the Norman Borlaug Fellowship, and several other grants, including a highly-competitive USAID grant under its Feed the Future Kenya Innovation Engine program. With a doctorate in Horticultural Science and years of experience in academia and development work, Jane is at the top of the game in the typically male-dominated world of science. 

The first girl in her village to qualify for university, Jane Ambuko was thrilled at the opportunity to become a scientist. After all, it had been her life-long dream. But just when it seemed that the stars had aligned to deliver her wish, she was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure.

“I spent my first year of university with one foot in class and the other in Kenyatta National Hospital, where I went for dialysis three times a week,” she said.

It was a draining procedure and took a toll on her health, leaving her frail.

“Because of my condition, I tried to switch to the Arts and pursue what I thought would be an easier degree but the Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture wouldn’t let me quit,” Jane adds.

Things went further south and Jane had to undergo a kidney transplant; the Dean of her faculty led a funds drive at the university to help pay for the procedure, and her sister donated a kidney. The surgery was successful and proved to be Jane’s turning point.

Health obstacles behind her, Jane regained her earlier zeal and threw herself into her schooling, graduating at the top of her class and winning a scholarship for a Masters, and then a PhD. The vision in the Dean’s words “would you like to one day head this department, just like me?”, now seemed within reach!

Over and above specializing in horticulture, Jane went further to cut a niche in the sector. Her passion for improving smallholder farmers’ productivity got her thinking about what happens to farm produce, especially highly-perishable and high value horticultural produce, after it is harvested.

“We are investing so much time, effort and money to produce good-quality crop, but up to 50% of what we produce ends up wasted due to poor post-harvest management,” Jane explains.

“This is particularly sad when you think of the economic and nutritional ramifications of these losses. Smallholder farmers lose income that they can ill-afford, and nutrient-dense food goes to waste even in food insecure areas,” she adds.

Jane’s desire to cut these losses and improve farmers’ lot led her to customize the CoolBot - an electronic gadget designed in the U.S. - for the local context. The technology works with an air conditioner to provide optimum temperatures for storage of perishable produce at a relatively affordable cost.

With seed funding and technical assistance from USAID through Feed the Future Kenya Innovation Engine, Jane led an innovation implementation team in identifying a suitable site to construct a small, insulated structure from local materials to serve as a cold room in Kenya’s semi-arid Makueni County.

By the end of March 2016, Jane had successfully tested the innovation with a group of smallholder farmers in Kenya’s semi-arid Makueni County.

The UoN project team also trained farmers on good harvest and postharvest handling practices and other low-cost cold storage technologies.

“At the time, the possibility of having an affordable cold storage option for our fruits seemed too good to be true,” said Teresia Benjamin, Chairperson of the Kawala Horticulture Small Scale Farmers' Self-Help Group.

The farmers’ big moment came at the height of the mango season in January 2016 when farmers bulked about 100 crates of the fruit to test its efficacy for storage in the cold room in readiness for sale. A couple of weeks later, the mangoes were sold in the capital city Nairobi, almost 200km away (124 miles), and farmers paid Sh23 per mango (approximately $2) - roughly five times the prevailing market price at that time of the year.

Due to lack of cold storage facilities, farmers here typically face the dilemma of selling their produce at a throwaway price once it ripens or letting it rot on their farms.

“Since we started growing mangoes, we have never sold mangoes for as high as Sh23. Especially at this time of the year, the best we can get is Sh5 to Sh7 per piece, due to oversupply in the market,” said Teresia.

Now, Jane is taking the post-harvest management agenda to the global stage; as head of the Organizing Committee of the first-ever All-Africa Postharvest Food Loss Reduction Conference and Exhibition to be held in Nairobi in March 2017 in partnership with the World Food Preservation Center, she is taking steps to influence discourse across the continent and identify effective interventions to reduce food losses and waste in Africa.
  1. Read more about the USAID-supported CoolBot innovation here
  2. Watch an NTV feature about the CoolBot here
  3. See professional photos from the CoolBot initiative in Makueni County here
  4. Watch a TEDx Nairobi video on Jane Ambuko here

 
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