About twenty two years ago just as she was preparing to join University, Dr. Charity Kawira Mutegi had no idea she would be a globally recognized scientist in the field of Food Science and Technology. She had wanted to pursue Civil Engineering at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, but was instead selected for a Food Technology degree, a move she says was the best thing that ever happened.
Currently serving as Kenya’s coordinator for the Aflasafe Project for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Dr. Charity is a recipient of several awards and recognition for her productive efforts in the food science and technology sector. If her achievements and milestones are anything to go by, she’s undoubtedly a true embodiment of JKUAT’s identity; University of Agriculture and Technology.
Dr. Charity Kawira Mutegi graduated from JKUAT in 1998 with a degree in Food Science and Post-Harvest Technology. This was the genesis of her passion in matters food science, technology and food security. She would later pursue a Masters Degree in Food Science and Technology then a PhD in Food Security, further ballooning her authority in the field. So what exactly changed Dr. Charity’s career perspective and informed her passion in Food Science and Technology? She attributes this to the fact that from her experience in JKUAT, she found Agriculture very practical and that the more she understood its scope, the more interest she developed. She further quips, “I found matters related to my subject area which is food safety, not only very exciting, but also real and affecting vast majority of unsuspecting populations.”
One of the major turning points in Dr. Charity Mutegi’s career was on 13th October, 2013 when she became the 2013 recipient of the prestigious “World Food PrizeNorman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application, Endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation.” This was in recognition of the major breakthroughs she made in combating the deadly aflatoxin in maize, a naturally occurring mold contamination that occurs in stored grain and which is toxic to people who consume it either directly through contaminated grain, or through milk/meat if livestock have been fed contaminated grain.
Aflatoxins are among the most carcinogenic substances known, which implies they are poisonous and contain cancer-causing chemicals. Children affected by aflatoxin exposure for instance, are at risk of stunted growth, delayed development, liver damage and liver cancer. Dr. Mutegi’s research that bore solution to this problem spanned a decade, going way back in 2004-2005 when a fatal case of aflatoxicosis claimed 125 lives of people in Eastern Kenya who consumed contaminated grain. Dr. Mutegi’s work involved testing locally adapted non-toxic strains of Aspergillus flavus fungi in combating contamination with the deadly aflatoxin.
During her studies of the 2004-05 outbreak, Dr. Mutegi compiled the first-ever report in Kenya that provided a holistic outlook on possible avenues for contamination, and also proposed an integrated approach to managing aflatoxin contamination along the maize value chain, including regulatory and policy measures. Having been propelled into action by the suffering of people due to aflatoxins, Dr. Mutegi says that being able to have a positive impact in the society should be the whole point of science.
“As a scientist it’s inexcusable to sit by and watch the kind of fatalities that can be avoided or managed. I do share the United States Marine Corps’ perspective that ‘no one ever drowned in sweat.’ An extra effort towards a worthwhile course as to save the lives of numerous non-suspecting citizenry is indeed worth the effort.”
The JKUAT alumna observes that despite efforts made in the country, a lot still needs to be done to strengthen the agribusiness sector, citing that the private sector should do more to link up and work together with universities in order to take technological advances and innovations to the level of application. “The government should also increase support to research institutions and universities in order to encourage innovation.”
Dr. Charity Mutegi is however not all about science. The proud mother says apart from her scientific and research commitments, she likes to mentor, which perhaps explains why both men and women, not only in Agricultural field but also other scientific disciplines consider her an icon and an inspiration.
“I like to mentor. I am where I am today because of a lot of mentorship from senior scientists who have made it and who saw potential in me and help me nurture it. So I know without a shadow of doubt that mentorship is very important for anyone who wants to make it in science.”
The Bachelor of Science Degree in Food Science and Post-Harvest Technology that Dr. Charity Mutegi pursued is a course offered at the Department of Food Science and Technology, in the Faculty of Agriculture. In this particular department, other courses offered include Bsc. in Food Science and Nutrition, Human Nutrition and Dietetics, Food Service and Hospitality Management among others. For now however, let’s celebrate our alumna of the week. The JKUAT community is proud!