In 1997, the young Christopher Ojiewo joined Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Horticulture. He has few memorable highlights of his stay here, thanks to how deeply he fell in love with books and the library. But the one thing he doesn’t fail to acknowledge, is how the strong academic foundation he obtained from the University has shaped his entire professional voyage. Now going by the distinguished moniker of Dr. Chris Ojiewo, he serves at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in several capacities that can’t fit in this one sentence. He is the Global Coordinator of the Tropical Legumes III and HOPE II projects, handling Grain Legume and Dryland Cereals research on Crop Improvement and Seed Systems, respectively. He also serves as the Theme Leader, Seed Systems in the Global Program on Genetic Gains as well as Cluster of Activities Leader on Science of Scaling Seed Technologies. His scope of operation covers Eastern and Southern Africa Region, West and Central Africa Region, and South Asia Region where the projects he leads are implemented. He spoke to Discover JKUAT on his career journey, why improving livelihoods for smallholder farmers is a mission close to his heart, and much more.
What has been your greatest take home from your experience in Agricultural research?
Research seems to be happening in sort of silos and not interconnected network of expertise coming together and some sort of a value chain that gives a clear impact pathway or clear theory of change. That is something that I think people managing research institutions need to think of so that the discoveries don’t remain on the shelves, and instead move to the end users.
If God rants me the grace to become an institutional head, I would like to see everybody working within that institution in some sort of a clear pipeline of delivery. Whatever you’re doing at discovery for instance, should tell us how it will end up in the farmers’ fields or a consumer’s table. If it doesn’t have such a clear pathway then it would not make sense to fund you, no matter how good the idea. If it doesn’t end up changing people’s lives, it doesn’t make sense.
Do you think there’s enough synergy between academia and the industry on matters research?
Research should be responding to demand. You don’t just sit at the lab and make a decision that this is what I want to research on. You should start with a product in mind, and don’t develop a product then think of the end users. Think of the end users first before developing a product.
What would be your advice to students today?
There are students who think that if you get a first class then you won’t get a job, so they decide not to work so hard, and settle for a second upper or second lower. I don’t think so. I worked hard, I got a first class, and I had options for jobs, scholarships and all. I was spoilt for choice. You cannot be spoilt for choice with a second lower or a pass. Never settle for average if you know you can do better. Aim beyond the sky. ‘The sky is the limit’ phrase is an outdated philosophy. There is life beyond the sky, and it’s only people who are myopic who say sky is the limit. If the sky is your limit, the force of gravity will eventually pull you back down. So shoot beyond the stars, if you land at the stars well and good.
What was the greatest observation you made as an undergraduate student?
What I learnt from the University is that you have to work hard to fail. Students don’t fail because they are not bright. You have to really struggle to fail. Excelling on the other hand is very easy.
In this regard, students should not focus so much on what we used to call ‘unit nine’ back in our days. That’s the unit that is not on record. The countless trips to ladies’ hostels…that constitutes unit nine for the male students, and vice versa for the ladies. The endless partying, drinking and ‘enjoying life’.
How has JKUAT shaped your professional journey?
The University gave me the foundation, the pillars that I’ve been using to build the walls, the roof and everything that pertains to my career. It enabled me to have the basic principles of Genetics, Plant breeding, Horticulture and so much more. Through my academic and professional journey, I was using my knowledge from JKUAT through my postgraduate studies, PhD, Post Doc, and even the first job.
What drives you to work every single day?
My mission, which is to improve the livelihoods for smallholder farmers. At the end of the day, this is what all the initiatives and research efforts we make at ICRISAT are geared at. We believe all people have a right to nutritious food and a better livelihood. There cannot be food security without nutrition security, and not just that. Availability of nutritious food, accessibility to it, affordability of it. Because a malnourished society is an ailing society.
What is your life philosophy?
The sky is NOT the limit. If you’re saying the sky is the limit, you’re only seeing the creatures, but we must always remember there’s a creator beyond the sky. I believe that I can do what I can as a human being, but I can do all things through God who gives me strength.
Ultimately, what do you hope to accomplish in your work?
I always want to leave zero defects in what I do, so I dedicate a lot of time to ensuring that happens. Beyond this, I would like to have a position that enables me to control an entire product chain.
What do you consider your God-given purpose?
Blessed to bless is my God-given purpose. Simple as that. I believe I’m a conduit, a channel of God’s blessings to others.
Your advice to the young generation?
The young generation needs to be more proactive and not simply wait and expect to get things on a silver platter. Success is a progress, and the unfortunate reality is that majority of the young people want to get to the destination of success without actually travelling there.