Chronicles of an Accomplished Food Scientist; Dr. Daniel Ndaka Sila

Have you ever eaten githeri? Are you a big fan? Back where I hail from we call it ‘nyoyo’, one hell of a special delicacy, especially when it’s prepared by my mum, Mama Tobby. But that’s beside the point. Have you ever thought it possible to prepare githeri in ten minutes? Yes, ten minutes. Well, one young boy, several years ago, back in a tiny village in Machakos got so tired of being tasked by his mother to boil githeri for over four hours, only to spend less than ten minutes in eating it. So years later, he devised a way of equalizing the ratio; ten minutes cooking and ten minutes eating. No longer a boy now but a PhD holder in Bioscience Engineering, Dr. Daniel Ndaka Sila engineered a research into the genetic composition of various legumes to manipulate the time they take to cook. This was alongside other noble objectives of addressing the challenge of malnutrition and food deficiency in Africa.

His research dubbed  VLIR-UOS ‘The hard-to-cook defect in common beans: towards food security and sustainability in sub-Saharan Africa’  spanned from October 2011 and came to fruition in September 2015. But this is just a tip of the iceberg as far as the efforts by Dr. Sila goes in the field of Food Science and Technology go. And by far it is not the sole subject of this article. His other key areas of study and research have included ‘The texture of fruits and vegetables and the underlying biochemical processes during high pressure and thermal processing.’

Joining JKUAT in 1994, Dr. Daniel Sila enrolled for a Bachelors Degree in Food Science and Post-Harvest Technology, which he completed in 1997. He would later enroll for a Masters Degree in Post-Harvest and Food Preservation Engineering and subsequently a PhD in Bioscience Engineering at the KU Leuven University in Belgium. Fast-forward to present time. Dr. Sila has been a lecturer at JKUAT’s Food Science and Technology Department (FST) in the Faculty of Agriculture for a duration spanning over eight years. He is currently the Chairperson, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics (DARE).

After several attempts to weave through his perennially tight schedule, I finally sat down with Dr. Sila to gain further insight into the roles he has played and continue to play in DARE, FST and the Faculty of Agriculture as a whole besides his various research works.

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Dr. Sila at the TICAD VI Pre-Event on Higher Education held in JKUAT on 22nd July. He was the MC for the event.

What can you point out as some significant milestones in your tenure as the Chair, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics?

I would say for the last four years there has been a tremendous change in the Department. When I was appointed Chairman I was the only employee of the department and we had about 140 students. Currently that has transformed with the department having over 10 permanent employees as well as other office holders and the Department is currently the biggest in the Faculty in terms of numbers, with over 450 undergraduate students. We’ve actually had to control the numbers.

Among the principal mandates of the University as a whole and the Faculty of Agriculture in particular is to link the students with the industry and ensure they are hands-on to serve in the society. How would you say you’ve been part of making this a reality?

To a greater extent DARE and the entire JKUAT’s   Faculty of Agriculture practices what it promises. Guided by our core mission, which is teaching, training and research, we’ve been able to engage all our students throughout their cycle of learning, from the class work, to student internships and attachments. Apart from helping them find placements for attachments, our Department is very instrumental in Agri-business incubation. Here for instance I run the Sorghum Agri-business incubator, where we pick on merit a few students who have completed their studies to come and get further training and to nurture their Agri-business ventures. We’ve been able to have a number of beneficiaries from the same.

What does the Sorghum Agri-business Incubation exactly entail?

The Sorghum Agri-Business Incubator is one of the six agri-business incubator networks in Africa. We are value chain oriented and we run business in four main core areas; sorghum as food, sorghum as feed, sorghum as fuel and sorghum as fibre, hence the term ‘Sorghum 4F’. So what we do is look at start-up companies, ideas from students, SMEs and we support, mentor them and help in financing. So if you have a very good concept or idea which can be translated into fundable business we help you to navigate through and help you get a little bit of funding to move forward.

Would you say these initiatives have borne any fruits so far in terms of making the students all-round and invaluable to the industry?

Over the last three months we’ve had interest from different industry players who have expressed need to work with our students in the areas of Agri-business. I’m happy to announce that currently the person who currently leads Agri-business network at Barclays Bank is our student. There’s also Musoni Microfinance, which after my engagement with them, came and subjected an aptitude test to 65 students from our Department. Out of that they absorbed 40 into their workforce. These are students who just graduated the other day and now they are employed. Apart from that, the people who handle the call centres at Shamba Shape Up are also our students, around four of them.

To what would you credit the significant success of the Department and the Faculty of Agriculture when it comes to linking the students with the industry?

The most important thing with the industry is that you must be able to produce students who are hands-on and that is at the epicenter of our objectives. This has seen even further interest from several other key industry players. Another one that comes to mind is TechnoServe, which has just engaged 10 students from DARE to help them in development of bankable business plans. Basically I can say that the industry has their needs, universities have their interests, so the task is how we can work together to solve the problems of the industry by engaging and working together with our students. Essentially the role of any university is to solve the problems of the community and if we are able to have students or graduates who can respond to the needs of the industry and the community then we are good to go.

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Dr. Sila poses next to a baking system, one of the Food Science and Technology facilities at the Faculty of Agriculture.

Despite the mutual need for co-existence between industry and academia, enough has not been done in the country to optimize the gains especially in matters Agriculture. What in your professional opinion is the challenge and the way out?

I think there has been a gap between the two entities mainly caused by the fact that we’ve been operating as silos, where the industry thinks they don’t need academia and the academia thinks they don’t need the industry. This becomes a challenge, especially when students go out and it downs on them that their curriculum was drafted in such a manner that it doesn’t listen to the industry or the needs of the community. It is therefore very crucial that both the academia and the industry work closely together. The industry must also listen and rely on learning institutions to solve their problems.

Apart from industry linkages, are there instances the Agricultural Resource Economics Department has reached out to communities with an aim of providing practical solutions in areas pertaining Agriculture and food security?

Matter of fact yes, we’ve had quite a number with the immediate case in point being Makueni County, with which the University just signed an MoU the other day. This is towards developing a business plan for them to install a fruits and vegetables processing plant. Another good thing is that our students will be involved as interns in their various agri-business platforms in various areas relating to Agriculture, Engineering and Entrepreneurship. This is therefore a case in point where we are taking front seats when it comes to solving the problems facing our people and there are many more engagements coming.

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