Growing up at Ematsuli, in the North of Bunyore, Emuhaya constituency, in the great County 038 of Vihiga, Prof. Mary Abukutsa’s parents realized she was allergic to animal proteins, right at weaning. Unbeknownst to them at the time, this would set precedence to the destination of her professional voyage, and their dream of her pursuing Medicine would remain just that, a dream. She opted for the path less travelled.
After relentless attempts by the mother, at ‘gun-point’ to make her take meat, eggs and other animal proteins, she gave up, went to the farm to look for the only thing her daughter’s taste buds seemed to relate with, vegetables. But the vegetables always played hard to get, often in short supply and scarce, and right there, the first foundational stone was established. Prof. Abukutsa made a decision to pursue Agriculture, and contribute to the promotion of consumption of indigenous vegetables. Her mantra? Turn your challenges into opportunity. And turn them she did.
Fast-forward to decades later, Prof. Abukutsa is an internationally recognized scholar, scientist, educator, mentor, leader and a prolific researcher. Her accomplishments, which she’s too modest about, and which are so many we can’t have them all here, include The Edinburgh Medal in 2014 for her work in contributing to sustainable solutions to obesity and malnutrition in Africa, International Scientist of the Year (2002), Order of the Burning Spear (EBS), an African Union award for her work, and several other recognition. Her basket of accolades simply never tires to collect. She has been a Professor of Horticulture in the University for over ten years, and now serves as the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research, Production and Extension (RPE). We met to talk about her vision for the Division, her career journey, family, and of course vegetables. We had to talk about vegetables.
Your job seems very demanding. We could barely find time for this chat…
This job is challenging and demanding, but I like it because I’m passionate about research. I’ve been a researcher for a long time, and having this position means that I know where the shoe pinches, which enables me to address various challenges researchers face in the University.
In all the decades of your research work, what has been your proudest accomplishment?
Majority of my research has been on indigenous vegetables, which is an area that had been neglected for a very long time. This made it difficult to go through with a lot of proposals or studies, and I think successfully changing mindsets in that regard, both the funding bodies and even consumers is something I’m proud of.
Do you think you’ve done enough in that tract?
We have done a lot, but we’re not there yet. I would like to see these vegetables constantly in the menus of our hotels and restaurants.
What’s your biggest dream for the RPE Division?
All said and done, I would like to see this Division contributing more actively to resource mobilization for the University in several ways. When we come up with innovations and technologies, we need to have them patented and commercialized so that there’s money coming to the University. Capitation and finances are currently the biggest challenges facing public universities, so I would like to see this Division actively contributing to solving that.
What measures have been put in place to realize this?
Our ultimate goal is to move these innovations from the valley of death to the mountain of life. To this end we’ve initiated a program funded by the Japanese government, through the Directorate of Innovation and Production to advance these innovations towards commercialization.
If in your tenure at the Division you were only able to accomplish one thing, what would you wish that to be?
That would be ensuring that researchers are empowered. As at now I don’t think that has happened yet, at least not completely. From putting up structures to ensure their work is moved to commercialization, to seeing to it that they are recognized and adequately rewarded for their contribution to knowledge creation and to the University resources. At the end of the day, no researcher wants to toil then remain poor.
From all your years of research work, what has been your biggest take home?
For research you have to be dedicated and passionate, it’s not something you can undertake casually. You have to choose your area and put your heart in it. You have to commit and take time in every stage of your research, right from writing the proposal. Integrity is also very important, since you’ll be entrusted with a lot of money. You need to build a trust, because these funding bodies are in touch with each other so you mess up one and that becomes the end of your research dreams.
Do you still find time to lecture?
Since assuming this office I don’t lecture, but I still supervise students, both undergraduate and postgraduates in their projects and thesis. You see research and students is part of my work and having had a background in research, if I dropped everything to only focus on management then I would get no satisfaction from my work.
What did you do for your birthday last month?
I was just home with my family. We sat together, shared a meal and just had a good time. It was great.
You’ve had decades full of research, lecturing, learning, and now management. How has your family and social life faired in competing with these?
There has been a misconception that if you’re an economically or academically empowered woman you can’t have a family. From my upbringing, I was nurtured with family values and I could see how our parents took care of us. Also having Christian background, I believe there’s a man and a woman, and that each of us has a purpose in life. So being a Professor or being a DVC has never stopped me from being a mother, a wife or a sister.
What has this taught you?
It’s key to value family. Sometimes it’s very difficult but you must compensate and negotiate. You know at your death bed you won’t be asking for your boss, or for an illustration of how many hours you spent in the office. You’ll be asking for family. If anything, success is holistic, and having a healthy family reflects in your productivity at work too.
What did you pray for this morning?
This morning I read Mark 12:30, which says that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and all your strength. I prayed that He may enable me to love Him more and that everything I do reflects that.
What do you consider your purpose, and how have you faired in accomplishing it?
My God-given purpose is serving people and touching lives to the glory and honor of God, whether it’s in the family or at work. I believe I was born to serve, and I think I’ve tried so far. It’s a lifetime purpose, so I can’t say I’m finished yet.
What do you think is the greatest gift you’ve given your children?
That would be integrity and honesty. I have always emphasized to them the importance of honesty, and I have seen that reflected in what they do.
With all this tight schedules and crazy demands, do you ever just put Prof. Abukutsa aside and take Mary out to just have fun?
(Laughs) Of course. Not as often as I might love to, but I normally have ‘me’ time which usually involves just taking a long walk and communing with nature. Sadly with my position, someone will see you walking and they start offering to give you a lift.
What do you wish you had more time for?
I wish I had more time for prayer and family. I always feel like I don’t pray enough, and you know everything depends on prayer. Sometimes my schedules are tight and I’m forced to do a quick prayer, but you know God is my best friend, so I need to spend more time with Him.
What do you find badly lacking when it comes to research, academia and industry linkages?
Trust and proper communication. I think researchers are not well connected to other integral players in the field. You need to link up with people below and above you. If I’m conducting a study for instance, I need to know what the farmers think, what other researchers think, and I need to link up with policy makers and the industry players. Generally, there is less trust, and for us to move forward, that gap must be closed.
What do you think sets JKUAT apart as a trendsetter in Higher Education, Research and Innovation?
First of all, I’ve interacted with many and even worked in some universities across the country. What makes JKUAT unique is our environment and culture of commitment. People don’t have to be pushed to deliver, and that trend has seen a lot of energy focused on research and innovation ventures.
Advice to researchers looking up to you?
Be looking out for opportunities, be proactive, keep writing proposals and spend quality time on them, have professional integrity, and find a way of communicating your research to the end users. Over and above, build the skill of communication, it’s the basis of everything.
Life is about what you are and what you do, so always do the right thing. Be truthful in whatever you do. God will judge you fairly.