The room looks the same, pristine as it has always been, with a flair of importance and significance that it has held over the years. From the window behind the desk, the unadulterated breath of fresh air seeps in from the several JKUAT farms and green houses that lay behind. Save for the main desk and the shelves that remain intact, everything else is in a box, well packed and ready for take off. A box of books here, another one of journals there, collection of trophies and awards…the spoils of a dedicated public service. And now, her very last day in office as the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research, Production and Extension Division). It’s the end of an era. She ushers us in with her signature warmth and energy, and I make a remark regarding the packed boxes as we dispense with the pleasantries. “Ten years is a long time you know, it’s a long time to be in an office. Everyone is given ten years, even presidents. After ten years if you haven’t delivered then there’s not much you can do after…”, she quips.
Prof. Esther Murugi Kahangi got to the helm of RPE in the year 2007, a time when the division had barely made its mark in the University. Over the span of ten years, she has made tectonic milestones in the division, steering research and innovation efforts across different areas and departments. Her stint in the University did not however begin at the division. Matter of fact, it dates back to the very foundation of the University. I sat down with her to listen as she reminisced about more than 30 years of public service, mostly served in JKUAT. We talked research, management and personal life. She kicks off our new segment of ‘JKUAT Profiles’ where we’ll be featuring various personalities in the University who have made significant impact in the University and the society in their various capacities.
After all these years, would you say it has been fulfilling?
It has been very fulfilling to say the least. I came here when the University had just been founded, as a College then. They had started a Department of Horticulture and there was no one to head it, and that is where I came in. Horticulture is a very specialized field, unlike most other Agricultural disciplines. I had studied B.Sc Horticulture in Germany, and at that time I was the only one with that Degree in the country. So I got appointed to head the Department and began working on formulating the curriculum and recruiting staff. That was basically the start, and so far I have sailed up to this position it has been beyond fulfilling because together with the teams I have been privileged to work with, we’ve left a trail of positive impact.
Would you say you have accomplished your purpose this far?
I believe I have done a good job, but I have not entirely accomplished my God-given purpose on Earth. As you know I am not leaving the University yet. I will be rejoining the Faculty of Agriculture, and one of the things I will be embarking on is writing books in my field of specialization. That is one of the things I have not been able to do. Also being a researcher, research never ends. Generally I don’t think you can ever accomplish and finish your mission on this Earth. So long as you’re alive, strong and with the right mental attitude, there is no end. You only change assignments.
What will you miss the most about being DVC RPE?
That would be working with the researchers. The honor of guiding them, motivating them and just the thrill of seeing some very bright ideas come to fruition.
What do you consider your proudest accomplishment so far in your service in the University?
The very fact that I developed the technology behind the tissue culture banana protocols. Considering I was addressing a very serious problem that was facing farmers in this country and I was able to provide a sustainable solution is a fete I don’t take lightly. That solution has revolutionized the banana growing industry in this country. You know the hope and the core mandate of any researcher should be to provide tangible solutions to a problem in the society, and through this technology I managed to improve livelihoods. There is no need of being a scholar if you cannot solve a problem.
This far you’ve come, what has been your drive?
I think it’s my inward conviction of what research and innovation can do for our country. I foresaw from the very beginning that universities could be problem solvers to major challenges in the society, especially through research and technology. I can also say I have an inner drive to be an achiever, I am self-motivated, with zero tolerance to mediocrity. Kind of a perfectionist if you may say, which also becomes a problem because the world is not perfect, but generally it’s the inner drive to achieve what I want.
Did you manage to strike a balance between work and social life?
I think that’s the one bit I have quite done poorly. I am a widow, with just one son so I can’t say the family was too big to handle. I always strived to make time for that. I have never missed a family gathering or meeting with extended family. I also did, and still do take time off, go jogging and going to the gym. What has suffered the most is my social life. I have not been able to maintain my social connections, and you know that is a very important side of somebody’s life. Because when all is said and done, it’s your social set ups that sustains you.
Any plans to work on that now that your responsibilities have become lighter?
I most definitely will, especially now that I will be doing things at my own pace. I will not be cancelling the social meetings used to cancel anymore.
What advice would you give in regard to this?
Never neglect your social set ups no matter what. It has been established beyond any reasonable doubt that the social set ups are important more than anything else, even for your health, your joy and happiness too. If you asked anyone with a terminal illness or someone about to die what they would do differently if given time, the response would be the same; spend less time at work and more time with my family and friends. So my advice is that you should always create time for social set ups. Otherwise you risk losing everything.
If you were to advice a 24 year old you, what would you tell her?
I would tell her to aim at being herself, exercise her success intelligence by concentrating on her strengths, building on them and not allowing mediocrity to come into her life. Aim at being her best in all she does and to always remain focused, and most of all aim at not only serving self but to serve mankind.
If you were stranded in a deserted island, what three things would you need with you?
I would want my Bible with me, because it’s the word of God and it would comfort me and give me direction. I would also love to have clean drinking water to keep me going. And let me see, the third thing, that would be fire, to light so that hopefully someone can see the smoke and come save me.
What characteristics do you admire most in people?
Honesty, fairness, justice and non-mediocres. I am very allergic to mediocrity.
What characteristic do you admire most about yourself?
Everything. But especially my inner drive to always keep going. By nature I am a very joyful and I have a lot of inner peace which drives me, and that’s a gift from God.
Briefly comment on the future of women input in matters innovation and technology.
Speaking on JKUAT specifically, I have to say the trend has been on the upsurge, especially the involvement of ladies in research, innovation and technology. We’ve seen this in the Tech Expo and other venture, and I hope it will get to that critical mass of girls.
What do you hope for the annual JKUAT Tech Expo even as you exit the RPE Division?
I have a lot of hope for Tech Expo, and if there’s one thing I’m going to emphasize to my successor is not to neglect the Tech Expo. You know you people are the digital generation, and I foresee so many innovations and new ideas. I hope the University can establish an incubation centre where students can learn, get nurtured and improve their innovations as well as business trainings. I believe that should be the next move.
What’s the one talent you wish you had?
That would be playing a musical instrument, especially the piano. I greatly admire those who can play a musical instrument.
A general advice to the students?
Even as you continue with your studies, strive to develop that creativity and innovativeness. Everyone has a potential to strike an innovation that will change their life and that will solve a major problem in this world.
Who has been your greatest mentor in life?
My father was my greatest mentor. His mentorship saw me through childhood, adolescence and adulthood, and that has been enough to steer me to where I am today. I also admire Nobel prize winners a lot. Whenever I hear someone has won, I read about what they have done, and why they have won.
Any final sentiments to the University community?
I wish you people, especially the young people in this University all the very best and God’s blessings, and would like to just urge you to really steer and cultivate early enough a culture of leadership, a culture of hard work, commitment to duty and to serving the Nation. With that, I have no doubt JKUAT will grow to greater heights. For the professors and other older generations, I urge you to be good mentors and good examples to the younger generation so that we develop a culture of progressiveness and continuity.