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Realizing a Dream – Introducing AGCommons Director Laban MacOpiyo

There are many reasons why we choose to follow a particular career path. Sometimes it is a childhood dream that takes shape watching a movie or reading a favorite book; sometimes a spark is ignited in a school classroom; sometimes it is a desire to make a difference in a community; sometimes we adopt someone else’s dream and make it our own.

Although there are also some people who just drift into a career, without even knowing why, Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) expert Laban MacOpiyo is no such person. Ask him why he decided to get involved in GIS, and he will instantly take you back to his childhood primary school in his native Kenya. For it was there, at the age of 11, that he discovered an aptitude and a passion for geography. More pertinently, even at such a young age, he felt strongly that geography was something he would like to incorporate into a career later in life.

About 10 years later, Laban graduated from the University of Nairobi, Kenya, with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Geography, which was closely followed by his Master of Science in 2000. While he was studying for his Masters, he was introduced to GIS technology by his mentor at that time, Dr. John Corbett from the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (now World Agroforestry Center), and his interest was instantly piqued.

Ask Laban why he applied for the position of AGCommons Director, and he is equally as clear in his response: “Since that early introduction, I’ve been drawn to working with geospatial information and how it can be applied to agriculture,” he says.

Indeed, after obtaining his Masters, Laban applied his knowledge and enthusiasm to a number of projects and organizations. One such endeavour with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) involved trials to control the Maize Stem Borer, a crop pest that devastates maize crops across Sub-Saharan Africa.

“We collected geospatial information on those areas where these pests occurred, so we could control their spread,” Laban explains. “Then we introduced a biological control, a “pest of the pest” that devours the Maize Stem Borers, into the same locations. This was very successful and especially satisfying, because it demonstrated powerfully how scientific innovations can directly benefit farmers and other individuals at the grass roots level.”

This enterprising scientist also worked with GIS to great effect in an area of Mount Kenya. The Laikipia Research Programme (presently CETRAD), a Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) supported initiative, brought home valuable solutions to address the landuse change patterns in the Laikipia plateau and resolve potential conflict situations among highland-lowland water users along the upper Ewaso N’giro river catchment.

Laban explains: “Prior to implementing GIS in that area, there was an ongoing tension over the use of water resources. However, by using GIS as a landuse planning tool in combination with community mobilization, we managed to bring an understanding about equitable and fair use, simply by providing evidence in the form of the geospatial data and maps and sharing the information with the various communities. We were able to show how everyone could benefit from the water by making sure that the agricultural upstream users took no more water than would impede downstream supply, thereby allowing some of the water to flow downstream to the pastoral communities. This resulted in peaceful co-existense in the area.”

Over the last 15 years, Laban has followed his passion and has worked as a GIS expert and project leader with several major initiatives throughout Africa and beyond. Looking ahead, he strongly believes in the power of knowledge to effect change.

“If we want to make changes to the world we live in today,” he says, “we need more knowledge to be able to take a leadership position.”

Actions usually speak louder than words, and Laban won several scholarships, among them the SDC Meritorious Award for Best Student in Geography (which subsequently funded his Master’s programme) and a Ph.D. fellowship award from the USAID to develop a pastoral risk management tool that tracks the mobility of pastoral people in the Greater Horn of Africa.

“Pastoral communities move from place to place in search of pasture for their animals, so what we did was create a model that mimics or imitates the movement of these people,” says Laban, by way of explanation. “Pastoral movement is an adaptive livelihood strategy based on the exploitation of spatially distinct areas of vegetation types and productivity by moving species-specific livestock such as camels, cattle, donkeys, sheep and goats across the landscape. The aim of creating such a model was to track down resources and their exploitation on the ground, and advise pastoralists when it would be prudent to relocate and to where, and also give them advice on when to sell off some of their livestock during periods when forage resources are projected to become insufficient. During the 2002 drought, our warnings were taken up by the Pastoral Livelihoods Program of the USAID, which incorporated them into its contingency planning, something that was a highpoint in our work.

“This sort of work fits in nicely with the objectives of AGCommons. It’s not just about research, with the results of that research sitting on a shelf. It’s about applying the knowledge at the grass roots level.”

Laban was also one of the first recipients of the GLCRSP’s Jim Ellis grant in honour of the late Jim Ellis, who was one the first researchers on Africa pastoralism in East Africa. A  member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society, Laban also became the Vice-President of the Africa Student Association, Texas A&M University chapter, and due to his demonstrated outstanding achievement, he was nominated and subsequently inducted into the Who’s Who in America of 2006.

Shortly after Laban obtained his Ph.D. in Range Ecology and Management from the Texas A&M University in 2005, he was involved in a Livestock Early Warning Project that showcased how geospatial information could benefit pastoral communities on the ground by monitoring and disseminating crucial spatially explicit forage and livestock market information.

“We established a robust livestock market information system that provided accurate and timely information on prices and volume of livestock marketed within select important markets in East Africa,” he says. “Livestock market information was collected and transmitted in real time using text messages sent via mobile phones, and relayed in coded form to a local server, where it was decoded and published on the Web. Location-specific market information from multiple areas was also simultaneously uploaded and published, thereby enabling farmers to make an informed decision about the best markets in which to sell their livestock.”

Unfortunately, as is usually the case, the project came to an end when the funding cycle came to an end. However, Laban feels that a service bureau, such as the one he is spearheading for AGCommons, will be in a position to provide farmers and intermediaries with vital geospatial information on an on-going basis.

Laban talks enthusiastically about the future of the AGCommons Service Bureau.

“Right now the aim is to recruit as much useful information as possible for use by our target groups. The infrastructure is in place and has been tested. The service will be up and running in three months. I see the Bureau as a client base that will grow rapidly. I see new projects being recruited to come on board, gather more data, develop applications as services, and provide more useful information and innovative applications”

Almost three decades after saying goodbye to his primary school, Laban feels he has realized much by taking the reins of this new initiative.

“I’m absolutely excited about the prospects,” he says. “This is like attaining my dream. You grow up wanting to work in a particular line, and in my profession, this is where anyone involved with GIS would want to be.”

You can learn more about AGCommons at the official AGCOmmons site