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Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture #3 – Stephen Kibet

Our “Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture” series of interviews, which puts a face to the youth in agricultural research for development (ARD), hears their voices and obtains an insight into their roles, perspectives, experiences and aspirations, continues with Stephen Kibet, a young Kenyan man with a passion for helping his community. This is the first of our interviews under the “Mapping for the future: Youth and spatial information for ARD” chapter. Click here to find out more about the series.

A Passion of the Heart

Growing up in rural Kenya, Stephen Kibet witnessed first-hand the effects of soil erosion on the land surrounding his home village of Iten. Deep trenches mar the once picturesque landscape and have rendered valuable farming land useless. Each year, wind and rain ravage the land further, causing nutrient-rich top soil to be swept down the region’s steep slopes, straight into the Keiro River.

Soil erosion and landslides not only lead to the destruction of property and a decrease in agriculture production, they also claim lives.

“Late last year, five people lost their lives in landslides in the Kerio Valley,” explains Stephen.  “This led to the evacuation of people in lowland areas to the higher areas of Iten. Soil erosion also causes heavy boulders to roll down the slopes, rendering some roads dangerous and/or impassable, especially during heavy rain. The Kerio River is also experiencing reduced water levels due to the landslides, which in turn greatly affects the livelihoods and wildlife that depend on it as a source of water. According to an article on the causes and consequences of soil erosion in Kenya, nature washes away some 9.3 billion tons of soil a year. But when man interferes, the rate goes up to around 24 billion tons a year. Kenya’s soil erosion problems stem from its semi-arid climate (in the interior), the fuel wood crisis and poor land management and agricultural practices.”

Soil erosion in Kenya

It was against such a backdrop that Stephen grew up, making him determined to devote his life to helping his community contain soil erosion. The same sort of determination that he applies to most aspects of his life also ensured him a place at Kenya’s Moi University. Presently, he is the only person from his village pursuing tertiary education.

“Although families in my district have begun investing in their children’s education, the number of students who join institutions of higher learning is still very low compared to other districts,” he says. “Most students finish their studies in form four and then venture into agricultural farming, with a small number engaging in trading activities.”

When Stephen began studying geography at university, he was exposed to Geographical Information Services (GIS) for the first time, enabling him to explore further his idea of applying his knowledge to help his community.

“At last, I was given some insights into reducing soil erosion in my district. And ever since then, my work with GIS has become a passion in my heart,” says this young man. “With my zeal for this field, I began looking at ways of revising a soil erosion model that I came across during a university course on Hydrology and Watershed Management. Such models can provide us with a sophisticated tool for the selection of appropriate soil conservation practices.”

AAGW as a catalyst

Shortly thereafter, Stephen and his model (The Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation –RUSLE) received the sort of exposure that many of his peers can only dream of.

As he recalls: “Fortune comes to one’s life at a specific time and at a specific place. It came to me when I attended the Africa Agricultural GIS Week (AAGW) 2010, a conference that brings GIS experts, proponents and students together to look at ways of improving agriculture through the use of location specific information. The event, which took place last June in Nairobi, Kenya, adopted a Share Fair format that called for presenters to showcase their GIS projects, ideas and experiences, and I saw this as an opportunity to introduce my RUSLE model.

“Being a first time presenter at an international event, I initially felt inadequate and uneasy. However, the warm welcome and lively interactions I received from the organizers and other participants soon put me at ease. Then my spirits were lifted even higher when others began taking an interest in my idea.”

Response to the RUSLE model

After his presentation, Stephen received a prize from ICT-KM Program Leader Enrica Porcari for being the best first-time presenter, which also helped motivate other geospatial scholars present.

“I have been receiving messages from people from different backgrounds complimenting the idea and wanting to know how the model can be used to predict soil erosion on their land,” says Stephen. “Others have shared ideas on how to improve the model and use it to predict soil loss in a wider area, and yet others want to know more about how the model works.

“Some of my classmates have also been inspired to major in GIS after discovering its usefulness as a decision-making tool. Most of them have developed GIS-related projects aimed at resolving agricultural problems. The award has also motivated me to become a GIS analyst in the field of agriculture. My classmates now know all about AGCommons and the other organizations involved in AAGW 2010.

The road ahead

Stephen hopes to be able to use the RUSLE model to compute soil erosion in his district and share the results at the next AAGW. He would like to have been able to carry out research using his model as a fourth year university project, but financial constraints preclude this project from happening. Instead, he has opted to map the passion fruit woodiness virus in the same area (Kamariny Division) in the Rift Valley Province.

“Given a chance, I would also like to carry out research by computing the amount of soil deposited in the Keiro River,” says Stephen. “Presently, there are no available statistics on this, even though it is one of the issues that have been of great concern to me and my community.”

Even when Stephen returns home during breaks from his university, he finds it difficult to sit still. Instead, he has initiated a program that encourages primary and secondary school students in his village to study hard so they can help their families and their community in the future.  He also shares ideas and insights with them so they know what university can offer them.

I suspect we haven’t heard the last of Stephen Kibet.

For now watch Stanley Wood, Coordinator of the CGIAR Consortium on Spatial information, introduce Stephen who talks about his work during the AAGW10