‘Water Chose Me’: A Career Conversation with Professor Bancy Mati

As of now, Professor Bancy Mbura Mati is the only woman in Kenya who doubles as a full professor and registered professional engineer. I met her earlier this year at a groundwater risk management workshop we both attended on the south coast of Kenya. In hearing about her career, I felt that the work she does is something for myself and others to aspire to. I expressed interest in her career path and she graciously agreed to answer my questions. I hope you find her responses as insightful and interesting as I did.

A brief introduction:

Prof. Mati’s academic career has spanned decades. She started as an assistant lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in 1985 and attained full professorship in 2010. A year later she became the founder and director of the university’s Water Research and Resource Center. Prior to professorship, she completed a PhD at the University of Cranfield (UK) in soil erosion modelling using geographic information systems. Before that, she attained an MSc in Land and Water Management and a BSc in Agricultural Engineering from the University of Nairobi.

She has always pursued her engineering profession alongside her academic career and is currently a board member of the Engineers Board of Kenya, serving as chairperson of both the Agricultural and Mechanical Engineering Panels. She is also a member of the Advisory Committee of the United Nations University Institute for Integrated Management of Material Fluxes and Resources (UNU-FLORES) and in the Steering Committee of the Kenya Water Industry Association (KWIA). She has consulted on more than thirty water projects for international organizations and government institutions and uses her engineering training extensively in her consultancy work. She says her consulting projects serve as sources of knowledge for her research and teaching.

Beginnings: When did you first become aware of water resource issues?

I was born in the village of Kanyuambora, Mbeere North, Embu County of Kenya. Mbeere is dry. I grew up in a rural setting at a time girls and women fetched water from the river. There was no tap water. I started fetching water from the river at age nine. It was a way of life and although I had been to Nairobi twice (at age 5 and 6), and had seen tap water, even used showers, village life was a way of life and that was that. Looking back, I think I had a happy childhood. What would be a ‘problem’ today was then a way of life, and we took it as such. Me and my siblings loved to share jokes and to laugh.

Motivations: Why did you choose to work on water and what motivates you to continue?

Growing up, I did not know a career in water existed. I had few expectations at the time, only aspiring to be a teacher or nurse, as those were the most successful persons/careers I knew.

I think water chose me. I cannot name a date when I said from now on, I will work on water. My first job as a young graduate was with the Ministry of Agriculture, where I was in charge of technical evaluation of soil and water conservation. In those days (1980s) we/the government focused attention on reducing “soil loss”, hence interventions did not exactly target water management.

I had been to Israel in 1993 on a one-month training course on hydrometeorology. That course opened my eyes to very well-organized national & individual management of water. We toured the whole country and visited the Mekorot Water company, including the pumping houses at the Sea of Galilee. I’d say that was the training that shaped my interest in water management.

In 1999, I did a consultancy for UNDP evaluating farmer innovations in water management in East Africa. This assignment opened my eyes to the challenges and also local solutions to water management in dry areas, and with it my strong interest in water harvesting.

What motivates me is the fact that we could do so much with just the right type of knowledge application. Knowledge is not lacking, application is.

Career path: What were the most important jobs/roles that have defined your career?

My career path is like a rope, with two inter-twining threads. On the one hand, I have spent over 30 years at university: teaching, researching and supervising students on water related topics. Yet I feel my calling is to do something that brings change, real tangible projects that improve livelihoods of ordinary people, using whatever gifts I have. Hence, I do get restless with academic life and spend my most precious moments working ‘outside that box’. That, I think, is my calling.

Some career highlights that Prof. Mati identified besides her professorship were:

  • Acting as chairperson of the Kenya Rainwater Association (2000-2002).
  • Working with International Water Management Institute (2003-2005) in enhancing knowledge on agricultural water in the Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) region.
  • Managing the Improved Management of Agricultural Water in ESA Programme (2005-2010) when she worked to promote agricultural water management among IFAD-funded programmes and policy makers (IFAD = International Fund for Agricultural Development).
  • Introducing SRI (System of Rice Intensification) in 2009, through which over 10,000 farmers have changed how they grow rice, saving water and increasing yields.
  • Founding the Water Research and Resource Center at JKUAT in 2011 and growing it from an idea to a center that is now well recognized and handling multiple projects.

Influencers: Who have been the most influential people for you in your career?

There are people I have admired who did not even know me. I can name two, both Kenyans (unfortunately both are deceased). They are Prof. Ali Mazrui and Prof. Wangari Maathai. I particularly admired how Prof. Maathai reinvented herself and became a respected champion of trees and forests (initially she was a vet). Both were academics, yet champions of ideas, and they shaped opinions at international levels in their chosen fields. If I achieve ten percent of what they achieved in shaping opinions & eliciting action, I will consider myself as having succeeded. I am still working at it.

Communication: How do you share your work with policy makers and the general public?

Four key strategies that Prof. Mati uses to communicate her work are:

  1. Attending workshops (she has been invited as a key-note speaker in various forums on water in Kenya and internationally).
  2. Engaging through consultancy and research as well as participating in various stakeholder forums.
  3. Having her work featured in the media (newspapers and TV).
  4. One-on-one meetings with policy makers wherever possible.

Challenges: What has been most challenging in your career and how do you manage it?

My biggest challenge has been to get a hearing, from which action would follow, from those who make decisions on behalf of the poor. And this is not just government, it includes donors/funders who come with mindsets of what they want their money to achieve. While of course there are many successful water initiatives in Kenya/Africa, there are many opportunities missed, and quite a number of avoidable mistakes.

I have engaged decision makers without fear in the various forums I find myself in. I have written technical manuals & policy documents. I have implemented on-the ground projects. I have taught generations of students. I have done what I could.

Current interest: What ideas / type of work are you focusing on at the moment?

Some of the key focus areas that Prof. Mati identified are:

  1. Reducing water wastage at household level in urban areas (she just completed a feasibility study for Nairobi).
  2. Promoting water harvesting at household level for productive/economic use in rural areas (she is involved in two ongoing projects in Kiambu & Kajiado Counties).
  3. Promoting SRI (System of Rice Intensification) for growers to save water in rice paddies and increases yields.
  4. Contributing to the Kenya Agricultural Sector Growth and Transformation Strategy 2017-2030.

Final words on a career in water: Do you have a message for young people in Kenya and elsewhere who are considering a career in water resource science, engineering or policy?

A career in water is interesting. It cuts across engineering, biological, chemical, socio-sciences and even political & journalistic fronts. Africa and Kenya in particular has a lot of work waiting to be done to make water available to all, in quantities and qualities they desire (for drinking, agriculture, industry etc.). Then emerging issues like climate change, the Sustainable Development Goals, and new technologies such as unconventional water sources, makes this field all the more exciting. The youth are more innovative. We need them on board.

Note: the photo of Prof. Mati was taken by Nancy Gladstone in 2017