‘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


A Dam a Day Since Jefferson

There are a lot of dams in the United States. If we’re talking about dams over 3ft high, the number is in the tens of thousands – imagine a dam built everyday since Jefferson was president. If we’re talking about large dams (>50ft/15m), the US has over 9,000, more than any other country except China (which has over 20,000). How many of those dams were worth the cost? How many of them still are?

The 2014 documentary, DamNation, offers insight into these questions (focusing on the US). In just over an hour and a half, the film takes you on an exploration of the history of dam building in the US and then shows how awareness of the effects of dams and the importance of healthy river ecosystems is increasing.

Diverse interests across the country are coming together to remove obsolete dams and find more cost-effective options to meet power, shipping, irrigation and other needs, while helping to restore rivers, preserve tribal customs, recover fish stocks, revitalize waterfronts, improve recreational opportunities and render watersheds more resilient to climate change. – DamNation official website

The film tackles a hotly contested issue and provides insight from a variety of perspectives, all with welcome artistry. Featuring intrepid activists that use climbing gear, paint, and the cover of darkness to boldly echo John Muir’s call to “free the rivers,” it’s a documentary that manages to be uplifting while delivering a strong environmental message. Watch it to learn about dams, why we build them and how they impact the rivers they interrupt. Or, if you think you know enough about dams already, just watch it for the impressive footage. DamNation is available through a variety of avenues, try Vimeo on Demand or check the official website for more options.

The Elwha River is featured in the documentary as an example of successful, large-scale dam removal. Two years following the film, a National Geographic article and accompanying short video revisited the Elwha for an update:

River Revives After Largest Dam Removal in U.S. History

Whether you watch DamNation or not, I’d recommend clicking the linked title above to read the Nat Geo article and learn a bit about the revival of the Elwha River and its nearshore environment.

John Snow & What He Did Know

Standing outside the John Snow pub in Soho on a Saturday afternoon, I heard two separate references to the broody Game of Thrones character in the space of 5 minutes. But this pub isn’t named for the fictional icon who was famously teased “you know nothing, Jon Snow.” Instead, it commemorates a man who is celebrated for what he did know, for what he discovered. In his lifetime [1813 – 1858], the pub’s namesake was a highly-regarded anesthesiologist, physician to the  Queen herself. Beyond his qualifications as a physician, Snow is known as ‘the father of epidemiology’ because he was creative, imaginative and observant enough to realize that death-delivering cholera is borne, not by air, but by water.


John Snow vilified the Broad Street water pump when he called for its handle to be removed on the assertion that it was spreading cholera. This was 1854, before we knew that cholera was caused by a waterborne bacterium, the infamous Vibrio cholerae. This was before the first images of bacteria were captured, before we knew that bacteria thrive almost everywhere on Earth. This was before anybody knew anything about bacteria at all. In Snow’s time, it was widely believed that cholera and many other diseases were transmitted by foul air. This ‘miasma theory’ was used to justify much of public health decision-making in Europe, India and China until the late 19th century. So if nobody knew that bacteria existed, how did Snow realise, seemingly against common sense, that the pump was a villain? He invented a new investigative approach that kick-started the medical field of epidemiology, he created a new kind of map that geographers still toast today, and he had help from a local priest named Henry Whitehead.

If you go looking for the Broad Street pump you will find a dirty pink commemorative kerbstone. Barely distinguishable from the surrounding grey, it’s an easily missed hat-tip to the Broad Street villain of old. I stood on that pink granite trying to think myself back in time, to imagine what that place was like when John Snow was walking around. How did I end up there, looking up at the apartment windows imagining 19th century families dying of cholera inside? I thank Steven Johnson and his book, The Ghost Map [2006]for that.

the ghost map

With affectionately described characters, welcome illustrations and plentiful Dickens quotations, The Ghost Map delivers an entertaining account of ground-breaking research. Johnson recounts the investigations of John Snow and Henry Whitehead, illuminating the key attributes that enabled their work – tenacity, fearlessness, humility and commitment to truth uncompromised by self-interest. Johnson shows how the success of their investigations depended on giving rational observations precedence over assumption and prejudice. Snow and Whitehead were willing “to challenge orthodoxy.” They recognized “aberrations, deviations from the norm” as opportunities for understanding and relied on data to examine patterns rather than adopting the common belief in a “moral component to illness.” Both Snow and Whitehead were local to the Broad Street area and they relied heavily on intimate knowledge of the neighbourhood and its occupants.

Johnson shows how a misleading paradigm of thought (miasma theory) was overcome by working across different disciplines and at various scales. In a way, Snow and Whitehead were able to see something invisible – they were able to show that something in the water was causing cholera before they knew what it was. They pointed a finger at the enemy without ever seeing it. Even Sherlock Holmes would applaud.

No doubt, Snow’s work was brilliant: it helped build a foundation for the germ theory of disease and birthed a whole new ‘-ology’. But was it responsible for the great clean-up of London, the so-called sanitary revolution? In discussing sanitary reform, The Ghost Map focuses almost exclusively on scientific understanding and gives scant consideration to critical aspects like political will, governance, or corruption. Johnson writes that “after years of bureaucratic waffling, the Great Stink finally motivated the authorities to deal with…the contamination of the Thames”. With little more said on the matter, the book neglects the political, economic and societal forces that were responsible, far more than ignorance or the miasma theory, for the sanitary conditions in 19th century London.

The Ghost Map presents the miasma theory as a significant hindrance to improving water infrastructure in London. However, perhaps missing the contradiction, it also acknowledges that Snow’s waterborne theory of cholera was only widely accepted after an elaborate, world-renowned sewerage system was built in London. Long before science provided an explanation, “societies throughout time were cognizant of the linkage between water and illness”[Solomon 2010, 252]. That was reason enough for Scotland and northern British industrial towns to construct extensive waterworks by 1850 to combat shortages and provide cleaner water. Even in London, a filtration system was introduced for Chelsea in 1828. Belief in miasma and in the importance of clean water were not mutually exclusive.

After the first cholera outbreak in England, a commentator in a medical journal stated that ‘there was never a real panic’ because it was quickly realised that the great majority of cholera victims were among ‘the poorest of the poor’ [Inglis 1971, 272]. So the sanitary crisis was a reflection of social inequality, it was also “an early manifestation of an inherent dilemma in the industrial market economy”: the lack of an internal mechanism to ensure environmental sustainability [Solomon 2010, 260]. Furthermore, there was ongoing debate over the rightful role of London’s government as the administrative class and industrial magnates had risen to prominence, heralding a shift from self-serving aristocratic ideals towards Victorian ideals of “social conscience and civic pride” [Plumb 1963, 84-87]. By not including such context, The Ghost Map overstates the importance of miasma theory and the Broad Street case.

Nevertheless, it tells an interesting and important story. It’s a memorable read that engages the reader from start to finish and I very much enjoyed it. Don’t turn to it to understand the sanitary revolution, it provides an incomplete story in that regard. Turn to it for a story of human ingenuity. I recommend it for anyone who likes history, is interested in water quality and disease, thinks about scientific progress, or simply wants to read a well-told story about an unusual man with an unchained mind.

Inglis, B. (1971). Poverty and the Industrial Revolution, London: Hodder and Stoughton Limited

Plumb, J. H. (1963). England in the Eighteenth Century, London: Penguin Group

Solomon, S. (2010) Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, New York: HarperCollins Publishers.