Dr. Esther Ngumbi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology at Auburn University. She is the recipient of the first to be awarded highly prestigious 2017 Emerging Sustainability Leader award. She is a 2017 Clinton Global University Initiative Mentor for Agriculture. She was a 2015 Food Security Fellow with New voices and has authored over 30 opinion pieces in outlets ranging from scientific American to Time Magazine, CNN, NPR, Reuters, This is Africa and Los Angeles Times. She is a Founder of OYESKA GREENS-a startup company aiming to revolutionize agriculture at the Kenyan Coast and Spring Break Kenya-an organization that is galvanizing young Kenyan university students into public service. She and her parents have established the Dr. Ndumi Faulu Academy in Kenya to ensure that every child has a solid chance at getting a quality education. Esther was a finalist for President Clinton Global Hunger Leadership Award and named by One World Action as one of the 100 powerful women who change the world.
She will be a featured participant at the fifth annual SAIS GWL Conference, Securing a Sustainable Future: Women as Leaders in a Changing Climate at The Spark: Women Entrepreneurs Expo at 11:50am.
How did you first become interested in agriculture and food security?
I was born and raised by parents who were teachers and farmers as well. I remember loving every process of farming. So at the age of seven, I decided to try farming and asked for my own piece of land to farm. The available farm space was along the river and because I was determined, I planted my cabbages. Every day I went to watch their progress, and slowly the cabbages came up, green and vibrant. Then one day the rains came, and kept coming, and the river rose higher and higher, until it flooded out the cabbages and destroyed my small farm patch. I was devastated. Growing up, I also watched many farmers in my community farm on unhealthy soils. Like my family, many farmers in my community battled insects and poor rainfall, and often ended up with no harvest.
How does your research address the impacts of climate change?
The world population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050. At the same time, land, and water for sustainable agriculture are becoming limited resources. Furthermore, climate change and degraded soils and landscapes make feeding the growing population a complex and challenging target. To meet the challenge, the world needs to find sustainable approaches to improve crop productivity under a changing climate. This has been the rationale for my research that is focused on beneficial soil bacteria.
My research evaluated the potential of microbial inoculants to promote growth and enhance tolerance to drought stress in crops such as maize. Beneficial soil bacteria, specifically, plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR) are bacteria that form beneficial mutual relationships with plants. They have been applied to different agricultural crops for the purpose of growth enhancement and other positive effects including enhancing plants ability to tolerate drought stress. Technology based on PGR offers environmentally sustainable approaches to improving crop productivity under a changing climate while restoring degraded soils. Increased productivity results to increased yields that can generate money from sales. At the same time the excess income can be used to invest in the sustainability and productivity of their farms. My research has also shown that some of these bacteria can also help plants to tolerate drought stress. Drought and extreme temperatures are some of the consequences farmers face as a result of the changing climate. Thus my research is providing farmers with tools they need to help them address water challenges and increase yields.
What makes women so vital to environmental science and climate resilience?
Women are the foundations of healthy communities. They are the backbone of the development of rural and national economies. They make up 43% of the agricultural labor force in developing countries. They make up to 80 % of the 500 million smallholder farmers; hence, they are critical to building strong climate resilient agriculture sectors that serve as the foundation for food security, poverty reduction and economic growth. When women are empowered, communities become vibrant and healthy, economies grow, food security is enhanced and the future of our current and future generations is improved.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman in STEM? What do you see as the biggest barriers to women’s leadership in STEM fields?
There are many challenges for women in the STEM field, the first being funds. Funding for science keeps decreasing. As a result, we have had to cut down the research we are doing. To respond to the challenge of lack of funds, I have had to continuously keep trying to write new proposals in the hope that one would be funded. Also, I have tried to reach out to other scientists working on the same research topic in the hope that we can collaborate and combine ideas. Collaboration and combining ideas can strengthen the proposals and these may result to funding.
Another challenge is the lack seasoned female mentors to help hold our hands along the journey. I continue to reach out to seasoned female scientists with the hope that I will find one if not many.
Do you have any advice for young and rising leaders?
Yes. Believe in yourself, your ideas, vision and dreams. Make a plan on how to achieve your dreams. Follow them. Be flexible as there will be many detours. Find mentors who will hold your hand along the way. Above all, have fun pursuing that what you are passionate about.