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Chai, Massai and a long way to fly

Fairly early on in my PhD, I started the process of applying for a research permit for Kenya. I’d hoped to model changes to water resources that could arise because of climate change and then discuss my findings with those making decisions on water management in the country. After facing long delays to this process, I finally (if slightly reluctantly) decided to take my research in another direction.

Now, as well as using computer models to examine changes to water resources, I also investigate changes to the distribution of plants, animals and agricultural crops. Integrating these topics into my research has been fascinating and I will never regret my decision to change pathways, but not being able to visit the country I was researching - that
was something that always haunted me. At every conference, public talk or training course, I felt like someone was going to call me out. What right had I to talk about this place, when I’d never spent any time there?

Towards the end of my third year, I made the decision to go there myself, as a tourist. So, in the middle of my thesis write-up, I took a couple of weeks off and went to Kenya. Travel to a large part of the land around the Tana River (my study area) is still advised against by the Foreign Office. Even though I didn’t make it to the actual river, I learnt so much that I had to share the experience.

As part of my research, I explore how the distributions of agricultural species – including both tea (chai in Swahili) and coffee (kahawa) – might alter as the climate changes. Tea and coffee exports are really important for Kenya’s economy, so understanding how they might change in response to our planet’s climate could have real-world benefits. Luckily, coffee and tea growing regions could be easily reached from our base in Nairobi, so we set out to find out more.

Around 30-minutes’ drive from Nairobi, we turned onto a dirt road with the reddest soil I’ve ever seen. Lining the road were thousands of coffee plants. At the end of the road, we pulled up in front of an enclosure full of camels – not what I’d expected to see! The camels are there because the farm is now diversifying. Tourism is almost as central to Kenya’s economy as agriculture, so providing camel rides and tours of the nearby Stone Age caves helps keep the farm running.

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Figure 1: Coffee berries turning red

Our guide came out to greet us. His knowledge about the coffee growing process was incredible – I’d be willing to bet that some of it is not in any book in the world. I will always remember the line
‘termites are beautiful people’. If you Google ‘termites and coffee’, all the stories point to the former destroying the latter. But here at this coffee plantation, termites are helpful as they protect the plants from other pests.

We moved on to the area of the farm set aside for processing the coffee beans. It was here that I discovered a surprising link between coffee and tea. The pulp from the coffee cherries (they are berries when they are on the bush, cherries once they are picked) are dried and kept. They are often sold to the tea factories to use as fuel for drying the tea leaves. In Kenya, it is illegal to cut down many indigenous trees, so using this is a great way of reducing the waste and using alternative fuel sources.

The following day, we drove higher into the hills to a tea plantation. As we approached, we saw what looks like grass on the rolling hills – just like a picturesque English countryside. Looking closer, we realised that it was actually the tea plants we were gazing at, with leaves that would soon be stocking English cupboards and maybe even fuelling a few PhD students. But the sad truth (for many a student) is that tea production will not be safe from climate change. Research organisations in Kenya are all too aware of this and are currently developing ‘purple tea’; a variety hoped to be drought resistant.

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Figure 2: the rolling hills around Limuru, covered in tea plants

The more I spoke to people about my research, the more I realised that no one seemed very concerned that I had not visited the Tana River. The main river extends from the slopes of Mount Kenya in the centre of the country all the way down to the Indian Ocean, which is a journey of around 1000km. The delta region, where the river meets the ocean, is dominated by dense forest and wetlands – the type of environment reserved for real adventure tourists. Many of the Kenyans that I spoke to had never seen the river (including those who’d spent time around that section of coast). Once I was in Kenya and could really understand the scale of the area I was researching, I started to wonder how anyone could be expected to visit it all in the first place.

I did make it to a national park close to my river basin, which had a similar climate. This national park happened to be Amboseli, which is home to so many African elephants that you can’t take a photo of another animal without one popping up in the background. Incidentally, if you get the opportunity to visit Amboseli, you should take it. The abundant Kenyan wildlife with the backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro really is a sight to behold. While pausing on the outskirts of the park to photograph the mountain, our guide came over and said,
‘we knew it would be greener in the park because there is more snow on the mountain’. The people are still in tune with their environment.

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Figure 3: Elephants in Amboseli National Park

Another example of this was the number of times I heard
‘it’s not usually as hot as this’ from various people in and around Nairobi. January is one of the hottest months in Kenya, but when even the locals are despairing; you sit up and take note. Last year, Nairobi was 2.1°C hotter than the 1981 to 2010 average and that hasn’t gone unnoticed.

When you’re sitting in front of a computer screen, watching important wildlife areas shrink with greater levels of warming or be lost completely due to agricultural expansion and urbanisation, it is sometimes difficult to remember that the population aren’t really the bad guys. Once you’re out there, the desperate need for development hits you. The people need Kenya to develop economically just as much as the animals need their space and the environment needs to be preserved. Food and water shortages are growing concerns all round. My trip really illustrated the importance of sustainable development that works in cooperation with the natural world. By integrating water resources, conservation and agriculture, hopefully my research will go some way towards helping them achieve this.

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Figure 4: Living in harmony? The Nairobi skyline from the city’s national park

This holiday was invaluable for so many reasons, including as a break from writing and a chance to see somewhere new. Most importantly, I feel like I can talk with more authority about my research. Plus, I have my own photos of the wildlife to use in my presentations – and hopefully grace the walls of a university office at some point in the future.

Rhosanna Author


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