Dr Wilson Songa at work. Photo Credit: Murimi Gitari

42 years of illustrious career in agriculture

[rt_dropcap_style dropcap_letter=”S” dropcap_content=”ITTING down with and listening to Dr Wilson Songa speak about his professional career, you will be left awestruck by his deep knowledge of agricultural research, policy and management.”]

After more than 30 years in Kenya’s public service – 14 of that in senior management and administration roles – he is currently a senior adviser on strategy and partnership at Syngenta Foundation, and sits on multiple boards in the agricultural sector.

He has represented Kenya in various capacities on regional, African and international agriculture sector committees and fora, and contributed 36 publications in refereed journals, technical reports and refereed conference proceedings.

Dr. Songa holds a PhD in Plant Pathology from the University of Reading, UK, a Master of Science in Crop Science from Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture from the University of Nairobi, and has attended various professional development programmes.

His illustrious career started off ) in 1981 as a research scientist at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), now Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO He thereafter joined Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate (KEPHIS) where he rose through the ranks to General Manager, Phytosanitary Services between 1998 and 2003. “I was transferred from KALRO to KEPHIS-Muguga and at this time, KEPHIS was just starting as a new institution.

This was some kind of a different space for me as I was used to research. By the time I was leaving KALRO-Katumani I was a consultant in soil-borne pathogens in East and Central Africa. Now I was being taken to offer different kind of services that I was not quite familiar with,” Dr Songa says.

In 1999, he was selected for the Cochran Fellowship programme, which supported scientists from middle-income countries, emerging markets and emerging democracies for short-term training programmes on phytosanitary services in the US. “Kenya had just embarked on a journey to enhance phytosanitary measures

The training programmes are designed and organised in conjunction with US universities, USDA, and other government agencies, agribusinesses, and consultants. Key activities on the fellowship involve visiting areas related to enhancement of phytosanitary measures and plant health inspection.

Dr Songa recalls visiting ports, border points and customs during his time in the US, which provided him with a better insight of plant health inspection, certification and the impact on trade.

It also enabled him to appreciate the importance of a common framework to facilitate trade especially in East Africa. The fellowship set him on the path to senior administration roles in the public service, starting with being appointed the Chief Executive of the Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) in 2003.

He served as the Managing Director, Horticultural Crops Development Authority (HCDA) between 2004 and 2005 before his elevation to the Agriculture Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture.

His crowning moment in the public service came in June 2013 when he was appointed as the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Industrialization and Enterprise Development. But it is in agriculture where he left an indelible mark on public policy.

While serving as the Agriculture Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, he was the official advisor to the Minister of Agriculture and the Kenyan government on all agriculturerelated matters, with a staff of 6,500 and a financial oversight of KShs40 billion’.

He was involved in the development and execution of several policies including: Kenya Industrialization Transformation Program (2015); Agricultural Sector Revitalization Strategy (2005-2009), Agricultural Sector Development Strategy (2010-2013) and the National Biotechnology Strategy (2008-2013).

He also oversaw Kenya’s compliance with the EU’s Good Agricultural Practice (EUREP GAP) Standards He was recognised for exemplary work and received Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS) in 2008 and Order of the Grand Warrior (OGW) in 2004 by then Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki.

“It was really an honour working in these ministries and one thing I am proud of is that regardless of the various departments we had, we managed to work as a team. Due to the fact that one cannot be able to bet there all the time supervising, I really emphasised on working as a team. We had put in place the mechanisms of how to work things out and had a proper channel of implementation.

“We are scientists and we cannot recommend to people what would harm them knowing very well that we will also consume the same products. But the (GMO) products have been tested in the laboratories with results showing no harm to humans and that they are fit for consumption,” he says.

“I remember we sat down with the current president [William Ruto] who was then the Minister for Agriculture and told him all about biotechnology, and it became so easy for us. He ran with it. He was in Parliament.

So, as we were sitting behind, he was listening but we had to go through the stage of making him understand.

So, there is really absolutely nothing wrong with that technology, only that it should be by choice. The way you go to a supermarket, and you want to take a crate of eggs that you can afford. It should be the same for GMOs.

What is the need of education our kids in the best schools in the world to become scientists and when they come back home and tell you this is fit for consumption, they are faced with protests?” While serving as the Agriculture Secretary he once took a team of his staff to see BT cotton in South Africa and the wide adoption of farm machines such as combine harvesters in the country.

“What those combine harvesters leave on the field after harvesting is what a farmer in Kitui is harvesting. This shows that the farmers from these two countries cannot compete. One has already embraced the technology and the other is still relying on the traditional methods of growing food,” he says.

On the fertiliser shortage, he says one of the solutions is for the government to determine which fertilisers are needed for various crops and starting import them in bulk for distribution to farmers.

“There are few people in the industry who have personal interests in fertiliser business and this is one of the contributors to the high cost of fertilsers,” Dr Songa says. During his free time, he likes listening to music of any kind.

“I remember going to this place in Eastern Europe and there was a local band they had invited to perform. I found that music very good. So, if you love music, it should be all round.

It should hit. You should not say you only like this particular genre of music if you are a lover of music,” he says. Just like his love for agriculture.

through the formation of the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) where I was the officer in charge of the plant quarantine station,” Dr Songa says.

“The Cochran Fellowship took place between the last week of April and second week of May in the year 1999 where every logistic was planned by the sponsors, making it easier for us. This was inclusive of a special visa to ensure that the team had the ability to visit all the areas planned for within the programme.

A key highlight was the warm luxurious reception in Florida unlocking a very exciting experience.” The training opportunities for the Cochran Fellowship are for senior and mid-level specialists and administrators working in agricultural trade and policy; agribusiness development; management; animal, plant, and food sciences; extension services; agricultural marketing; and many other areas.

This is something I had learnt while at KEPHIS having been in charge of phytosanitary measures and also the administration acting director,” he said. Being one of the pioneers and implementers of the biotechnology policy, Dr Songa describes biotech as a technology whose time has come and cannot be stopped.

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