Prof Ratemo Michieka, the Chairman of Kenya National Research Fund. Photo Credit: Murimi Gitari

Leading with integrity

By Murimi Gitari

Prof Ratemo Michieka, the Chairman of Kenya National Research Fund, discusses the leadership values and management skills that have helped him leave remarkable legacies in the public institution’s he has served in, including the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and the National Environment and Management Authority (NEMA) and where he was the founding Vice- Chancellor and Director-General respectively.

Your new book Walking the Promise was launched recently. What motivated you to write the book?

Walking the Promise is my second autobiography. This particular book was specific on character formation from youth to the present. My motivation for writing this book was to pass information to the current and future generations. I tried as much as possible to display what I used to be, where I was wrong, right and the idea of not breaking a law and at the same time ensuring that persons are treated with reapect. The book simply shows walking the talk by not preaching water and drinking wine or either way. I chose the title of the book specifically to send the message: do what you say or practise what you say. I have tried as much as possible to cover my youth, middle life development, what I did in various places, how I became a professor and vice-chancellor at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), the Director General of the National Environment and Management Authority (NEMA) and later on joined the African Scientific Research and Innovation Council (ASRIC) of the African Union in Abuja, Nigeria.

What are some of the key highlights you may like to point out to someone what hasn’t read the book?

If I was to summarise the whole book I would use only one word: Integrity. This is displaying integrity in everything that you do. It surpasses every other virtue that a human being can have. Integrity in understanding the law, the norm, the tradition and the whole societal expectation of a person at a particular stage. In simple terms, it’s holding a character and keeping it predictable at any stage such that when someone sees you, they can know that you cannot bend the law for them. Integrity also helps in using own consciousness to make decisions in society.

You have held many senior positions in your career, have you experienced any situations of people wanting you to bend the law for them?

People need to really buy and read the book and get to know me. All through in the positions I held, particularly as a lecturer, then a vice-chancellor and later on as the Director General for NEMA, I did get the temptations of being told to bend a law, do things that are not within the basic regulation or norm, things to do with student regulation and grading at the university. All these happened and many others but I never imagined myself doing that regardless of whoever the person was in my tenure of service, even at NEMA where I received most of the temptations. There were issues of favours and people would come to me asking that I bend the law or the regulations for them to be able to put up their projects. I resisted the temptations.

How different is the new book from your memoir Trails in Academic and Administrative Leadership in Kenya launched in 2019?

The memoir, which one can only get from Amazon, is different as it looked very specifically at the academics and higher education in Kenya. It strictly talks on the universities in Kenya, progression, development issues and most importantly the management. The focus was on how universities are being managed. I touched on the World Bank funding that came in the late 1990s, I covered student riots which were very rampant in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. The book highlighted the trails of a university manager and I gave myself as an example with JKUAT. It hinged more on my experience as the founding vice-chancellor of young JKUAT, which was then the 5th public university in Kenya. I wrote what we did right, wrong, students’ lives, discipline and opportunities. I stressed on the need for universities sticking to their character. Every university has a character. We now have 79 universities in Kenya and each has its own character. Many universities develop and grow but then lose the original vision and mission.

How did you manage to keep a good relationship with the students and even manage student unrest as the vice-chancellor?

We were the 5th and youngest university at that time. We had a student population of approximately 5,000, the majority of them in sciences, that we had acquired from Kenyatta University which was the mothering university.y

I think the character that I maintained from youth by being what I should be led me all through. There are three things that made students get along with me. One is that I was extremely clear in informing them of my expectations right from the time they reported to the campus. I would inform them that they were going to graduate in their fourth, fifth or sixth year, so they would understand from the beginning that that meant serious work.

The second thing is that I had an open door policy. I never shied away from addressing their issues. I made myself available to them. The students also knew that I could not promise something that I would not be able to deliver or do. If I did not meet any demand they made, I would pick other concerns they had, especially the low hanging ones and implement.

The third thing was keeping reminding them about their future. I was actually counselling a lot of students whenever I had the opportunity. I also had a team of staff that supported me and I would always consult them before making any decision.

I also ensured there were consultations with the senate and the council. I used to brief our very first chairman of the council the late Stephen Mulinge on all matters to do with the university. To sum it up, I would relate to the students and the staff very closely and then would link to the council and eventually the Chancellor, who was then President Mwai Kibaki.

There used to be issues and disciplinary cases but we were able to address them. It was not as smooth as it seemed but I would say one of the best moments in my life in management and development was during my tenure as the vice-chancellor at JKUAT. I would, however not like to go back to such a position again. Thirteen years was enough. At that time finances were not badly off as they are right now. Briefly tell us your education background and where you grew up.

I grew up in the rural Kisii in a place called Masimba Nyamagesa, a hilly area near the Masai Mara sides. I used to walk 4-5km barefoot from home to school every school day and go and wash clothes at the river. Schools were few during that time. I was prefect in primary school and I remember good and bad issues while at the school. Whenever I was in the wrong and saw myself as the only one getting punished, I would protest asking to know why the others are not getting punished yet they were also involved. .

Also, I would protest if others were being punished and I was left out if at all I was part of whatever issues that was making them get the punishment. I did not feel good when one student was being punished and others are getting exempted. After my primary education, I proceeded to Kisii High School.

This was my very first time to leave the village and the comfort of my parents’ house. I was now able to wear shoes and full school uniform. Food was plenty here in that school. There was a change of lifestyle where I found students from all over the country. I was made the Dining Hall prefect. This position was quite influential ina secondary school. My parents were peasant farmers who grews tea, maize, vegetables and a bit of wheat. They also planted passion fruit but eventually uprooted the crop after the factory was moved from Sotik to Thika.

Could you share a brief overview of your career journey, including what you are currently involved in?

After secondary school I got a job with Barclays Bank (currently Absa Bank). Out of 30 people interviewed by the bank I was one of the 10 who qualified and were posted to the then Queensway Branch currently Mama Ngina blanch in Nairobi. I was put in a section called the Intelligence Department and would see companies from all over East Africa apply for loans. I remember a case where a certain company had applied for a loan but did not meet the required threshold. I disapproved the request, according to the bank’s procedures, but at some point, they tried to push me to pave the way for them to secure the loan but I stood my ground and that did not happen.

This would have jeopardised the name of the bank and my name and at the same time we would have lost money. This is what I have believed up to today. I cannot sign anything, including degree certificates until I am fully convinced they are accurate. That was a very big turning point in my life. What I learned and what I did at that time stayed and made a difference for me to date. After some period at the then Barclays, I resigned and went to the US to study and pursue a career on environment, agriculture and weed science. With my knowledge acquisition through master’s and PhD I have managed to teach many students, many of them working across the country.

What inspired you to become an agronomist, weed scientist, and environmental expert?

During my secondary school education, we had agriculture as an examinable subject in Form Four at that time. There were Peace Corps from the US that brought agriculture machines of all types that we used in the laboratory and in the field for production. Many of us got interested in the subject due to the influence of these Peace Corps. When I joined the university, I found the environment and agriculture. I continued to to persue the course and added environment and later enrolled for weed science.

Could you share some of the achievements you’re most proud of in your career?

I am proud of having contributed to human and physical development while at JKUAT and bringing up a holistic human being. My legacy is the JKUAT, the persons I interacted with and the trainings they got from me. The legacy impacted the persons who finished under me and those who worked with me. I am also proud for the impact I created in NEMA touching on the environment. The Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA 1999) states that every Kenyan and foreigner that comes into our country is entitled to a clean and healthy environment. When I went to NEMA, I studied the Act and picked low hanging problems which touched on pollution and degradation and started implementing it. We started as a very scanty team of about 200 staff to execute a myriad problems on Kenyan environment.

Kenyans started being aware that the country has an environmental law that must be adhered to. I left NEMA when matters of envronment were fully understood – awareness, education and public perticipation were my hallmark in many conferences. Those are the two legacies I left, JKUAT and NEMA still stand pronounced.

You are currently the chaiperson of Kenya National Research Fund, tell us about the current status of agricultural research funding.

I am extremely concerned when we don’t put emphasis on agricultural research funding. The African Union recognises that every country within the continent should chip in about two percent of GDP for research. Countries are trying to put money in research but it is not enough.

Research makes a nation. It brings employment, it creates happiness and brings unity of people. Whenever you talk about research you talk about the wholeness of a nation. It creates matters to be innovated. We should put as much emphasis on research and research cannot be done by anybody down the street.

It requires total dedication and people doing it are primarily the ones qualified to pick an area and focus on it. This requires a lot of money. In research you can start with 20 items or 100 chemicals you will end up with nothing working. You might have 90 items and end up with only one that is close to working. That is money that has been spent. If one succeeds out of the 100 or even 1,000, you can be assured that it will benefit the nation much more than what was even spent. For instance, in the East African Community (EAC) we are about two hundred million, if a scientist comes up with a product from a certain herb that has proofed to cure malaria, how much will the country earn if the product is distributed and sold at one dollar to the EAC region?

Heads of states should put more into research that will create more jobs and lead to poverty reduction. The developed countries have put in a lot of money in research not withstanding how much they really lose. But whenever they see a product coming to the market, they know the financial gains to their nation.

You are a board member of various agricultural institutions, one being ISAAA that advocates for the application of biotechnology solutions. What is your take on GMOs and especially with the lifting of the ban by the Kenyan government? Is it safe or is it not? Should Africa embrace biotechnology?

Africa as a continent is food insufficient. It has always imported all sorts of food. People in Kenya and Africa at large want to eat and live, eat enough and live properly and also ensure the price of food commodities are reduced to certain levels. If we kept with the original traditional crops we had without the present technology, we would still be having issues of food insufficiency. In the Far East, rice is an improved variety of very many species. GMO is not bad.

It is the way people have taken it. It is the quality that is improved. You don’t necessarily change the actual taste or suspect thinking that whatever substance was put there is going to be ingested in the body and it shall lead to unknown diseases. People travel an go into hotels you don’t know what you eat. The most important thing to do is to educate citizens that some of these crops are safe. GMO has spread out all over the world today and it is being consumed with no proven effects. As much as it is being resisted, we still have it coming in another way or angle. Health debate still contiues on GMOs and freedom of speech on such matters.

When you joined NEMA, many people were happy due to the changes you brought about in relation to protection of the environment. Did you experience political interference?

Every institution, all over the world usually experience political interference. Any organisation that becomes popular will always attract some interests from the political class. Political interference in public institutions come into play depending on the chief executive of the institution. It also depends on the ministry that oversees the institution. I must admit that NEMA would have been best led at that time by Prof Wangari Maathai.

When an institution is led by a knowledgeable person who has a feel of the environment the place would perform and create an impact. During my tenure at NEMA, there was political interest due to some of the polices my board came up with. For instance, when I said people should not plant eucalyptus trees along the river banks and the riparian land I was told that was wrong. How did the transition from JKUAT to NEMA happen in such a short notice? That is a puzzle I have never been able to solve. We were to hold a graduation at JKUAT and inagurate our second Chancellor, the newly elected president Mwai Kibaki. On the eve of the graduation day I had spent the day at State House briefing the then President Mwai Kibaki, who also happened to be the second Chancellor of the university, about the graduation preparations and programme. After leaving State House I headed back to the university and that is when I received a call from colleagues informing me that I was no longer the vice-chancellor and I should hand over to a new VC and report to NEMA as the Director General.

I just wondered why they could not have waited untill I finish with the graduation and then let me go. Since the graduation was a matter of the students and parents, I had to act as if there was nothing announced. I proceeded with the normal plans of the graduation. I edited my speech accordingly and accomodated every guest we had invited. After a few days I went to the university and handed over instruments of power to the incoming successor and made my clearance as I proceeded to NEMA in Nairobi and took over as the Director General abd happily started working with the staff I met who were very cooperative.

Parting shot?

Let everyone do some good work. Get agriculture moving up and give confidence to the Kenyans on food suffiency. Citizen expect merit from their expertise. Meritocracy cannot be exchanged with mediocrity. Whatever we do as experts in any field will change the landscape of our research in all areas. Every one of us has a duty to play and display integrity.

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