October 4, 2015

With a passion

Kenya native helping others reach their potential

by JAMIE CREAMER

Entomology grad Esther Ngumbi is putting her passion to work to help others in her native Kenya.

Entomology grad Esther Ngumbi is putting her passion to work to help others in her native Kenya.

Please excuse the use of an overworked adjective, but there’s just no other way to describe Esther Ngumbi: The woman is passionate. She’s passionate about life, about giving back, about inspiring females in her native Kenya to reach for the stars and about education and sustainability and fighting hunger.

She’s passionate about her dreams, too, and has a remarkably successful track record in turning some of the most seemingly far-fetched visions into realities, especially in Mabafweni, Kenya, the impoverished village where she grew up.

In a few days, Ngumbi (in-GOOM-bee), a 2011 Auburn University Ph.D. alumnus in entomology who now is a postdoctoral plant pathology researcher in the College of Agriculture, will make the 8,400-mile-trip to her village, in part, to celebrate the opening of the community’s first-ever library—a prime example of an Ngumbi dream coming true.

“I don’t do so well in keeping my dreams to myself,” Ngumbi says. “When I have a dream, I can’t stop talking about it. Everybody knows what I want to do.”

And in the library’s case, sharing her vision paid off, as donations from friends and a $10,000 grant from the nonprofit group 101 Heroes covered construction costs for the small, cement-block library in Mabafweni.

The library, incidentally, is part of Faulu Academy, a primary school that—as you might guess—was another of Ngumbi’s dreams.

“The day I was awarded my doctorate at Auburn, I started thinking of the many children in my community who had the potential to be scientists like me but lacked the opportunity,” she says. “I told myself then I would do whatever it takes to give these children opportunities to break the poverty barrier by getting an education and developing their potential to the fullest.”

She and her parents, both retired schoolteachers, opened Faulu Academy, grades one through six, in 2012 with 10 students. Today, 70 students are enrolled.

“There are other public schools in the area, but we started Faulu Academy because we wanted to give students the very best there can be,” she says. In the next couple of years, the academy will expand to include grades seven and eight.

And then, there’s the science lab she envisions as part of Faulu—and the unusual way she plans to make that a reality. First, you should know, though, that, on her upcoming trip home, in addition to marking the library’s opening, Ngumbi will get married, to Alex from Atlanta, in a ceremony at Swahili Beach Hotel on the Kenyan Coast. In lieu of wedding gifts, she’s requesting that friends and other well-wishers make donations toward construction of the lab. (Read more here.)

“The lab will allow our young students to experience the magic of science and develop an interest in it,” she says. “It will get them familiar with the scientific process as they carry out experiments.”

It could be that those experiments one day will include analyzing soils brought in by smallholder farmers involved in another of Ngumbi’s undertakings, Oyeska Greens (http://www.oyeskagreens.com/). Oyeska Greens is what she describes as “a start-up venture committed to revolutionizing agriculture along the Kenyan Coast.” She and her brother, Kennedy, launched the initiative in 2014 in their home county of Kwale.

“We want to empower smallholder African farmers with the knowledge to succeed and to show them, this is what it takes to succeed versus what we’ve been doing here for generations,” she says. “My mission is to help modernize farming practices, show these farmers that they can do more working together and transform the Kenyan Coast into an agricultural hub.”

These are needs are based on personal experience. Although both of her parents were teachers, the pay was meager, and the only food they could provide for their five children was what they grew on their 10-acre farm.

“We never knew the health of our soils, and many years, since we are rain-fed agriculture, we would plant all our seed, and then it would never rain,” she says. “We would put out lots of chemicals, but we never thought that they might not even be what was needed.

“And most of the time, we got nothing, or very, very little.”

In Oyeska Greens’ first year, Ngumbi and her brother convinced 18 serious, hard-working Mabafweni farmers to participate in the project and trained them in greenhouse farming, modern production practices, smart marketing and hand irrigation from shared wells.

By the end of the first growing season, Oyeska Greens farmers had collectively harvested more than 3 tons of bell peppers and more than 4 tons of tomatoes, most of which they actually sold at a farmers market several miles away. And, by the end of the first growing season, the 18 farmers were believers.

“They’re seeing that they can not only feed their families but make money selling their crops, too,” Ngumbi says. “And other farmers have seen this and now are interested in the program as well.”

While in Mabafweni in the coming weeks, Ngumbi will begin educating the farmers on the value of soil testing.

“We will be showing them how to do soil tests, and to prove how important they are, I will plant crops in soil I’ve tested,” she says. “When they see how my crops grow compared to theirs, well, it will be an example of actions speaking louder than words.”

Ngumbi is a motivational speaker and holds a number of prestigious honors, including being named a Food Security Fellow of the Aspen Institute this year and serving as a 2015 Clinton Global Initiative University Mentor for Agriculture. In 2011, One World Action, a London charity fighting for a world free from poverty and oppression named her to its list of “100 Women: the unseen powerful women who change the world.”

LINK: Click here to find out how you can help Esther build a science lab in her hometown.

 

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