Hub East Africa: Interview
Climate change exacerbates conflicts and causes suffering
The Hub East Africa began its activities in Kenya and, in 2022, expanded to Madagascar. Ongoing projects in both countries focus on identifying and implementing transformative actions that balance nature conservation with the needs of local communities.
Dr. Benson Okita
Director of the Hub East Africa, joined the Wyss Academy in April 2022
What brought you to the Wyss Academy – or brought the Wyss Academy to you?
Prior to joining the Wyss Academy, I worked for the Kenya Wildlife Service, and with Save the Elephants, focusing on endangered species conservation. But along the way, I realized that these species cannot be conserved in isolation, without also considering people and healthy, functional habitats. The Wyss Academy views conservation through a holistic lens. This new perspective and the possibility to pass on my experience to the next generation are great motivators for me. The scientific understanding of the species that I gained can now be passed on and shared with new colleagues. Co-designing projects with all parties involved before taking action is an effective way to work.
As the new Hub Director, having joined the team in 2022, what is your current focus?
In our country, climate change is causing a lot of suffering and exacerbating conflicts. We need to act quickly to have a visible impact. First of all, I need to build a team. Soon we will have four active team members in our hub. We also need to establish systems that allow us to work efficiently. There are numerous players in our landscape working on similar issues, and we're talking to them and building synergies. The question is: how can we contribute most to make a real difference for people’s lives and conservation? Our actions will be based on evidence, which means that monitoring must be established from the very beginning. We need to collect data, analyze it, create a knowledge platform and make it available for decision making. To make a real difference, we must get to the core of each issue and come up with effective solutions.
Kenya and Madagascar: why these two countries?
Some of my colleagues worked in Madagascar and identified land-use issues that require attention. Due to its size, Madagascar faces specific challenges, such as maximizing revenues from small agricultural areas. People need sufficient income from small farms. One of the questions we are interested in is: how can livelihoods be improved through entrepreneurial roles? On the other hand, we think the knowledge we gain from our activities in Madagascar can then, to a certain degree, also be applied to improve land use in Northern Kenya. Since we don’t have an office in Madagascar yet, we co-design our projects in partnership with the University of Antananarivo. They help us gain better access to digital audiences, as it is very important for us to reach young people via smartphones. After all, they are the ones who will shape the future.
Kenya is the focus of an interdisciplinary project on addressing water scarcity. Can you tell us more about it?
Water is a resource that is utilized by so many parties, including wild animals, pastoralists, households, and industries. In the Mount Kenya, region where we work, water is scarce and water sources and catchment areas are often managed by completely different entities. This situation leads to conflicts between wildlife and human communities. We try to understand whether this scarcity is caused, for example, by climate change, by land use, or perhaps by water governance issues. One way we try to tackle this issue is by developing solutions for harvesting water, for example by collecting water drops from mist or fog. This requires new techniques, and it is our task to find the expertise and bring suitable engineers into the project. Solving water scarcity is always a multidisciplinary task.
How did you start implementing the spatial inventory of fragile and vital ecological assets in the semi-arid areas of Kenya?
We have huge landscapes with important biological assets like springs, forests, wetlands, and corridors for wildlife and livestock movement. Today, these assets are mostly used by whoever got there first. This leads to conflict and, in the case of springs, exacerbates water scarcity. If you do not manage and protect these important biodiversity assets, it leads to even more water scarcity, and even more conflict – the vicious cycle continues.
The National Land Commission has asked the Wyss Academy for support in mapping biological assets so they can take the next step and protect them. It is important to have legal instruments to govern and to motivate communities to come together and define the rules. In cooperation with the communities, so far, the Wyss Academy has mapped biological assets of two counties in Kenya. Now that we have two successful examples, it will be easier to scale this mapping approach to other areas. There are more than thirty counties in the semi-arid landscape that require their natural assets to be mapped. We must work fast to conserve biological assets in this fragile landscape.