Food prize puts Kenyan researcher on global map

food prize px

When he was named winner of the 2016 World Food Prize’s Norman Borlaug award for Field Research and Application this week, he could barely hold back his emotions, as the reality of his achievement hit home.

The sight of a humble man accepting recognition for years of hard work trying to improve the lives of thousands of people living in the arid and semi-arid parts of the country, brought tears to the eyes of many seated in the John Vercoe Conference Hall at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) campus.

Even with the Tuesday announcement that he had won the award, Andrew Mude, who holds a doctorate in economics, remains a modest man committed to resolving the dilemma that pastoral communities, especially in northern Kenya, have endured for decades.

Aged 39

Losing livestock to the devastating effects of climate change has seen them move from being rich on one day and having nothing the next.

“If my father and mother never educated me, today I would not stand up as the father of this product that now gives hopes to thousands of pastoralist communities in Northern Kenya. I believe education must remain central in anyone’s life but this must be hinged on ability to a viable economic livelihood,” he said in his acceptance speech.

From the time he was notified of the award on August 18, he has had to accept the honour and responsibilities that come with it, including doing media interviews alongside daily office work.

He is the second Kenyan to win the prestigious award by the Rockefeller Foundation after Charity Mutegi was recognised in 2013 for her work on control of aflatoxin.

The World Food Prize Foundation annually honours individuals under 40 years whose scientific innovation is dedicated to food security.

Dr Mude, 39, an agricultural economist, stands tall for front- running the design of the Index-Based Livestock Insurance (IBLI) Programme since 2008, just two years after joining ILRI.

He has worked behind the scenes researching and identifying risk management interventions that can help reduce the vulnerability of pastoralists.
“I am not an animal scientist but I am passionate about solving problems within my constituency, which now happens to be pastoral communities,” he said.

The product has introduced a new concept that defied the traditional method of selling insurance by assessing losses manually.

The programme uses satellite imaging to assess fodder availability and calculates the estimated loss payable during dry seasons.

Rather than insure individual animals, the pastoralists take covers against the green vegetation allowing them to receive payouts during droughts or floods for the difficulty of finding food even when they do not lose their herds.

The data is sourced from the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which was then taken to the US National Aeronautics and Space Agency for processing.

“Every 10 days NASA provides composite images of grazing conditions over a 250-metre by 250-metre range in the selected areas. The National Drought Management Authority also provides extra data that we use to calculate the collation between vegetation status in relation to livestock mortality rates,” he said.

In the beginning, selling this product to insurance companies, let alone uninsured communities, was difficult.

The Cornell University graduate required up to eight years to engage insurance company executives, local and religious leaders.

Payouts to herders

On realising no one understood the concept, he engaged the donor community for seed capital to conduct a pilot for his formula of calculating risk using satellite vegetation imagery data as basis for lodging claims also known as the ‘Normalised Difference Vegetation Index’ (NDVI).

This was in 2010 when Dr Mude first moved in with a team of researchers from Cornell University-USAID BASIS Collaborative Research Support Programme to launch the research into development programme.

The payouts to herders in 2014 by Takaful Insurance brought on board other underwriters.

The government even launched the Kenya Livestock Insurance Programme (KLIP), based on IBLI that provides coverage to more than 5,000 households.

Last month, the government programme made payouts to 290 herders in Wajir.

Perhaps his zeal for helping Northern Kenya came from direct impact of drought he felt over three decades as he visited family in Marsabit, even though his Burji community is more agricultural and entrepreneurial than their nomadic neighbours.

The son of a diplomat went to St. Mary’s Nairobi until he was in Class Three and thereafter all over the world, having to change schools every three years, moving with his father from one mission to another.

This, he said, made him diplomatic in implementing the product at the grassroots by appreciating varied cultural backgrounds.

His determination to do better hit him when he graduated summa cum laude with a major in Economics from Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, in 1999.
In the year 2000, he joined Cornell University in New York to pursue a doctorate in economics with a concentration in development economics and applied econometrics.

He returned to Kenya in June 2006 after graduating and he found a job at ILRI, where he worked with his wife Brenda until recently when she moved to the Kenya Market Trust.

“Having worked together, she has been quite appreciative of the amount of work involved, how busy schedules can be as well as the amount of time spent travelling but I try not to take many out-of-town commitments,” he said.

Support poor

When he is not crunching numbers to improve the programme, the father of two will either be playing squash, hitting the gym or catching up with friends and family.

“My 11-year-old son knows about the award and even though he has his own interests, he has seen videos and appreciates what I do. The girl is just two years, I am not sure she understands the work.”

He travels to Des Moines, Iowa in October to receive the award, which comes with Sh1 million cash prize.

Though he is not sure who will accompany him on the trip, he has pledged to support the education of Northern Kenya children.

“The focus now is to scale up the project. Ethiopia is set to take it up soon and not just the numbers of those covered, we need to bring in value addition.”