Today on Pearls And Heels is Emily Ongus. Emily Ongus is an agronomist who works in extension. She currently works as the community extension officer in a climate change project. Emily pursued a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture at Egerton, Njoro. She has worked in Rural Advisory Services in Kinangop, Sirisia, Kwale and Laikipia. She has worked mostly with organized farmers, more specifically in organic agriculture and conservation agriculture. Emily is a youth in agriculture advocate, YPARD Kenya Mentee and Cherie Blair Foundation Mentee as well. She is also the Kenyan Agriman agmbassador – it’s all about encouraging young people to consider agriculture as a career worth engaging in.
Emily says “I have a passion for working in rural development and for youth in agriculture. I strongly believe in mentorship, especially for young people, direction goes a long way in ensuring that potential is maximized. Kenya is a young nation and if we want to achieve the SDGs then we need to focus on this demographic”
- Describe your typical day.
I do a lot of fieldwork mostly; it depends on what stage of the season we are in. It could either be planting, crop management or harvesting on the particular project sites. This then follows up with checking and managing data sent in by T.O.T’s on farmer advisory visits.
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
I had wanted to be a lot of things first. I once wrote in class two that I wanted to be a vegetable vendor haha. Engineering was on top of my list though. Later on, I wanted to be a space scientist after a talk at our church from an actual space scientist.
- If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
I wouldn’t change so much; I am specifically inclined to extension education to understand what the farmer specifically needs. I did not want to be a ‘labcoat’ scientist so to speak. However, I would have definitely networked a lot more and found a mentor much earlier.
- What would you say are the top three skills needed to succeed at your job?
Of course perfect your skill set. I am a trained agronomist and soil scientist. It is paramount that the advice given is right.
In extension that would be wisdom, a sort of sixth sense to understand where/whom you are working with. Respect the cultures and values of the communities you are working with.
Adaptability: you need to be able to adapt to different situations and learn your local politics fast.
- As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
I work in Laikipia County, mainly in Nanyuki. I live in Nairobi though so I am a regular commuter. I was born and raised in Nairobi, but Agriculture was rarely part of our growing up except at the ASK every year. Nairobi is good for agriculture though since most of these innovations e.g. marketplace applications emerge from Nairobi. However, there is still concern about whether some of these applications are practical on the ground. We need to understand what the small-scale farmer needs. I think collaborations between app developers and agricultural professionals need to be increased. We need practical and adaptable solutions.
- What motivates you?
I have been lucky enough to see programs succeed and see particular households move from thatch roofs to ‘mabati’ roofs (this is a big deal by the way) or be able to pay Ksh. 30 for exam registration for their children. This was simply because they changed their farm management practices from subsistence to a more profitable enterprise with the resources they had. Seeing the possibilities of change motivates me.
- How do you define success?
Success for me is a failure. When you have tasted failure and pulled through and kept going you’ve won already, that for me is a success.
- Who has been your greatest inspiration?
In the recent past that would be my mentor Patricia Muiko. Working with communities needs a lot of understanding and patience. Being a woman makes it even harder in consideration of how society views you. She commands respect and has been able to handle several conflicts that have led to great development. She has single-handedly changed lives by being able to collaborate with stakeholders, and donors and ensuring needy and bright kids have gone to school where they lacked opportunity.
- What is your favourite aspect of your job?
My favourite aspect would be interacting with farmers, especially the older ones. I have gotten a lot of wise words from them. You realize what science has an explanation for, a farmer probably thought of as a traditional norm or cultural practice, which fascinates me at times.
- What would you say are the key elements to being successful?
Consistency for one is important. Not being afraid to take risks and to fail.
- What advice would you give somebody just starting out in your line of work?
The grass is not greener on the other side (laughs). Work on the ground.
Try as much as possible to learn what the farmer needs and master your trade. Don’t rush into anything and definitely network.
To the women challenges are vast in fieldwork, there is intimidation and undermining. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for your worth.
- What has been your most satisfying moment in terms of career?
There are a few but I’d say when I got into the YPARD mentoring program in Kenya. Mentorship for me has been great since it has meant accountability. I was matched with a really brilliant mentor who is successful in her own right. The networking opportunities and lessons have been great. I have met amazing mentors and mentees who are change-makers in Kenya.
I would also say having my voice as a young professional heard in agriculture in Rwanda during the agricultural transformation forum and recently in Cameroon during the annual GFRAS meeting.
- What makes you happy?
Quite a few things make me happy. Does peanut butter count? I love peanut butter. I also love travelling, seeing new things and visiting new places.
Also riding a motorbike on a country road with nothing but open space is quite refreshing.
The beach, I love chilling by the beach, especially in Diani.
- What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
I love to travel, I’m the kind of person who’d take a bus ride down to the coast for a day or two and then come back. I also watch anime, read especially in transit and write when I can.
- Where do you see yourself in around 10 years?
In terms of my career, definitely in research finding solutions for our depleting soil resources and actively contributing to sustainability. Climate change is real, we need to all chip in and be aware of our contributions to it.
God willing, I should have my PhD by then. Hopefully, I will also definitely be carrying out large-scale farming and processing.
I also want to finally learn how to play the violin, does that count?
If you would like to interact with Emily, you can find her on social media at @idiskey.
Pearls And Heels: Abigail Arunga