Dr. Fun, a scientist who became a science communicator.
Kenneth Monjero is a biotechnologist working with Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO Biotech). He is also the Founder of Fun & Education Global Network and Pioneer and Director of KALRO Science Centre Kenya and a former postgraduate in Crop Science from the University of Nairobi. He is well known globally by students as Dr. Fun as he comes up with ingenious ways for making children between 5 -18 years appreciate the beauty and importance of science
TCC Africa: Tell us about your career journey from being a researcher to communicating science.
My aspiration has always been to add value to agricultural research and especially on food security. This was the consequence of growing up in a background with limited food resources. Food is so vital yet so scarce was it that we were not producing enough? Were our soils diseased? These were some of the questions I often pondered on. Getting into university was a challenge as my performance was not at per with the requirements but despite that I was the first person to finish a high school education in our community. Even then, my interest in food and agriculture remained. I came to Nairobi and was able to get into the Kenya Polytechnic to pursue Applied Biology which I was able to pay for by working at part time and odd jobs.
I then got an opportunity in 2006 to work as a technician at the Biotechnology Research Institute (BRI) an institute under The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) where my journey in research advanced. I was able to pursue a degree in Applied Biology and now winding up on Master degree in Crop Protection at the University of Nairobi. Part of how I was able to further advance my studies was through financial savings as well as aid from a donor. I met the donor who was then a professor at Sao Paulo University, while at a conference in South Africa where I had won prizes of best presentation and best Poster. The professor approached me after having won the prizes and after narrating my academic journey, decided to partially fund my degree.
My career objective has always been to impact not only to my community but also look into the constraints that are making us suffer in terms of hunger, food security and I feel have contributed to research and development of products within food security scope.
TCC Africa: Throughout your journey, you have been consistent in being a crop scientist and eventually ended up working for the largest Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization in Eastern and Central Africa. What inspired or triggered the move from being a crop scientist to a Science Communicator?
During my research in food security and product development, I realized there is another key impediment affecting adoption of technologies and products. There is a gap between scientist and the non-scientific audience whereas agriculture is practiced by almost everyone. People for whom this technology was intended were not getting to participate and guidance from scientist. Publications are very key but unfortunately those mainly communicate to the scientific community. Thus from then I focused on ways to enhance productivity and adoption of products by the end users through utilization of effective communication. That was how I came across the Training Centre in Communication courses and attended training in 2011 and 2020. In 2011 I joined the Biotechnology Outreach Programme where we worked with farmers to develop products other than the previous way of developing products for farmers. The skills I learned from TCC enabled me communicate and interact with both the scientific and non-scientific audience thus add value to the product development process.
TCC Africa: Why was your target on children rather than adults?
One of the reasons is the low uptake of STEM and technology by learners which has often been the subject of discussion across different sectors. I realized that we should nurture children to realize the importance of science by encouraging their curiosity and increasing awareness of the value of such programs in developing lifelong skills. This also promotes career development by helping orient the learner towards their career choice or goal. This is how I plunged into connecting early childhood, primary schools and high school learners with the scientific community to encourage them towards their career paths.
TCC Africa: What is the youngest age that you have taken up?
We have worked with different age groups from five (5) years onwards where we engage them on non-directed education programmes. At this early stage they explore and are amazed at different things from plants to insects.
TCC Africa: How did you get the name Dr. Fun?
My research required that I work with the community rather than for the community thus I took up a trans-disciplinary approach. This saw me attend courses at different universities in order to build on my skills and knowledge in Science Communication. I ended up attending the Australian National University, Stellenbosch University and North West University in South Africa where I received training. I also attended Cornell University where I interacted with lots of programs on science, public engangement and communication in the agricultural field. At Cornell, I did programs at Montessori schools and it was at one of these that children gave me the nickname Dr. Fun which I have been using since then.
TCC Africa: What is your current position at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization?
When I came back from my studies, I decided to approach my institution and suggested we approach things differently. Since KALRO is a large research organization which receive visits from different schools and training institutions, there was need to develop a robust informal education program. Our director general embraced the need for science communication and established the first children science center based within KALRO which I am in charge of.
TCC Africa: With the pandemic at hand we saw that you quickly adapted to the situation and started offering online courses. How adaptive were the children to the trainings and how far did your programs reach on a global scale?
The pandemic has seen the closure of many businesses and crippled full functioning of many organizations and academic institutions. It was during this period that I decided to start a private organization focused on global children network. The Fun and Education Global Network (FEGNe) serves as a learning medium that develops children skills through fun, informal education and networking. We have managed to connect with children across the globe from the US, Canada, Iran, Australia, China, India, Ghana and South Africa through online platforms. The children are able to share and have virtual tours and exchange cultural set ups.
Aside from that we have been able to leverage on the online platform and have ambassadors, professors and various diplomats that connected with children and even award them certificates.
TCC Africa: Your journey has gone beyond what you had originally envisioned and been filled with a lot of exciting moments. What have been the lows in your career?
Earlier on in my academic career, I had a mentor who did not believe in me. I was at a lower academic level and was made to believe that in order to achieve I had to level up or be at a certain education level. I once had a poster presentation in Cairo, Egypt but he belittled my efforts and insisted that I did not need to go. However, I persisted in my efforts and managed to book a flight and accommodation.
This trip also uncovered my ignorance of language and what I like to use as a teaching moment on the importance of communication no matter the level of education.
While travelling long distances between places in Kenya I preferred not to eat or drink before the journey since most buses didn’t stop for rest or bathroom breaks. Since it was my first time travelling on the plane, I applied the same as I did not know that there were restrooms on the plane. I knew of the word lavatory but did not understand what it meant. I suffered all the way to Egypt not eating or drinking anything. I had heard of planes with football and volleyball play space from stories my uncles would tell but not lavatories and happened to find one only by chance on my journey back.
TCC Africa: What does the future hold for Dr. Fun and the programmes you are manage?
The future is bright in terms of engaging the non-scientific audience. With the competence based education system introduced in Kenyan schools, we are headed into a more practical direction.
We need to help out in terms of enhancing teachers’ capacity development on what activities they can use so that we can increase appetite for science and technologies and practice. I also see a future where research institutions work together with education institutions to impact on our communities.
I’m tapping into higher education level and retired scholars since they are resourceful so we can nurture and empower young people.
TCC Africa : Thank you for your time and sharing your exciting stories with us!
By TCC Africa and the University of Nairobi Team