JOEL TANUI: AGRONOMIST WITH GOLDEN HANDS DELIVERING CHANGE
JOEL TANUI: AGRONOMIST WITH GOLDEN HANDS DELIVERING CHANGE
Mr. Joel Tanui is the Nyanza Regional Coordinator and Western Kenya Irrigation Schemes (Ahero and West Kano) manager at the National Irrigation Authority (NIA). People, his colleagues, including those he supervises regard him as a performer, philanthropist, and a mentor par excellence. He is an honourable man honored in this region.
Widely read and experienced in matters agriculture, he never thought he would fall in love with this discipline. His heart was in commerce, eyeing Finance to deal with stocks and related subjects.
This interview was conducted at his office in Ahero Irrigation Scheme.
The praises I have heard about you are overwhelming. How have you obtained this favour?
Nothing really (he murmurs). Thinking of it, I came to make change and change is what I have delivered. I am a hands-on person and as such, I am fully involved in everything I do.
Take me through your growing up.
I grew up in Nandi, the land of tea, in a family of five. The first born and the only boy child. My father worked for a multinational company as a manager, hence we had enough to go by. My education started at Nandi Hills Academy, now referred to as Nandi Hills Primary School and continued at Lelwak Primary School in the village after my father resigned and ventured into dairy and tea farming. My first day at school was dramatic. Kids surrounded me, amazed to see me in shoes. As you can guess, that was the last day I wore shoes to Lelwak. My mum, the disciplinarian, ensured I was in full school uniform, including shoes, but on leaving her sight, I would remove them and have them back on in the evening. I had to fit in, or maybe, I needed to.
My performance earned me a space at Kapsabet High School then later to the University of Nairobi (UoN) for a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture (he pauses). By the way, I shared the same university and hall with our current Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Mr. Gitonga Mugambi and his Deputy General Manager, Operations (DGM,O), Mr. Daniel Atula. We have a common training background.
Was your heart always in Agriculture?
Not at all. Commerce was it for me. I declined an offer to study agriculture at UoN and had my parents and uncle take me to Kenya School of Professional Studies where I thought I would talk the Principal into studying commerce as a self-sponsored student. It turned into a guidance and counselling session, leaving me convinced to study Agriculture.
Back then, I understand you had a two-year break before joining university. Was it the case with you?
Yes. It worked very well with me because as I helped my father with his dairy and tea farming, he was gracious enough to gift me 10 acres of land on which I cropped sunflower and Boma Rhodes and sold the produce to Kenya Seed Company. I joined UoN in 2001 a rich kid with a Sony Ericsson worth KSh10,000 and a Sh3,000-sim card. Nowadays sim cards go for KSh50.00? (We laugh and I interject, ‘Some are actually free of charge’ and the laughter continues. He still uses the same phone number to date).
What do you recall about your first job?
It was at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), [now the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, KALRO]. In my last year, I visited the Director General to pitch for a job which he granted, saying that my daring and courageous spirit earned me the position. I began at the Agricultural Information Centre with the task of reviewing the agricultural goods received at the institution. Six months into it, I applied and got a job as the assistant project manager with Farming Systems Kenya (FSK), department of Crops and Environment, providing leadership in the crop production trainings. I also planned and facilitated implementation of rural households integrated agricultural and water projects funded by United Nations Development Programme in Nakuru and Baringo counties.
Where did your story at NIA begin?
A year into FSK, I applied for an advertised Irrigation Officer job in the Daily Nation newspaper to an undisclosed organisation (ended up to be NIA). Two months later, I received a called from Grace Gitahi, the then secretary to the CEO (Eng. Phillip Olum) and now the Senior Administration Officer at the Authority, inviting me for an interview. Out of 12 candidates, 10 were already working as casuals in the organisation. Catherine Machunga, an Irrigation Research Officer at Tana Irrigation Scheme and I got the job. Notably in the interview was Mr. Gitonga Mugambi, at the time in charge of Planning and Ag. Chief Human Resource Officer and Mr. Daniel Atula, the Chief Irrigation Officer. Later, I learnt from Mr. Mugambi that after my interview, the Chairman of the Board seconded by his Board said “Wow. We have the candidate we were looking for.”
How is the journey?
I began as an Irrigation Officer at Mwea Irrigation Agriculture Development (MIAD) Centre tasked with developing and managing a model farm to generate income for Mwea Irrigation Scheme under Dr. Raphael Wanjogu, currently the Chief Officer in charge of Research at NIA. A year later, I was deployed to Ahero Irrigation Research Station (AIRS) as the Officer-in-Charge. I revived the station and developed a model farm with the guidance of Mr. Abdi Hassan and Stephen Apome, who were the Manager and Irrigation Officer for Ahero respectively. The revival attracted international collaborators such as World Food Programme, Food and Agriculture Organisation, and students from different universities (local and international) doing their research from the station among others.
What do you pride in so far?
Among others, getting about 12,000 acres under irrigation. 1,500 acres in Bunyala Irrigation Scheme and about 10,000 acres in Ahero Irrigation Scheme, which currently has over 13,000 acres under irrigation in a record four years. It has needed a lot of community mobilisation and sensitisation and it wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of the highly talented and skilled officers in Nyanza, support from the Management and CEO and more so the farmers. As a result, we now serve over 10,000 farmers directly, have created over 50,000 jobs and benefitting more than 200,000 people indirectly. The CEO’s Award I got recently caught me by surprise and it is humbling to know that good work doesn’t go unnoticed.
Anyone you look up to at NIA?
Yes, Mr. Mugambi and Mr. Atula. I appreciate their guidance and belief in me. They have always tasked me with challenging responsibilities with the belief that I can deliver. I also admire how they work and I believe that having a common training background with them has helped us have a better understanding of each other.
What are some of the major setbacks you have experienced in line of duty?
Floods! In this region, when it rains, it pours. The bursting of the River Nzoia banks and the rising of water levels in Lake Victoria are catastrophic. In 2010, as the Manager at Bunyala Irrigation Scheme, I was excited with the developments in the Scheme among them increasing the acreage from 500 to 2,000 acres. The excitement did not last long; floods swept it all, submerging the infrastructure.
This being my first experience with floods, I laughed off people’s counsel to move to the highlands, which were safer and instead took my blanket and slept on my house’s rooftop. I hoped that by morning the water levels would have gone down only to wake up to the water levels having risen to my rooftop from where I was rescued. Ahero and West Kano Irrigation Schemes are also prone to floods. Through collaborations with the farmers and political leaders in the region, who appreciate the impact of rice in this region, we have always managed to get the farmers back to production.
What causes are you undertaking to give back to the Society?
I am a philanthropist. My wife and I have constructed a facility for Early Childhood Development and Education here in Ahero and plan to construct a modern facility in Nandi County. One’s upbringing influences them greatly, and as such, my wife and I would like to see young children learn in better environments. I also sponsor football tournaments in the community annually as well as pay school fees for some of the needy students in this community. Thirdly, through my connections with the University of Queensland, we have a Memorandum of Understanding for six months study sponsorship of one NIA staff annually. Eng. Charles Wanjala, an engineer at Ahero Irrigation Scheme, is a beneficiary. Finally, I am into mentoring young people who come under my wings. In my basket, I have among others, Mr. Ken Ouma, the current Manager at Lower Kuja Irrigation Scheme and Mr. Isaac Munga, an Irrigation Officer at Ahero Irrigation Scheme.
Yes, apart from the broader extended family, my nuclear circle includes my wife and three beautiful daughters (two are twins). She is from Pakistan. I met her in 2009 as a student from Wageningen University and Research, Netherlands. She was in Kenya for her research on entomology and mosquito control as part of her post-doctorate studies. Now, she is Kenyan and a researcher at International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). Some of the things, which beautify our union, are, firstly, contrary to the African norm of having your elders negotiate for your wife’s hand in marriage, I did it on my own. Secondly, manoeuvring through the cultural, racial, social and religious differences between us successfully contributes to the cherished moments and, thirdly, among others, the blessing of twins, in a period I was outside the country for studies and still being a hands-on dad, thanks to her making countless travels crowning it all.
How do you balance work and family life?
Thanks to my wife, I have a routine, which I follow to the letter. As a fitness enthusiast, I wake up every day at 4:00am and spend an hour at the gym. Then I prepare breakfast for my girls who are up at 6:30am for school. I get to the office by 7:30am. My days in the office are scheduled such that, I have time at the field with farmers, time with service providers/customers sorting out their issues and so on. Between 5:00-6:00pm, I follow up on my side-hustles, among them being poultry and avocado farming. I dedicate my time to my girls once I am home at 6.00pm.
Any advice to people starting out on their career?
Renew yourself professionally, take an extra mile, seek mentorship, and mingle with smart people.
Something I learnt from my favorite human; my grandma: never pay evil with evil, and you will never lack when you give.