Brilliant. Relentless. Exemplary. Inspiring. Trendsetter. These are just a few of the glowing tributes that Prof. Esther Murugi Kahangi (EBS) received at a colorful farewell luncheon as she officially retired from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in June 2022 after four decades of service.
The special luncheon was organized by the Department of Horticulture and Food Security, JKUAT, which was the genesis of Prof. Kahangi’s stellar career in academia, to honor her contributions to the field.
Principal College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (COANRE) Prof. David Mburu described Prof. Kahangi’s institutional memory as invaluable given that she was the longest serving member of the college, and its formation was largely due to her efforts.
“Prof. Kahangi’s handling of administrative matters was impressive, and it taught me the efficiency with which I now run the college. You have shaped our lives and made the college shine” said Prof. Mburu.
During the ceremony, Prof. Kahangi reminisced about her journey at JKUAT which started in May 1982. Back then, it was not easy for a young female graduate. Her passion for the discipline, and the desire to find local solutions for Agricultural problems is what catapulted her to success.
“Back then, the College was spending so much money buying seedlings which are a requisite resource for training in our field. I decided to establish a nursery, which others felt was an impossible feat, but we succeeded, by the Grace of God” said Prof. Kahangi
This determination towards responsive Agriculture would lead to many firsts, and solutions that would revolutionize the country.
Prof. Kahangi recalled how a JICA fellowship she received to study biotechnology in Japan from 1987 to 1988 paid off. It led to her groundbreaking research on the development of Tissue culture banana seedlings in 1991, which she accomplished while serving as the first Director of the Institute of Biotechnology Research at JKUAT.
This achievement also earned her the UNESCO Chair in Biotechnology in 2002.
Lauding this life-changing banana enterprise in Kenya, Prof. Fredah Wanzala, described Prof. Kahangi as an “astute farmer whose contributions to Biotechnology have immensely impacted the world”. She also thanked her for the mentorship especially in support of women leaders, such as herself, now current Dean of Students, JKUAT.
This desire to support women was also reiterated by Director University Community Development and Outreach (UCDO) Dr. David Kagima, who said that the In-country Women programme was started by Prof. Kahangi during her 10-year tenure as the Deputy Vice Chancellor Research Production and Extension (DVC RPE) between 2007 and 2017.
Prior to this appointment, Prof. Kahangi had been rated among the Top Fifty Women in East Africa by True Love Magazine (2005) and named as the Eve Academic Woman of the Year and also as the overall Eve Woman of the Year (2004).
As DVC RPE, Prof. Kahangi brought forth many other life-changing projects such as the Mkulima TV program, an Agricultural show that earns JKUAT revenue. Her tenure also facilitated the commencement of the popular JKUAT Tech Expo, a students’ run expo which premiered in 2009, in a bid to encourage and support students’ innovative ideas in order to come up with creative, world-transforming innovations billed to offer solutions to real problems affecting humanity.
In his message, Prof. Daniel Sila, Dean School of Nutrition and (SOFNUS) attributed to Prof. Kahangi the eureka moment that enabled the JKUAT team to secure the Manufacturing Research Chair Project . Her knowledge of plants is what inspired the team to consider the coconut, a decision that led to their win.
“COANRE is number one in research largely due to Prof. Kahangi’s work and that needs to be immortalized. Her vibrancy and meticulous approach to research are unmatched and her mentorship has inspired and enabled so many of us to secure research funding. I look forward to having you as a Professor Emerita so that others can tap into that great energy,” enthused Prof. Sila.
As a researcher who secured over 4 million dollars in research grants, Prof. Kahangi advised the faculty on financial discipline saying it makes it easier to be accountable to donors and project beneficiaries, thereby enhancing their respect and confidence in the university. This, in turn, helps an institution be more competitive and can increase its chances of maintaining long-term funding.
Despite the passion she has for the university, Prof. Kahangi had planned her exit strategy. “There comes a time when you must give it a stop. I could have requested for another contract but after you have been in a place for forty years, is there nothing else to do?” posed Prof. Kahangi
Prof Kahangi does not intend to rest on her laurels. She has embarked on avocado farming which was prompted by attendees to her various conferences in a bid to learn from her expertise. So far she has successfully harvested over 20 tonnes of the golden fruit, a feat that many have not achieved.
This success, she partly attributes to proper application of academic theory, proof that university curricula do work. For the most part though, Prof. Kahangi is cognizant of a higher power. God. Her close relationship with God has been the catalyst for this iconic legacy.