Mark Korir is Programme Manager for the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), based in Nairobi, Kenya.
*This series of ANH Academy career journeys were taken from real interviews, carried out by Lauren McIntyre, IMMANA Research Uptake Manager.
Tell us about your background. Where, when, and what did you study at university for your undergraduate and graduate studies?
A very interesting course, BSc. Agriculture at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. At that time, we didn't have specialisation. We did a wholesome degree program that spans all scientific areas of agriculture, ranging from soil science, to soil chemistry to animal physiology. I went to work with the Minister of Agriculture as an extension officer, trying to help the farming community to improve on productivity, looking at their soils, looking at the varieties they need to plant and matching them with agroecological zones. We were very energetic at the time, probably we may not be as energetic now. Then later on I pursued a master's degree in agricultural economics, and also a PhD in agricultural economics from Moi university in Eldoret, Kenya.
What does your role involve day-to-day?
I run a master's program in Agricultural and Applied Economics with 4 specialization areas including elective courses on food and nutrition security, because we feel it is very important to have these particularly for our region, which faces a lot of food insecurity and climate variability. And apart from that, we do research in this space. With the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, AERC runs a research project called Agricultural Policy Analysis for Nutrition Outcomes (AFPON) which seeks to link agricultural policies to nutrition outcomes.
Did you always want to be an educator?
Apparently, people tell me I am a very good educator. Of course, I didn't quite know myself. It is very interesting to pass on knowledge to groups, to my students in class. When you give real life examples of what you have seen out there it's very interesting, so having experience working as an extension worker is great.
What are the biggest challenges in your work?
What I see, as the latest challenge that just came the other day was delivery of web program activities under the COVID-19 situation. We had to quickly think through how we could still deliver the program activities without undue inconvenience. Fortunately, in 2015 there were some initiatives towards blended learning and we had already started developing materials for students online. It was an uphill task to build all this process quickly onto the portal ready for delivery.
What are you looking forward to this year at work?
Just within my immediate thinking because I am in a capacity building institution. We have previously managed to publish in let's say mid-level general journals. At this time, we want to go higher in this. Why? Because when we publish in reputable journals then we get it to be known by peers, and even those who are above us in terms of academic excellence. Therefore, we want to push the excellence a little bit higher and this is by penetrating highly reputable journals, particularly for our faculty and for our students. That is what I really want to do this year. We also began our learning management system this year, it is basically a Moodle-based program and we want to refine this. We will look at issues of maneuverability, user-friendy multimedia. You know YouTube, discussion forums, make it better for the students and lecturers. We don't know how long we shall be in this COVID situation, it looks like online learning will be here for some time. We want to make sure the materials that we provide and the environment in which our lecturers teach is conducive enough so that they can deliver the material as effectively as is possible.
What's most satisfying aspect of ANH work?
When a student graduates or gives us a testimony that the master’s program, or scholarship helped them to achieve their career goals. I say yes, I'm very happy that I was part of this, that we identified a student who can now contribute to the development of their countries and their regions or open up their careers just because we played a part.
If you did not have the job that you have now, what would you do and would it be ANH-related?
It is very likely I would be in a small farm, because I really like the countryside. Out of the hustle and bustle of the city, you know, fresh air. The farm is very good, because that's where I grew up.
Was there a time where you had to learn a great deal in a short amount of time (a learning curve)?
I could probably give two or three incidences. One is when I was doing my PhD, it occurred to me that I was almost practically alone. You don’t go to a lecture and get the material, we had to digest tough coursework material. For example, macroeconomics was tough, you read one textbook the whole day, and you find you're not getting the stuff. So, it was quite an unhappy test. Secondly, when I came to an NGO-type setup and realized that staff do a huge variety of tasks. You do practically everything on your desk. Projects were added to the desk, and then another one comes in. Fortunately, we managed by extra careful planning, making sure we have a good filing system and that we were on top of everything all the time. Of course, the last one is COVID and developing the online learning management system. We had two portals and protocols of registration. All these students from 17 nationalities, you know, everyone is waiting on the other end, and someone says I cannot log on. So, it was hectic, but somehow we managed.
Have there been any highlights for you so far/ what are you most proud of?
I think I can say at the moment, we have managed to train about 1300 agricultural economists since the program began, which to me is the great thing. We have reached about 17 nations in Sub Saharan Africa. Some of them are what we call the post-conflict and fragile countries where they don't have a lot of support to do graduate studies. We have managed to have inroads in some of these countries and that is something we are happy about. Of course, we also do a lot of research related to agricultural economics. We cover Sub Saharan Africa, when we sit back and look at the effect on people in West Africa, in South Africa, in East Africa then I think, that is great. And then I think we are even ready to, you know, go to greater heights.
Would you recommend others to study Agricultural Economics?
Economics is about prioritising what is most important, which is essential to identify where you allocate resources. Agriculture is a mainstay of most African countries up to today. Of course, we want to say manufacturing, or the service sector, but up to 60 to 70% of livelihoods still depend on agriculture. In this case, we have to worry ourselves about the allocation of resources in this field, not only just for efficiency, but also for producing the required output. For example, we wake up in the morning, and on the table, there is breakfast. That is agriculture; you need tea, you need coffee, you need the bacon and eggs; that's agriculture. Students should consider this so that they are able to help develop policies in this space to help optimise resource management.
What's your experience of collaborating with other disciplines in agriculture, nutrition and health?
My experience has been great. Particularly because I have a background in general agriculture. I remember the unit called food technology; it was a very interesting subject. When I go to the Agriculture, Nutrition and Health Academy and I meet nutritionists, I really feel at home because I have some background information already afoot. I know the basic foods, I know what vitamins are there, I know what is needed for good health. I remember things like the Krebs cycle from my undergraduate days. I remember being in the lab and you're told about meats and lysine, tryptophan etc. So, when I connect with nutritionists, it's comfortable for me. We all need to connect to make it more wholesome and knowledge-based to be more useful to an individual, because if you just think of agriculture without nutrition then it is an incomplete system.
What would your advice be to early career researchers on working with other disciplines?
I would advise that we have a multidisciplinary approach, let us have teams, no one person or researcher is an authority in everything. You will be an authority in one field but you need your colleague in another field to make sense of your research. For example, we were doing nutrition research recently from an agricultural economics point of view. We realised that we were unable to go deep into the nutrition issues, because we were using proxies which are less accurate. So, we sought a multi-disciplinary approach instead.
Did you have any experience of rejection or failure in your career path?
I have not had extremely serious a kind of rejections . But of course, as you work, because you're an individual, you meet less than optimal responses from those you interact with. Let me just mention one, I did not manage to graduate on time. Procedures were really tough, and sometimes you may not manage to surmount timeously. So here I am, I've submitted my work ready to graduate, but I was told that the external examination is not complete, the time had expired. It was kind of a failure in a way, because I had to decide if I should go back to work then regret it later. So that was a drawback of some sort, because I went to the office to be told ‘congratulations, have you graduated?’ and I had to say no. My advice would be to give time to a situation, because you might think that things are extremely bad at the moment, but time will change your perspective. Patience is important, it is key. Others may progress at a different pace, they may be slower than you so also give them time.
How do you manage stress at work and what advice would you give others?
One thing I have learned is, it is very important to plan and prioritise. Have your diary with you, if it's not an electronic dairy, then have a physical one so that you tabulate all that you are supposed to do or what is on the table by timeline so that you know what comes first, what comes last, what is urgent, what's important. At the end of the day, you might have four or five assignments but you must begin with one as you cannot do five at the same time. Know what is expected of you at all times, and despite the fact that you may sometimes go off schedule you will at the end of the day finish. Another thing is it’s important for people working with you, particularly those who supervise you to know the challenge you have, so that they can support you. With that understanding the pressure is reduced, otherwise if you keep quiet then you can explode.
What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies or clubs you are a member of?
I normally take off during the weekend to the farm in the countryside. It’s a mixed farm with a few animals. We have a kitchen garden where you get most of your vegetables and a few fruit trees, oranges and some avocado and stuff like that. It’s good to do things out of the normal routine, which is very relaxing and rejuvenating. If I don't have to do anything, I can just relax and be quiet and the stress will disappear.
How do you balance your work and family life?
Most of the weekends and holidays I dedicate to family. During the week I dedicate to work and at the weekends it’s family time at the farm together.
Have your family played a role in choosing your career path?
Not much in terms of beginning a career choice, but more on the decision on whether we should proceed with an opportunity that comes around. For example, I was already in the Ministry of Agriculture, and then an opportunity comes for me to join the university. We table this and decide together to go for it. That is how they have endorsed most of the time. When my current contract ends there is already an endorsement from my family that should it be renewed. If the family is not stable, the delivery at the workplace becomes a problem. Why because if the family unit is not moving properly and functioning, then we would find that all the time we may be required to sort something out here and there. While we have a choice of career, let us have eyes on the family, let us make sure that we do not forget them. Fortunately, in this region we still have strong ties with marriages to continue, we cherish that a lot. Everyone wants to have the unit, a team going on.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in science?
One of my professors at the university who is also an agricultural economist, kept telling us about universities in America, where he obtained his PhD. He would give us a lot of stories and inspire us and we thought yes, being an agricultural economist really is a very rewarding. So that initially created my thinking about this career. That's why at some point after agriculture, I went for an MSc in agricultural economics. I think I made the right decision to follow this path. When I reflect back, I can see it is extremely rewarding. Even in the job market, there are quite a decent number of institutions that take up agricultural economists. When we look at the CGIAR systems, universities, institutions of higher learning and research organizations, there are plenty of opportunities for young graduates.
What have your experiences with mentoring involved?
The kind of mentoring I've had is on thesis and project supervision. Even this morning, one of my graduate students we worked together in 2000 successfully defended his PhD. He sent me a text message to let me know, and to say that he was happy I had been mentoring him. In fact, I didn't actually know that I was mentoring him! I just remember he came to me and asked me so many questions about academics. I answered and we talked for almost one hour. Then later on, he was a first-class student on the master’s program that I manage. We kept in touch and he asked for my advice over email about job opportunities and further studies. Even though I was not really assigned as his mentor, when I got the message today, it was so gratifying. I thought oh, I have really contributed to the success of this young man. The space that I have formally in mentoring is assisting students to do research, academic research. And it is normally rewarding, very, very rewarding. You know, a student comes to you with a topic, you look at it, you say this is not a researchable topic. Then you interact, give them ideas. This relationship is cordial, with mutual respect, knowing that this is somebody who is still early in their career who has the potential to learn from you.
What challenges to students face in your field that are different to when you studied?
I find that the world is now quite dynamic. In our time we would travel to distant libraries, for example. Your professor would tell you go and read this hard book in Nairobi and you are 300 kilometers away. Then you say, alright, you look for ways you go sit in the library, read, take notes and request some photocopies. Today you can Google, you can go to the Google Scholar and get fantastic material. Learning actually has become easy in the sense that technology has enabled. You know, I can even read materials from Harvard University from the top-notch institutions. They are all within our disposal. While that is the situation, it also poses challenges. We now face what we term as plagiarism, because students get access and then they present the material. What we now do is inform students what they need to do, acknowledging that the material obtained, belongs to someone. So yes, proper citations, and when you also read and understand what the material is, you paraphrase it in your own words.
What is one piece of advice you could give to someone beginning their career in your field?
My experience tells me that one needs to have the basic principles right. As you begin your undergraduate and as you go to your graduate school, make sure that you have the building blocks right. I am just sharing with you about biochemistry, which I did almost 20 or 25 years ago. I still remember the basic principles because I went to class and I was interested in knowing these things. So, when you go out there and join a nutrition a field, you know what people are talking about. It is about being disciplined and making sure that you learn. Otherwise, if you kind of luck your way through, you will find that at some point the career just crumbles because you're not grounded.
Can you recommend something for people who need inspiration or information about a career in your field?
For the beginning we can start with our website at https://aercafrica.org/ where you'll find a lot of material on capacity building in Africa. We are rich in economics, we are reaching peak that is masters and PhD in economics and also in the collaborative master’s program in agricultural and applied economics. We have some material on the web, in fact publications which may be very useful to graduate students. We have book volumes that we have come up with and we have really a good repository.