Bowling Green State University’s President visits Kenya to assess project, meet alumni, and strengthen partnerships

The visit was a door-opener for more Kenya-BGSU partnerships, and rubberstamped the immense impact the research project has, not only in Africa, but also globally.

Prof. Rodney Rogers (R), President of the Bowling Green State University, USA, poses for a photo with Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) CEO James Njiru (L) in Kisumu on Saturday, May 27, 2023, after he made a historic visit to Kenya. PHOTO/Kefa Otiso.
Prof. Rodney Rogers (R), President of the Bowling Green State University, USA, poses for a photo with Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) CEO James Njiru (L) in Kisumu on Saturday, May 27, 2023, after he made a historic visit to Kenya. PHOTO/Kefa Otiso.
  • In 2015, BGSU and Kisii University inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to promote joint research and faculty and student exchanges.
  • At the invitation of Prof. Otiso, the President of BGSU, Prof. Rodney Rodgers, visited Kenya for a week recently.
  • The US-funded, high-profile project, which seeks to understand the ecology, spatial distribution, and toxicity patterns of the Microcystis-dominated harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Kisumu Bay, could pave the way for action to combat the HABs.

Our research project is unique because it exposes North American and Kenyan/African students to research on harmful algal blooms (HABs) in North American and African Great Lakes

Prof. Kefa Otiso, Co-Principal Investigator.

Research, both on paper and in the field, is a key ingredient and eye-opener in decision-making, and is a mover of today’s world, especially now that researchers are using this vital element in solving community problems.

Better pathways, more pragmatic approaches to society’s natural and human-made challenges and clearer solutions are all being unearthed and figured out through research.

When Dr. Kefa Otiso, a Professor of Geography at Bowling Green State University—BGSU (USA), came back to Kenya for a 3-month Fellowship at Kisii University in 2015 and 2016, nobody knew that this would contribute to the formation of a most productive and impactful partnership between Kisii University and BGSU.

Sent from BGSU back to the continent, Prof. Otiso was on a Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship (CADF), a prestigious fellowship for US and Canadian African diaspora scholars that enables them to work at African higher education institutions for up to 90 days at a time on curriculum co-development, collaborative research, and/or graduate student teaching/mentoring.

“I came to work on all three project activities and to help establish the Department of Geography at Kisii University,” he narrates. Kisii University has since become the second-largest beneficiary of the CADFP in Kenya after the University of Nairobi.

A section of Kisii University. PHOTO/Courtesy.

In 2015, BGSU and Kisii University inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to promote joint research and faculty and student exchanges.

“The signing of the MoU was one of the highlights of my work while at Kisii University,” Prof. Otiso says.

Since then, the two institutions have held joint conferences and workshops and exchanged top administrator visits.

They have also made joint research grant applications, such as the successful one currently funding their ongoing Lake Victoria water quality research project (see below).

BGSU is a public, high-research, nationally ranked, comprehensive university in Bowling Green, Ohio, US. Since the 1950s, it has been one of the leading educators of Kenyan students in the US. 

For instance, the late James Karugu, Kenya’s second Attorney General, studied History and Political Science at BGSU from 1958 to 1962 and was recognized as one of the top 100 BGSU Alumni in 2010.

Beyond being an Urban-Economic Geographer at BGSU, Prof. Otiso is also the outgoing Graduate Coordinator for the School of Earth, Environment and Society (SEES) and the Director of the university’s Global Village LearningCommunity, whose aim is “to improve the global and cross-cultural awareness of our students through inhouse programming, fieldtrips to ethnic enclaves in major US cities like Chicago, and by connecting international and domestic students,” he told Scholar Media Africa.

BGSU President visits Kenya

At the invitation of Prof. Otiso, the President of BGSU, Prof. Rodney Rodgers, visited Kenya for a week from May 21-28, 2023, a historic visit in diverse aspects.

The purpose of this maiden visit to Africa was to enable him to meet with BGSU alumni in Kenya, see the progress of BGSU’s ongoing Lake Victoria water quality research project, meet with BGSU’s Kenyan partners, and explore opportunities for further collaboration with Kenyan universities and research institutes.

He was accompanied by his wife, Dr. Sandra Earle, a volunteer BGSU advocate diversely supporting students, and by Prof Otiso, who coordinated the visit with the assistance of Tom Snitch, BGSU’s Washington D.C. representative.

At Kisii University, the BGSU delegation met Prof. John Akama, now the immediate former Vice Chancellor of the institution; Prof. Anakalo Shitandi, the former DVC Academics and Student Affairs at the university; Dr. Evans Basweti, the current DVC Academics and Student Affairs; and Prof. Joseph Mailutha, the Acting VC Kisii University, and other senior university leaders.

L to R: Drs. Evans Basweti, Kefa Otiso, the then Kisii University VC John Akama, BGSU President Rodney Rogers, Sandra Earle Rogers, and Anakalo Shitandi at Kisii University on Friday, May 26, 2023. PHOTO/Kisii University.

Thereafter, the BGSU delegation toured the Kisii University main campus before driving to Kisumu on Friday afternoon (May 26, 2023), to meet with Kisumu County Governor Prof. Anyang Nyong’o.

There, the delegation updated the governor on the progress of the ongoing Lake Victoria water quality research project and invited the governor to visit BGSU and Northwest Ohio at an opportune time.

President Rodney Rogers (L) with Kisumu County Gov. Prof. Anyang Nyong’o (M) and Prof. Kefa Otiso (R) on Friday, May 26, 2023. PHOTO/Kefa Otiso.

The historic visit, the first by a sitting BGSU President to Africa, also opened gates for the university’s top leader to confer with senior Ministry of Education officials in efforts to develop more international partnerships for the university and also to savor Kenya’s rich cultural and wildlife heritage.

“On Monday, May 22, 2023, we met senior Ministry of Education officials, including those in charge of the Directorate of Higher Education led by Mr. Darius Ogutu and Dr. Wahome Rureri of the State Department for Higher Education and Research; Dr. Agnes Wahome, CEO, Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS); Prof Paul Shiundu and Prof. Kamau Ngamau, Vice Chancellors of TUK and Cooperative University of Kenya respectively.

President Rodney Rogers (4th from left) and other members of the BGSU delegation met with Mr. Darius Ogutu (2nd from right), Dr. Wahome Rureri (3rd from right) and other senior Kenya Government officials in charge of Higher Education and Research in Nairobi on Monday, May 22, 2023. PHOTO/Kefa Otiso.

We also met Prof. Mwenda Ntarangwi, the former Commission for University Education (CUE) CEO, and USAID/Kenya and East Africa officials Mr. Bert Ubamadu (Deputy Mission Director) and Ms. Michelle Chan (in charge of Education and Youth Affairs), and some of BGSU’s alumni in Kenya,” explains Prof. Otiso.

President Rogers (L) meets with Mr. Bert Ubamadu (M) and Ms. Michelle Chan (2nd from L) of USAID/Kenya and East Africa in Nairobi on Monday, May 22, 2023. He was accompanied by BGSU’s Drs. Sandra Earle Rogers and Kefa Otiso. PHOTO/Kefa Otiso.

Some of the BGSU alumni in Kenya include Dr. Amos Olwendo (2008, BSc Computer Science), Jason Maageria (2018, MA Pop Culture), Joyce Keige – Ngugi (1982, BFA Graphic Design), Carole Kariuki (2003, MA Public Administration), David Wakanene (2007, Master of Accountancy), Caroline Karani (2007, BSc Nutrition Dietetics & 2010, Master of Public Health)

Dr. Faith Ngunjiri (2005, Master of Organizational Development & 2006 Doctor of Education in Leadership Studies), Prof. Claire Njeri Wamae (1980, BSc Parasitology and Medical Entomology), Dr. Mwendah M’Mailutha (2008, MA Public Administration & 2012, Ph.D. in Communication), Caroline Mukiira (2001, BSc Computer Science), Marcan W. Masudi (2009, MSc. Industrial Technology)

Presiden Rogers (back left) with some BGSU alumni and friends at Sankara Hotel Nairobi on Tuesday, May 23, 2023. PHOTO/Chamsmedia.

Jerusha Mukonene (2010, BSc Nursing), Njambi Ouattara – Tarus (2003, MA Public Administration), James Gatimu Muchemi (1982, MSc Pest Management), Patricia Ng’ethe (2016 MA Public Administration), and Jonah Onkendi Ondieki (MA Public Administration). BGSU’s first Kenyan alumnus, the late James Karugu (1962, BA History and Political Science), was represented at the Sankara Hotel Nairobi alumni meet-up on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, by his daughter Ms. Victoria Karugu.

Retired BGSU biology lecturer Dr. Kamau Wakanene also graced the event.

While in Kenya, the BGSU team also met with Mrs. Margaret Obaga, the Kisii County CEC for Agriculture, Fisheries, Livestock Development, and Irrigation, and agreed to explore areas of cooperation.

President Rogers (R) with Mrs. Margaret Obaga, the Kisii County CEC for Agriculture, Fisheries, Livestock Development, and Irrigation, on Thursday, May 25, 2023. PHOTO/Kefa Otiso.

They also visited a coffee farm in Kiambu, the Maasai Mara and Lake Nakuru Game Parks, and the Tabaka Soapstone industries. The Tabaka area is a world-renowned soapstone art center.

President Rogers and Sandra Earle Rogers at the Kisii Soapstone Art Centre in Nyabigege Market near Tabaka in Kisii County on Thursday, May 25, 2023. PHOTO/Kefa Otiso.

While in Kisumu, the BGSU delegation visited Kenya Shipyards Limited on Saturday, May 27, 2023, and was impressed by the ongoing construction of MV Uhuru II.

Later that day, they took a short cruise on KMFRI’s RV Uvumbuzi (Discovery) in the company of KMFRI CEO, Prof. James Njiru, before driving to Lake Nakuru Game Park in Nakuru County, Kenya.

Giraffes at Kenya's Lake Nakuru Game Park. PHOTO/Kefa Otiso.
Giraffes at Kenya’s Lake Nakuru Game Park. PHOTO/Kefa Otiso.

“On Sunday, May 28, 2023, we did a game drive in Lake Nakuru Game Park in the morning before driving to Nairobi, from where President Rogers and his spouse flew back to the USA,” narrates Prof. Otiso.

Part of the Nairobi skyline. PHOTO/Kefa Otiso.

Lake Victoria research project

This high-profile water quality research project started in 2022 and is funded by the US National Science Foundation to the tune of $300,000. It is officially known as the Advanced Studies Institute on Water Quality and Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Victoria, Kenya.

BGSU is jointly implementing the project with Kisii University, the Technical University of Kenya, and Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) Kisumu.

Key players

The project, which seeks to understand the ecology, spatial distribution, and toxicity patterns of the Microcystis-dominated harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Kisumu Bay, could pave the way for action to combat the HABs.

The three-year project will contribute significantly to the country’s economy and research capacity.

Being one of the three people who successfully applied for the grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, Prof. Otiso is a co-principal investigator on the project.

The others are Drs. George S. Bullerjahn (Professor and Director, NIEHS/NSF Great Lakes Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health, Bowling Green State University, USA), Robert Michael McKay (Executive Director, Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, University of Windsor, Canada), Reuben Omondi (Research Scientist and Lecturer, Kisii University, Kenya)

Owuor Bethwell (Senior Lecturer, Biological Sciences Department, Kisii University, Kenya), Albert Getabu (Professor of Fisheries, Kisii University, Kenya), Lewis Sitoki (Senior Lecturer, Department of Geo-Sciences and the Environment, Technical University of Kenya), James Njiru (Director, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute)

Ken Drouillard (an Ecotoxicologist and Professor with the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research – GLIER, University of Windsor, Canada), and Ted Lawrence (Executive Director, African Center for Aquatic Research and Education).

Dr. Emma Tebbs, Lecturer in Physical Geography and Earth Observation, King’s College, London, is also a collaborator on the project.

Student participants

Student participants in the project in the last 2 years have included Anjana Adhikari (University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, USA), Jack Abibo Adem (Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology – JOOUST, Kenya), Trinity Allan (Florida Gulf Coast University, USA), Malcolm Barnard (Baylor University, USA), Mercy Chepkirui (Kisii University, Kenya), Lauren Hart (University of Michigan, USA), Nusrat Nasrin Khan (Arizona State University, USA)

Martha Moseti (Maasai Mara University, Kenya), Julia Akinyi Obuya (Maseno University, Kenya), Tonny Achieng (Kisii University, Kenya), Pamela Okutoyi (Technical University of Kenya, Kenya), Lisa Radock (Earth Science Teacher, Fort LeBoeuf School District, Erie, PA, USA), Dorine Achieng (Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, Kisumu, Kenya), Katelyn Barker (Bowling Green State University, USA), George Morara Basweti (Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, Kisumu, Kenya)

Max Beal (University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA), Katelyn Brown (Bowling Green State University, USA), Aidan Byrne (King’s College London & Natural History Museum, UK), Linet Kiteresi Imbayi (Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, Mombasa, Kenya), Davide Lomeo (King’s College London, Natural History Museum, & Plymouth Marine Laboratory, UK), Jared Babu Miruka (Kisii University & Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, Kisumu, Kenya), Samantha Mohney (George Mason University, USA)

Kaela Natwora (University of Minnesota-Duluth, USA), Pamela Okutoyi (Kenya Climate Innovation Centre Consulting, Nairobi, Kenya), Mark Olokotum (National Fisheries Resources Research Institute & Makerere University, Uganda), Dennis Otieno (Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, Kisumu, Kenya), Omondi Argwings Owino (Sigalagala National Polytechnic, Kenya)

Winnie Owoko (Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute Kisumu & Kisii University, Kenya), Jordyn Stoll (Kent State University, USA), Mariam Maku Swaleh (Technical University of Mombasa, Kenya), Emily Varga (University of Windsor, Canada), Ryan Wagner (Bowling Green State University, USA), and Brittany Zepernick (University of Tennessee Knoxville, USA).

Some of the participants of the 2023 Advanced Studies Institute on Water Quality and Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Victoria research project. Back L to R: Kefa Otiso, Katelyn Brown, Lisa Radock, Malcolm Barnard, Trinity Allan, Lauren Hart, Nusrat Nasrin Khan, Anjana Adhikari, George Mogwasi. Front L to R: George S. Bullerjahn and Ken Drouillard. PHOTO/Kefa Otiso.

Identifying the issue

“The project has so many moving parts, and my role is focused on looking into the socioeconomic impacts of the harmful algal blooms, especially on the people and animals within and beyond the Lake Victoria watershed.

Hopefully, we will ultimately come up with policy recommendations on how to incorporate all stakeholders in reducing the lake’s pollution in a bid to protect it,” Otiso says.

Nitrogen and phosphorous from farm fertilizers, household soap, cow dung and urine, among other contaminants, combined with Kenya’s abundant sunlight, year-round warm temperatures, and shallow Winam Gulf waters, create a thriving environment for harmful algal blooms.

They are characterized by greenish water scum but are different from water hyacinth, which is less of a challenge now in the gulf since the removal of the Mbita Causeway, which had long interfered with water currents in Winam Gulf.  

“Blue-green algae can produce toxins that can affect humans and animals, and deprive fish of oxygen, suffocating them to death. It also causes foul coastlines and affects communities and businesses that depend on the lake,” the co-principal investigator elucidates on why it’s a project of interest.

However, HABs are not limited to Lake Victoria. Instead, they are a growing problem in the world’s ponds, lakes, and oceans.

Lake Victoria supports the largest freshwater fishery globally. It produces an estimated 1 million tons of fish per year and employs around 200,000 people, who in turn support the livelihoods of 4 million people. Thus, protecting the lake’s ecosystem is a high global priority.

Prof. Otiso says that we all have a role in limiting Lake Victoria’s pollution by reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that enters the lake.

To do so, we should re-visit our farming methods, minimize fertilizer use in the lake’s watershed, reduce urban and industrial waste discharge into the lake, and desist from washing vehicles and motorbikes in the lake and its rivers using soap with phosphorous.

Moreover, livestock should be watered away from rivers to reduce the amount of nutrient-rich cow manure and urine that enters the lake through its rivers. Collectively, these steps would help to protect the lake’s water quality and preserve its benefits for current and future generations.

Bordering Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, with a surface area of approximately 59,947 km², Lake Victoria is Africa’s largest lake in terms of area, the planet’s largest tropical lake, and the second largest freshwater lake globally by surface area, after North America’s Lake Superior. It directly supports nearly 40 million people.

“Our research project is unique because it exposes North American and Kenyan/African students to research on harmful algal blooms (HABs) in North American and African Great Lakes. They benefit by becoming experts in HABs in tropical and cold climate lakes, which is essential in taming the growing HAB problem worldwide,” says Prof. Otiso.

Assessing the project’s impact

Once complete, he says, the research will help to better understand the Lake’s HABs and their effects. This will help to prepare doctors to treat HAB-related illnesses and to protect the lake’s water quality and its affiliated livelihoods.

The project has provided a platform for global exposure, scientific discovery, and exchange of ideas, with researchers and students from Kenya, the US, Canada, the UK, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Uganda being involved.

The skills they’re bagging therein will be immensely helpful in solving similar problems elsewhere, like in Lake Erie in North America, among other affected water bodies globally.

Arresting the wildly blooming harmful algal blooms will also save fish and humans, ensuring those around the Lake Victoria watershed and beyond continue enjoying the lake’s abundance.

While the project’s economic impact, especially in the Lake Region, is significant, its fruits will be sweeter and more impactful.

KESSA

Notably, BGSU is also home to the US-based Kenya Scholars and Studies Association (KESSA) which, among other objectives, seeks to promote scholarly, scientific and research work in and on Kenya and to encourage and facilitate the dissemination of information, publications, and other scholarly works on Kenya.

Founded in 2007, with Prof. Otiso being its founding President, KESSA has grown over the years to “be a very successful organization that uses its conferences and publications to promote research on Kenya as well as mentoring young Kenyan researchers and scholars,” he clarifies.

He says the goal was to create an organization with an exclusive academic focus on Kenya, which could also be a networking platform for Kenyan scholars and students across the globe.

The current KESSA President, Prof. Jerono Rotich, is a member of President William Ruto’s Presidential Working Party on Education Reform in Kenya.

She took the mantle of KESSA’s Presidency in 2019 and was one of the association’s very first student members. She is now a full professor of kinesiology and an Associate Dean for Organizational Climate, Inclusion, and Belonging, School of Public Health, Indiana University Bloomington.

Since 2008, many current and former high-level Kenyan public officials have also attended KESSA’s annual conferences. This year’s conference will be at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis Hotel, Atlanta, Georgia, on September 8 and 9, 2023.

Presenting cutting-edge keynotes, presentations, discussions, and practical applications, this year’s conference will have the theme of Leveraging Partnerships for Development: The Role of the Kenyan Diaspora in Nation Building. 

“We invite scholars to present papers in all areas of research that touch on Kenya.” Prof. Otiso, now a Member of KESSA Advisory Council, says.

At the conference, young scholars receive mentorship in different areas. Some of its proceeds include publications, expanded professional networks for participants, and learning and teaching resources for educators.

To you and me

The KESSA conference and Lake Victoria HAB research project show youth in Kenya and beyond that there are many career opportunities in the academic world, and that they also have a role to play in agitating for a clean environment and in dealing with the effects of climate change and other global challenges.

Calling to mind the roots of the project and the spark that started it, it’s clear that one person can make a big difference.

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“I encourage other diaspora scholars to try and do similar or greater things that can impact Africa and the world at large for the better. These can be research projects, exchange programs, and many others,” Prof. Otiso encourages.

Additional information by Prof. Kefa Otiso.

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Mr. Makau holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics, Media & Communication from Moi University, Kenya. He is a Columnist and Editor with Scholar Media Africa, with a keen interest in Education, Health, Climate Change, and Literature. His contact: b.makau@scholarmedia.africa.

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