A conversation with Meshak Nyabenge, GIS Unit Manager, WorldAgroforestry Center (ICRAF) Nairobi at the CSI-AGCommons meeting in Nairobi

Q: What sparked your interested in GIS?

A: As a kid, I was always imagining I could develop a boundary map of my village. I don’t know why–maybe ‘cause I was good in geography. I thought why not have a map of our own place, know where it begins and ends.

At the University of Nairobi I studied surveying and photogrametry—how to interpret aerial photos. Fortunately a professor impressed on me the benefits of geographical information. So now I’m a GIS analyst instead of surveying people’s plots and getting into land conflicts over where somebody’s property ends and where somebody else’s begins.”

Q: What are some of the cool things happening with GIS at ICRAF?

A: One is mapping of rainwater harvesting and potential in Africa. We estimated
how much rainwater can be harvested in a particular place based on rainfall and use of a specific technology—roof catchment, rock catchment, runoff, other methods. people can see how much water they’re likely to capture in a local area, with which technologies. It’s being used by the rainwater network in Kenya and at ICRAF.

Also, ICRAF wanted to scale up their agroforestry programs. So we developed suitability maps as way of targeting where to scale up use of, say, fodder trees, like caliandra, glyricidia.

Third is, for GTZ and an energy company, we mapped where 11 key biofuel crops could be grown in Kenya. We looked at jatropha, croton, caster, coconut, cotton, sorghum, sugar cane, sunflower, rapeseed (canola) pagamia…. The oil crops would be for producing biodiesel, and the others, like sugar cane, for bioethanol.

Q: What’s next?

A: We’re now combining the biophysical and agronomic data with socioeconomic data—population, labour availability. Then we’ll know where it’s most suitable to invest in biofuel crops—and what the potential returns would be.

GTZ and the Government of Kenya plan to use this information for planning and as the basis of investment discussions.

We’ve now received funding to map four more countries: Ethiopia, Rwanda, TZ, Uganda for biofuel potential.

We’re also working with a Kenya-based NGO—the Vanilla Jatropha Development Foundation—to do biofuel mapping, specifically for potential for plantations of jatropha, the “oil tree.”

Q: What do you like most about working with GIS?

A: I use it to conceptualize the human dream. And I can manipulate options to come up with scenarios, applied in different fields. Basically, I’ve always worked with geographic information, and can’t imagine not doing so.

Q: So how about that village map?

A: Until now I still haven’t done it…. There have been a lot of other things to do!