Magrate Kaigongi, 28, is a taxonomist working as a research scientist at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), in Muguga, Kiambu County. She is currently studying her PhD in Plant Taxonomy and Economic Botany at the University of Nairobi.
Growing up in her rural village in Ruungu, Tharaka Nithi County, Magrate was in love with nature, and was disappointed to see the once green landscape gradually turning into semi-arid land as people cleared forest cover to pave way for agriculture. This was followed by soil erosion and drying up of most rivers. Being a girl, she experienced the problem that her gender often faces where there is water shortage – walking long distances in search of this basic need. This experience, in part, is what prompted her, years later, to consider a career in conservation.
Magrate’s journey towards becoming a taxonomist started when she scored A- in her KCSE exams in 2006. She would go on to graduate with first class honours in Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Nairobi, after which she was awarded a scholarship by DAAD, a funding organisation for the international exchange of students and researchers, enabling her to study a Master of Science degree in Plant Taxonomy and Economic Botany at UoN. Magrate has been a plant taxonomist for the last five years.
What is plant taxonomy and how does it apply in our day-to-day life?
This is a line of science dealing with identification and classification of plants on the basis of shared characters. A taxonomist is involved in various activities, among them studying the evolutionary relationships of plants and determining the correct botanical names for plant species.
How does taxonomy contribute to the overall life of a Kenyan?
A taxonomist is able to advise an agriculturalist on indigenous varieties that exist, and where they can grow best. A farmer needs a taxonomist to understand how to match crops with trees that will not damage them, while a pharmacist relies on a taxonomist for drug discovery. In the world of medicine, a taxonomist is important in facilitating innovation of drugs as most of them are made from plant extracts.
The recent malaria drug, artemisinin, which was isolated from Artemisia annua, or wormwood, a herb that originates from Asia, is an example of how taxonomy, pharmacy and medicine combine roles to come up with a solution to a problem that has been affecting people for a long time. Further, a taxonomist advises a conservationist on what trees or plants to recommend in preserving our ecosystem. A taxonomist also assists in preparing forest checklists for foresters.
Besides, taxonomy plays an important role in climate change mitigation, conservation of ecosystems, bio-piracy control, and barcoding using molecular DNA, and environment impact assessment.
What inspires you in your work?
I am constantly discovering new things, and working in new environments? I am inspired by team work, liaising with scientists from other disciplines to ensure all research carried out is done with the correct identified organisms, writing and defending proposals to solicit funding for research, and publishing of research papers.
In taxonomy, one action leads to another. For example, when doing collections, one needs to get a fertile specimen, (one with either a fruit of flower) this helps to determine the flowering time of this plant. After collection, a taxonomist uses the findings to study whether climate change has had any impact on the plant by comparing it with the existing specimen. If one deduces there has been an effect, this leads to another activity, which leads to another… and another. The curiosity really motivates me. It’s so exciting to me especially when I am able to meet my objectives.
What challenges come with your job?
Funding to researchers, especially taxonomists, is very limited yet so much needs to be studied. Some places are not yet reached by us due to inadequate funding as well as lack of modern facilities especially related to molecular work. Most herbaria (taxonomist labs) are understaffed since there is a lack of technicians and scientists. Kenya needs more taxonomists.
Briefly take us through stages of studying a specimen and examining its qualities.
The first stage is collection of a specimen, here I also take notes such as height, habit, location (GPS coordinates), and date of collection, collector’s name, local name and uses of the plant. The second stage is sorting to ensure that I have the right specimen. This is followed by pressing to remove the excess moisture after which I dry the specimen using a special drier. After drying, I do mounting, followed by covering the specimen with a species cover. Later, I place it in a genus cover after incorporating it to other members of the same genus. Finally, we lay it in the herbarium cabinet depending on the family a particular species belongs to.
Can one be a self-employed taxonomist?
Oh yes. One can come up with a taxonomist lab (herbarium) to offer training and identification consultancy services. One can also start a botanical garden recreational site or establish plant nurseries to offer good quality planting materials to farmers, landscapers, conservationists and institutions.
What is your greatest achievement so far?
What I most take pride in is the introduction of herbarium management at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute, as well as finishing my master’s degree in a record two years.
How do you break the monotony of working quietly in a lab or isolated fields?
I set timelines for myself, family, study and office-related work. Thankfully, my leisure time is closely linked to nature, I love going out for site seeing and photography.
Tell Kenyans something they should know about environment conservation
We need policies to conserve our natural habitat before it’s too late. I compare what is in our dead forest (herbarium specimens) with the reality in our ecosystems, and I notice that a lot has been lost, especially due to cultivation. I have a different opinion with regard to a decision to tax ‘idle land’ or putting the same under commercial food production. This is because fallow land is far more beneficial to the environment than when it is cultivated. We only need to improve our methods of farming to raise food production, not clear forests to create more land to farm.
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a taxonomist?
This is a very exciting field which is not yet flooded, so there are great opportunities waiting for you. Several Kenyan universities offer the course at undergraduate and post graduate level. For work experience, you need to be attached to institutions such as KEFRI, National Museums of Kenya, Kenya Forest Service and ICRAF, among others, to get hands-on training. Be ready to work hard because all taxonomists that I know are hardworking – this is the only way they are able to meet their targets.
How much does a taxonomist earn?
As a research scientist, one’s salary scale starts at Sh150,000 a month and can go up to Ksh200,000 depending on per diem during assignment trips.