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Prof. Jacqueline McGlade – My Romance with Transformative Research

I have always had this habit of falling in love with the places that I have travelled to. I fall in love with oceans and mountain ranges. I can fall in love just watching National Geographic or perusing Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s descriptive pieces of the African landscape. I never quite move on from a place. It is like having a never-ending string of lifelong affairs. Affairs with beautiful skylines, sunrises, sunsets, new foods, different cultures, and brand new adventures. A couple of weeks ago, over introductory pleasantries, I found myself deep in conversation with Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, a researcher and lecturer at the Strathmore Institute for Public Policy and Governance (SIPPG) at the Strathmore University Business School (SBS). For a minute, we forgot it was meant to be an interview and revelled (not literally) in what it means to fall in love with a place.

You see, during her time as the chief scientist in the United Nations Environmental Programme at the United Nations (UNEP) here in Kenya, she met her husband, a local Maasai Chief and wildlife guide in the Mara Wildlife Game Reserve. So when her post came to an end, she had a very good reason to stay, she says mid chuckles. What’s more, Kenya’s attractiveness in the African region to conducting impactful research meant that her passion for research could be satisfied. All that was needed was a stellar institution of great repute and an environment for world-class research. “Strathmore easily stuck out as the best place for me,” she starts, “given its proven record as a centre of excellence in business, public policy – my speciality – mathematics, data analytics, computer science… all things, basically, that forward-looking governments need to do,” concludes Prof. McGlade before we get back to the discussion on falling in love with places.

Traveling and research…my addictive duo

“My romance with destinations begins and ends with a strong desire to understand every inch of its domain. I long to know the idiosyncrasies of its people – their language, their style, their routines, the places they haunt and the flavours they savour. And, truth be told, my longing to understand each detail comes from a quiet curiosity that I’ve always felt inside. Would you believe this plays such a big part in the script of my research?

“Moving around and exploring will satiate you; creating an overall feeling of warmth and full-on glee. Of course, once you fall in love, it becomes cyclic: you constantly desire more of it, and the more you take in, the deeper you fall and the more you will wish to see. I will tell you now: traveling and research is an addictive duo and these feelings do not go away, especially once you master the craft of synergizing your passions, in my case, research for impact at scale, science and travelling,” she says with enthusiasm.

Bringing the real world into the policy world with evidence

“My speciality is in bringing the real world into the policy world with evidence,” says Prof. McGlade, before painting quite the decorated résumé.

She spent about 20 to 30 years building up data systems, first for the European banking matching regulatory work about the environment, climate, air and water quality, bio-diversity and so on… then when she was at the UN, she championed the same, only this time was on a global scale. She says doing this comes quite naturally for her, thanks to her passion for Data Analytics and Public Policy.

“It’s all about understanding where the data is, creating the basis for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which is really crucial, and then turning those ideals into noble ambitions that governments propositions seem to want into the reality of what information to collect in order to tell governments how best to do what they intend to do,” she explains.

She goes on to add that the biggest transition in the world right now is connecting those ideals to communities – to real people with businesses where there is a supply chain and a retail sector that are connected with SDGs such as net zero emissions for climate change and biodiversity net gain or the forestry programmes. “There is a reason why people want to participate, but there is also a reason why everyone wants to be connected to the future of the planet. So my main aim in all the research I do is to make a difference, both for planet Earth and also to help communities create sustainable livelihoods and jobs,” says Prof. McGlade with the smile of a visionary.

Impacting the world, one research project at a time

Prof. McGlade has vast experience working in the space and satellite business, having been an advisor to the European Space Agency. She has helped in the scientific selection and launch of several critical satellites that have been used in many everyday purposes – for agriculture, climatology, and other numerous sentinel missions. She points out just how much reeling in these data and transforming it into functional use has become one of the world’s largest research endeavours.

We’ve only touched the surface but at this point, I must admit, I am mind-blown by how multi-faceted she is and the much she has achieved. I joke that she ought to be in a science-fiction movie, especially one of those with interstellar travel and extensive world-building. We both burst out laughing and she comments “maybe” as a matter of factly.

Prof. McGlade has published more than 200 research publications and produced award-winning films and radio series. Since she joined Strathmore, she has been able to bring in notable large grants; one from the German government’s Climate Change Fund; one from the UK government’s Space Agency, and one from the Global Challenges Research fund- OneHealth, where she is the leader of an international research team made up of experts from Kenya, Jamaica, Grenada, and Scotland. Through the OneHealth research programme, her team took the Sekenani project to clean 10,000 litres of water everyday using shattered coloured glass as a substitute for sand, which is extremely efficient and can be used for up to 30 years.

“Did you know you can trap moisture in arid areas, using a coral-like material created from melting all kinds of glass at high temperature, pouring it onto arid land and deserts and leaving it for three days? Imagine how much this would transform Northern Kenya,” she says as casually gives me a did you know moment.

Biodiversity and Ecosystems with Carbon Capture and Sequestration – the Mau-Mara Project 

With previous experience at international climate negotiations, Prof. McGlade attended COP26 as part of the team of experts. She discussed the Circular Bio-economy as well as agriculture and land use, carbon markets, climate adaptation around water scarcity and plastic pollution. Keeping to the theme of the COP26, Prof. McGlade, through her spinoff project, is now seeking to put as much carbon back to the soil and get it out of the atmosphere. She has invented a new way of accurately measuring and then predicting soil organic carbon in areas across the world. She recommends changing farming practices, planting trees in productive areas, creating and recreating waterways and restoring land to generate ecosystem services.

Through various philanthropic funding and grants, she has been able to set up more than 30 tree nurseries for indigenous species in the Mau Forest and Maasai Mara and has enabled local people to be trained in preparing seedlings, germinating and planting them. Much of the community land is now under restoration and everyone, including farmers and schools are jumping on board.

Growing trees is just the first step. How then is the project financed? She says that the first step is to create trust for a carbon market that appeals to global industries that emit quite substantial amounts of carbon but need to sustainably trap and offset the emissions. Through her project, she has been planting indigenous trees that trap carbon above the ground and in the soil once they grow.

Planting trees at such a scale and at that kind of quality costs about a dollar per tree. However, within a 100 trees, there is one trackable carbon tree that costs $15 (US dollars). A company whose operations contribute to carbon emission is then required to rent the carbon tree at $15 per year and at the close of the period, Prof. McGlade’s team provides statistics on the amount of carbon trapped. The generated report can then be audited through Sampeli – a smart web application that all the community warriors, community leads and teams know how to use. The system allows data collection and recording in the form of voice and images. One is required to take a picture of a tree, make an accurate geo-location, and report on its health and upload the data onto an online platform that can be viewed remotely from anywhere in the world.

“So you could order 100 trees while enjoying your vacation somewhere in the Maldives, pay $15 per tree and we will send you an accurate carbon map and then give you a track of how much carbon the tree has trapped. Wanna know the additional wow factor?” she asks with a glint of excitement in her eyes. “These trees are also medicinal! We have conducted innumerable research to ascertain their medicinal potency against diseases such as diabetes, influenza and so on. On the back of this breakthrough, the huddles are coming together and my team is working on being registered so we can create real products in a consistent way which can then make their way into the Nairobi and global market. I believe we are creating sustainable livelihoods for everyone here, including the elderly, so that they don’t just depend on tourism and the different forms of agriculture,” she says.

This ambitious Professor doesn’t stop there. She has coupled the project with her Data Analytics start-up that has been patented in the USA. The start-up is a new way of connecting to the world through financial instruments. So if you buy a tree, you see the lady in Narok that grew the seed, you see the family that you are helping, and on an environmental front – you receive a carbon tracker to show you the contribution you are making on the SDG.

In Sekenani, next to the Maasai Mara Reserve and Conservancies, her local team have recently deployed motion sensitive audio and camera traps to track animals and quality of the biome in the area. The data are being processed via artificial intelligence by another part of the team at University College London and the information will help the reserve and conservancy managers understand how the health of the ecosystem is changing. The long-term study is looking into the impact of grazing alongside wildlife.

What you decide to do becomes your life. Be actively clear it’s what you want to do. Research is a highly competitive sphere but also a team effort. There are so many people willing to come to your aid, so don’t shy away from finding solutions to that one or many problems. Fuel those ideas! – Prof. Jacqueline McGlade.

This article was written by Francis Kabutu.

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