Name: Sonja Leitner
Position: Postdoc Greenhouse Gas Emissions, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Mazingira Centre for Environmental Research and Education
How do you assess the political, economic, environmental and social situation of your country of residence?
After some political unrest around the presidential elections in 2017 the political situation in Kenya is now relatively stable again. Kenya is a presidential representative democratic republic that has been independent from the UK since 1963. Kenya’s economy is growing and the country is Eastern and central Africa's hub for finances, communication and transportation. The agricultural sector is the second-largest contributor to Kenya’s GDP, employing more than 40% of Kenya’s population. About 80% of Kenya’s farmers are smallholders who own
Where do you see further need for action in the future?
The rapid population growth in East Africa is increasing the demand for food and other agricultural products. However, because agricultural systems in East Africa are not very productive, an increase in production is often mediated via an expansion of arable land, which leads to deforestation (currently only 10% of Kenya remain covered by forest). This increases human-wildlife conflict as pastoralists move their herds into protected areas on their search for feed and water. In addition, with climate change the occurrence of severe droughts is increasing, further reducing the level of productivity and threatening food security. Therefore, a lot of research effort is currently put into the development of sustainable and more productive local farming systems that are better adapted to climate change.
What are your professional activities and what skills are important? How did you get the job?
I am a Postdoc in the Sustainable Livestock Systems program at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi. Here we work in an interdisciplinary team of ecologists (such as myself), animal nutritionists, social scientists, and economists to increase agricultural productivity, while at the same time trying to reduce the environmental footprint of livestock farming. Livestock plays a major role in providing sufficient protein and nutrients in developing countries, but at the same time it is a major contributor to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (especially CH4 from enteric fermentation in ruminants, as well as CH4 and N2O from manure). I am part of ILRI’s Mazingira Centre for Environmental Research and Education, which is the only environmental laboratory on the African continent that can measure greenhouse gas emissions from soils, manure and the animals themselves. Apart from my scientific skills (I have an extensive background in GHG measurements and nutrient cycle assessment in various ecosystems), working in an interdisciplinary and international team requires good communication and organizational skills, as well as a lot of curiosity and willingness to learn.
What comes to your mind, when you think about your time at BOKU?
After studying biology at the University of Vienna, I joined BOKU’s Institute of Soil Research (IBF) for my PhD studies. There I worked in an international team of scientists and technicians, which prepared me for my current work as an international scientist. Furthermore, I did most of the work for my PhD in the field, which taught me the necessary skills to function and improvise under harsh conditions. And finally, the team at IBF was one of the most welcoming and socially connected groups I’ve ever been part of and which I’ll never forget. And who knows, maybe my professional path will bring me back to the BOKU in the future.
What was you biggest (job) challenge so far?
Working in East Africa means somewhat restricted access to spare parts and consumables, and even with the best of planning and organizing sometimes one has to improvise and be patient when things don’t work out as planned. This is especially challenging during field work in remote regions. Furthermore, apart from more frequent severe droughts, climate change is also increasing the occurrence of extreme precipitation events, and Kenya is currently experiencing an unusually intense rainy season with heavy and erratic rainfalls leading to flooding and destruction of roads and bridges, which makes parts of the country inaccessible (including some of our field sites).