New Voices Fellow, Esther Ngumbi: Education is the Gateway to Ending Poverty

New Voices Fellow, Esther Ngumbi: Education is the Gateway to Ending Poverty
12 min read

According to the World Bank, the quality of education offered within a country is a strong indicator of its economic growth. More African children are being enrolled in schools. However, the quality of education is questionable; day by day being compromised by a deficit of trained teachers and mentors.

Our interview with one of Kenya’s brightest scientists and New Voices Fellow, Dr. Esther Ngumbi, takes us on a journey on the importance of mentorship and education in community development.

Dr. Esther Ngumbi

Dr. Esther Ngumbi

In 2011, Dr. Esther Ngumbi graduated from Auburn University in Alabama, USA, with a PhD in Entomology. Since then, she continues to be a global leader, motivational speaker and is passionate about issues related to hunger, gender, education, youth activism and sustainability.

Dr. Ngumbi was a recipient for the highly sought-after American Association of University Women (AAUW) International Fellowship in 2007. She has been featured on AAUW’s highly acclaimed national research report: Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and was named by One World Action as one of the 100 powerful women who change the world.  

Passionate about education, Dr. Ngumbi has served as a mentor with the Clinton Global University Initiative and the MasterCard Foundation. She has also established the Dr. Ndumi Faulu Academy in Kenya to ensure that every child has a solid chance at getting a quality education.

Opening ceremony

“I come from a family of seven including my father and mother. I was raised in a small rural village called Mabafweni, in Kwale County, Coast Province, Kenya. Both my parents were Primary School teachers and practiced small scale farming to supplement their small teaching salaries. Because of the meager salaries paid to teachers, my parents had to sacrifice almost everything to keep us in school. I still remember vividly how they would go to collect their pay checks, but eat nothing before coming back in the evening, hungry and tired. I wondered at their ability to be in town, in the midst of all the best foods, with money to purchase that food, but choosing not to spend it on themselves so that we could go to school. This had a powerful effect on me and continues to inspire me and gives me the strength to pursue my goals and persevere against challenges however daunting they seem. I went through high school and eventually college and attained a Bachelor of Science at Kenyatta University. As I was growing up, there were many years in which we almost lost our crops like maize, beans to insects and plant diseases. We also never knew the health of our soils. I therefore felt an interest to pursue a career that would permit me to study these insects, the diseases they cause and discover how we can use knowledge about their behavior to manipulate insect-plant systems in order to reduce their depredations. I wanted specifically to be able to make a contribution to food security in Kenya and our world. After my graduation with a Bachelor of Science, I made another step towards the actualization of my dream by pursuing a Master of Science degree. After graduating with a Master of Science degree, I received a two-year scholarship in the State of Israel, Agricultural Research Organization (ARO). Finally, I pursued my doctoral studies in the United States of America. On a beautiful summer day of August, 6, 2011, I graduated from Auburn University with a PhD in Entomology.”

  • What about Entomology fascinates you?

“Everything about entomology fascinates me. Entomology is the study of insects, and so insects fascinate me. But it is also a science subject where there is a lot to discover. With entomology, and science in general, you never know what you are up to. You see it firsthand. You witness it first before everyone else. The adrenaline is real. You can never get bored. Every day, you have the opportunity to discover something new.”

  • What is your research about, and how do you see it being translated to solve global problems?

“My research is on beneficial soil bacteria. I am specifically working with plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria. These bacteria occur naturally in the soil. The cool thing about them is that they form mutual beneficial associations with plants such as maize, tomatoes and peppers. Some of the benefits they are associated with include making soils more fertile and fending off plant stressors such as insects and diseases. Beneficial soil bacteria enable plants to better tolerate extreme temperature fluctuations and other challenges that come with a changing climate. Furthermore, they help plants grow better thus boosting crop yields. My research is about understanding the mechanisms by which these soil bacteria impart all these benefits to plants.  

For farmers struggling to adapt to climate change, especially small-scale farmers with limited resources, an increase in yield can open fresh opportunities for the simple reason that crop sales generate cash, including money that can be invested in a range of “climate-smart” farming techniques that further conserve water and soil, and sustainably increase production on small plots of land. As concerns about food security increase with the global temperatures, beneficial soil bacteria could be the next key tool for food security, helping farmers around the world conserve water, increase yields and improve nutrition under the changing climate.”

  • What are some of the challenges you have had to face as an African woman in Science?

“I would say finding women of color to mentor me along the way.”

  • We can see how passion driven you are as a mentor. Tell us about this experience.

“The future and prosperity of our world depends on the skillful mentoring of each new generation by the one that precedes it. Yes, I do enjoy mentoring. I love giving back through mentoring. I have had amazing experiences mentoring students under both the Clinton Global University Initiative and MasterCard Foundation. My mentees are AMAZING! They are genuinely solving our World’s pressing challenges and they are doing it with GREAT humility. I have honestly learned so much from my mentees that I sometimes think; they are the ones mentoring me.

There is something remarkable about mentoring our future leaders.  Through it all, I strive to be a role model and encourage my mentees to work hard so that they can succeed professionally and positively impact their communities. Having grown up in a community where there were no role models to encourage me to have high aspirations, I am strongly motivated to serve as a role model and mentor and help influence as many young people to strive for whatever their hearts can dream. I am committed to devoting my energy as a professional to making this kind of impact. I also believe that, once empowered, our young people will grow to be great men and women of tomorrow who will come back to our communities and help develop them.”

  • You are founder of Spring Break Kenya. Tell us a bit more about this.

“Spring Break Kenya is an organization that aims at community integration through the linking of students in institutions of higher learning with the rural communities of the Republic of Kenya in order to build partnerships and develop young Kenyans with the spirit of community and public service. The purpose of our organization is to foster community development through an active approach that engages young university students and professionals in “creating the change they want to see”. We promote the fundamental values of community, public service, responsibility and compassion amongst our young students.”

  • Does Kenya support Science education?

“Yes, Kenya does support Science education. However, women still face several barriers. Right from childhood, girls are considered to be less intelligent, and thus never expected to out-compete boys. For those that shatter the stereotypes and decide to pursue science, they are faced with other challenges which include; poor quality of Science training, lack of modern laboratories, limited access to computers and internet, inadequate funds to sustain a good Science program, lack of senior women scientist mentors and network of female peers, making it hard to survive in a work place that is characterised by minority dynamics. When Kenya and the rest of Africa have the facilities, calmness, and the right environment to facilitate science, I believe we will make great strides and contributions to science.”

  • Tell us about the school you have established in Kenya. What do you seek to achieve?

“On a beautiful summer day of August, 6, 2011, I attained what at times seemed to be an elusive dream. On that day, I received my doctorate degree in Entomology and became the first woman in my community to obtain a PhD degree. As I walked to get my degree, I began to cry. My thoughts meandered back to my community in Kenya. I thought of the many children in my community who had the potential to be a scientist like me but lacked the opportunity. It is during that day, I told myself that I would do whatever it would take to give the children in my community, the children from other poor communities, the children in Africa the opportunities so that they can break the poverty barrier, get an education and go out to attain whatever it is that they want to become. Since then, I have dedicated all my passion, efforts, heart, and resources to bring sustainable change in my community beginning with education.

In early, 2012, my parents and I pulled together our meagre resources and established the Dr. Ndumi Faulu Academy. As a family, we believe that education is the gateway to ending poverty. Those who have it have a sure hope of a better future. The school opened doors to 14 children. They studied in a mud class but we were happy to know that we had started giving back. Across four years, we have built eight more classrooms, enrolled 100 more students, built a library and are building a science lab to inspire a generation of scientists. The ultimate goal is to build Africa’s future Harvard and empower as many girls so that they too can break the ceiling and become presidents, lawyers, accountants and scientists.”

  • What keeps you going?

“The genuine infectious smiles from students attending our school. Every time I go to Kenya and spend time with them, I am inspired to do more. Our motto is BE STRONG and every time I spend time with students they ask me over and over again to BE STRONG! At the same time, the progress we have made from taking small steps inspires me to do more. Every time I go to my hometown, Mabafweni, Kenya, I remember the journey. I look at where we began and where we are. This is the inspiration that drives me to look for more resources to give our young people all they need to reach for their stars and launch to a BRIGHTER FUTURE! Their success is my success! In them, I see a future. For them, I am determined to do anything and go an extra mile!””

Dr. Esther Ngumbi and her future leaders of Kenya