How research can improve people’s lives: An interview with Mary Njenga

Mary Njenga holding a cooking-fuel briquette. Photo by Sherry Odeyo/ICRAF

Mary Njenga holding a cooking-fuel briquette. Photo by Sherry Odeyo/ICRAF

By Arsene, Ahijah, Hubert, Inna, Mélodie and Sabrina (students at Lycée Denis Diderot, Nairobi).

On 21 March 2014, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) researcher Mary Njenga visited Lycée Denis Diderot (LDD), the French School in Nairobi, and gave a talk at an inter-school conference titled “How to Feed Humanity.”  About 200 students and teachers from three schools including LLD attended this conference. Dr Njenga then sat and answered the students’ many questions about her studies, her achievements and her vision on how research can impact people’s lives.


Here is the interview.

Mary, thank you for being here with us. What inspired you to work with fuel briquettes?

I grew up in a rural village 50 km west of Nairobi. I was involved in farming with my family and I also went to the forest to fetch firewood with my sisters and my mother. With that kind of exposure, I naturally developed an interest in nature.

I was also seeing the changes that were happening to the countryside. We had a river which was permanent and as time went by, it became more and more seasonal. Sometimes it dried up completely. When I looked closely at that problem, I realized the problem was coming from the trees being cut in the area. In trying to link my personal experience with what was happening to nature, I decided to become a scientist to try and understand and improve things.

Can you give us a little more information about your work at the moment ?

I am a post-doctorol fellow right now. I am doing my “post doc” at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). It is an international research institute with headquarters here in Nairobi.

We do research on the importance of planting trees on farms, or agroforestry. What benefits are people getting from trees on farms in terms of food security, wood fuel and the ecosystem services? The presence of trees influences the microclimate and macro-climate. We encourage people to plant protect and manage trees, because their environment and their lives will be improved if they have trees.

What topic did you work on for your PhD?

I worked on fuel briquettes for my PhD thesis. I worked with eight different self-help groups, women groups. I studied what type of briquettes they produced and I analyzed samples at the laboratory. I measured the amount of heat it had and measured the emissions, and I published my work on how to improve the quality of the products.

And what are you studying now?

I am continuing to work on the same topic, because I want to see briquettes developed as a cheaper source of cooking fuel that is also cleaner. As you know, biomass energy like wood and charcoal produces a lot of emissions, and it affects especially women, as they spend more time in the kitchen, and also children. Little kids below two years are especially affected, as their mothers carry them on their back when they are cooking. My research is based on how to come up with a product that is cheaper so that people can afford it and that is also cleaner, meaning it has less toxic emissions.

Are you selling the charcoal briquettes?

No, I am not in business, I am not selling anything! (Laughing). I am just doing research as a scientist. I am researching with community groups, because there are already some communities who are making fuel briquettes. I am working with them and I have already done a lot of studies on how to make them. What are the raw materials they use? How do they mix it? How long does it take to dry? What is the quality in terms of cooking? If we have to come out as a product that competes with other cooking fuel, its quality has to be good for people to like it, for people to use it and appreciate it. I am working with them on how we could improve its quality and also how to do good communications so the world knows about these briquettes.

Youth group member from Kahawa-Soweto in Nairobi making briquettes in a metal press. Photo by Sherry Odeyo/ICRAF

Youth group member from Kahawa-Soweto in Nairobi making briquettes in a metal press. Photo by Sherry Odeyo/ICRAF

How will your research improve people’s lives?

For my Post Doc, I am working on how the work of these women’s groups can be scaled up: At the moment they are producing the briquettes on the ground and they have very little space. How can they get a bigger place which has a production area where they can store the raw materials, an area to mix the materials, one where they can dry the products and also a place for selling. We need to scale up what they are doing, so they can make more quantities of good quality briquettes and earn a decent income.

Out of Kenya, I also established a charcoal briquetting enterprise in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, in partnership with UN-Habitat, Human Relief Foundation and Cooperazione E Sviluppo Onlus (CESVI).

Tell us more about your studies, please.

For my first degree, I went to Egerton University in Njoro in Kenya. I did a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resource Management. After that, I undertook a Master of Science in Biology of Conservation at the University of Nairobi. Finally, I did a PhD in Management of Agroecosystems and Environment at the University of Nairobi.

How long did all this take you?

The whole process took many years. I finished my first degree in 1996. And I finished my PhD in August 2013. But between then and last year, there were periods when I was not in school. After my first degree I went to work, and then I went back to study for my masters, then I worked again and so on. In life, it is important to stay focused on what you really want.

Besides her position as a post-doctoral researcher at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Mary Njenga is also an Adjunct visiting Professor at North Illinois University, USA; Fellow of the Norman E. Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program (Borlaug LEAP), and Fellow of the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD).

On 19 May 2014 Mary presents her work at the 2014 Feed the Future Global Forum.

Follow the Forum on #feedthefuture

Download poster:

Related links:

Planet Forward video with Mary Njenga

Photos of charcoal briquette making in Nairobi’s poorest neighbourhoods

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Edited by Daisy Ouya'

Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences ( and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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