Mary Kanui Profile

Mary Kanui (Kenya & Linacre 2011) obtained her MPhil in Geography and the Environment from Linacre College, University of Oxford, after receiving the Rhodes Scholarship in 2011. Her area of research is food and nutritional security in the developing world, focussing particularly on small-scale farmers in Western Kenya. She also holds a BSc in Biochemistry and an MSc in Environmental Science, both from Kenyatta University, Kenya.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favourite author?

Mary Kanui: That would be John Mason. He writes about the importance of having a positive mental attitude. He writes about discovering the original aspect in you -- that imitation is limitation, in a nutshell. It’s about using what you have to make a difference. It’s always good to emulate but also to utilize one’s unique potential to make it work and make a change. I really like that concept.

Rhodes Project: Tell me about one of your hobbies.

Mary Kanui: One of the things that I really enjoy doing, other than salsa, is travelling. Now that I have the chance to be here, in Europe, I like to travel pretty much everywhere. Whilst I’ve been in England I’ve taken the chance to enjoy the country during my study breaks.  I’ve travelled from the south, from Brighton, to Canterbury and then all the way to the northern parts….I’m aiming to tour all major parts of the country during my stay here.  Other than England I’ve travelled to Malta and, in the next few weeks, I’m going to Switzerland and Germany.

Rhodes Project: Was your experience at Oxford what you were expecting?

Mary Kanui:  There were a few preconceptions you might expect. Oxford is famed for its intellectual prowess, and one of the things I expected was that it’s all about intellectual ability. But when you come here, you realize that people are very well informed, not just about academia, but about how one can use that to make a change, and not just members of the Rhodes community, but also beyond that. People are really well versed in global issues. But there’s always the academia at the back of one’s mind – how to use what one is studying to make small or big changes, and I really like that perspective.

Rhodes Project: What is your area of interest within geography and/or the environment?

Mary Kanui: My research focuses on food security issues, with a focus on the role that diversity in local agricultural farming systems can play in achieving food security. I’m interested in small-scale farmers and how local agricultural diversity can contribute to food and nutritional security. It’s partly to do with adequate and stable quantities of food to ensure food security, but also the quality of the food that is being made available - in other words, nutritional security.

Rhodes Project: Tell me about your current research.

Mary Kanui: My research focuses on small scale farmers in Western Kenya, a rural area endowed with high local agricultural diversity that is under-utilized. I work with small scale farmers to find out about the diversity of local foods available and what that means in terms of consumption and dietary diversity. This means determining whether the food provides enough nutritional components, such as proteins, vitamins and so on. But also, in a wider context, individual farms can’t produce everything and people need to purchase food through markets. So I research on food   availability and accessibility in local markets as well. I also investigate perceptions of local foods because if someone has a misconception about a particular food they’re not going to consume it and that could jeopardize food security.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to your 16 year old self?

Mary Kanui: I think I’ve tended to be a bit cautious, so I’d encourage myself to take more risks. I know that I take time to come out of my shell but also that it’s OK to make mistakes. It’s like a piano keyboard, you don’t only have the white keys, not everything is perfect, but the black keys are there and that’s what makes music.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to tackle one environmental issue, what would it be and how would you do it?

Mary Kanui: In terms of my research area, the first thing is to scale up interventions, not simply by aiming at food security but more nutritional security as well. Awareness is also important, and unlimited resources would permit educational projects that make people more aware about the diverse local foods they possess and how they utilize them. Education takes a long time. You can’t change people’s perceptions in one day, so training would be really exciting -- empowering people to use what’s available locally to enhance their nutritional security.

Rhodes Project: Who inspires you the most?

Mary Kanui: I have an arena of role models but, in terms of my day-to-day life, I really think it’s my mum. The challenges she met in order to consistently be there for me is something I’m very inspired by.  I’ve come this far because of that. As a single parent it’s never easy, and, coming from Africa and not having many resources made it even more difficult. But looking back on where I came from and what I’ve achieved, it’s because of that one lady. Of course there are other people who’ve contributed, but she’s been there throughout it all.

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in life?

Mary Kanui: What keeps me going is making a difference. Making a difference in any way -- simple ways such as making someone smile, and also knowing that what I do professionally can make an impact.

Rhodes Project: What are your plans for the next five years?

Mary Kanui: After completing a DPhil in Geography and the Environment, I want to spend the next two years at an international NGO, linking up global strategies with those used by smallholders at the grassroots level. I want to spend time with people who can create an impact that they’re not aware of. It means being in the fields with small-scale farmers and then pulling that understanding through to the policy makers to help create an enabling environment for small scale farmers in the developing world, who are the majority.  Ideally, I would work first at an international NGO to gain hands-on experience and then I’d move into consultancy.

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