Q&A with Moses Kairo

Moses Kairo headshotName:  Moses Thairu Kairo, Ph.D. DIC

Title: Professor and Dean, School of Agricultural and Natural Sciences, University of Maryland Eastern Shore

What is your background and how did you find your way into the ag industry?

I grew up on a dairy farm in Kenya. While I loved cattle and seeing crops growing, I was determined to leave farming and the 24/7/365 life behind. I wanted to be a scientist; and did not see science as something that could be linked to agriculture as I knew it. As an undergraduate zoology student at the University of Nairobi, I had an opportunity to do a research internship on mosquitoes, and, during my final year, an honors research project focused on fish endocrinology further solidified my desire. After graduating, I secured support for graduate school to continue research on fish endocrinology. However, before I could start, I was offered a position at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) to work in entomology. Because there was a gap before the start of the next academic year, I decided to try out this position at KARI. Initially, my responsibilities included work focused on forecasting armyworm outbreaks in East Africa. This did not last long before I was assigned to a three-year, farmer-funded project to conduct research on a new coffee pest affecting large scale production systems. It was that project that solidified my pathway into agriculture. The project allowed me to work directly with farmers, and to experience first-hand how I could establish a scientific career directly linked to agriculture.

On completion of the project, I proceeded to Imperial College, London, to undertake a master’s degree in applied entomology. Upon my return to Kenya, I switched research areas to lead a team focus on finding a solution to maize streak virus disease. This then evolved back to biological control work focused on several invasive pests. At the time, the Eastern and Southern Africa Region was in the throes of a major outbreak of non-native aphids on confer forests. I left my position with KARI to join CABI, an international intergovernmental organization, and was based in England to work on a project exploring suitable natural enemies for introduction to Africa. During that time, I also undertook a Ph.D. on a part-time basis. My work at CABI was focused primarily on international development with projects in the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean, and Latin America. I joined academia in 2005 as a faculty member and director of the Center for Biological Control at Florida A&M University and started at my current position in 2012.

Why is diversity important to you and your organization?

The United States is a very diverse nation. I have spent many years working in different countries, which has provided me with a unique opportunity to work with people from all walks of life, bringing together a tremendous diversity of opinions, ingenuity, perspectives, motivations, etc. I have also seen first-hand the power of harnessing this potpourri, as well as how too easily some people and entities tend to place individuals into simple boxes often defined through narrow lenses and often leading to disenfranchisement. Having seen and personally experienced some of the challenges of working in a non-diverse environment, I know all too well why we must harness diversity and inclusion to be successful in serving all. As a university with a mission firmly anchored in developing a diverse talent base and one that serves a diverse clientele base, diversity is at the heart of all that we do. We firmly believe in allowing every individual to flourish and contribute to the fullest of their ability.

What current diversity initiatives do you have planned or ongoing?

We are deeply committed to recruiting and training a diverse workforce for the American job market. To this end, we have created initiatives to strengthen the pipeline of students joining both our undergraduate and graduate programs. This includes strengthening our linkages with K12 schools and community colleges, and with potential employers. Our commitment to diversity is also apparent in our initiatives to ensure we hire a diverse talent group to help us achieve our overall mission. The university has strengthened its organizational framework to support the adoption of a strong culture of diversity and inclusion. In the classroom, we are examining our curricula and pedagogy to ensure that we are nurturing astute scholars who understand and value diversity and who can operate effectively in a diverse work environment.

In your opinion, what is the most exciting thing happening in the industry currently?

We are at a crossroad with unexpected shocks such as those imposed upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic, looming weighty issues such as climate change, and a burgeoning global human population. It is also an exciting time as we explore the possibilities brought on by new knowledge in areas such as gene editing and the use of artificial intelligence. The heightened awareness and urgent need to address diversity and inclusion as an integral element of advancing agriculture and society all make for an exciting time. In a nutshell, even though challenges abound, I am optimistic of our ability to find solutions.

What is your vision for the future of agriculture?

Agriculture influences our everyday lives in a very fundamental way. At the risk of stating the obvious, we all need food. Yet for many, there is a lack of appreciation of the intricacies — from a multiplicity of players such as farmers, processors, transporters, marketers, etc. — required to get food to the table. Furthermore, today, many people lack adequate food, and this problem will be exacerbated as the human population hurtles to over nine billion by 2050. The need for a diverse talent base along this continuum is therefore critical, as is the need for fundamental research and education initiatives. Food plays an essential role in our health trajectories, and thus we need to explore more ways that agriculture can play a critical role in improving the health of people. As the serious challenges posed by major drivers like climate come to the fore, agriculture will need to find ways to not only adapt to climate change but also to mitigate some of the negative impacts. Agriculture must also play a central role as we contemplate more effective ways of conserving and using water, biodiversity, and other resources. Thus, my vision for the future is one where agriculture will be firmly placed at the center of many of the major meaningful endeavors that we should be prioritizing as a nation and world.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about your organization or the agricultural industry?

The University of Maryland Eastern Shore is a leading institution with a mission focused firmly on developing a diverse talent base to satisfy the nation’s workforce needs. Our research and extension work in support of agriculture is a central component of what we do. We are extremely grateful for the support we receive at the state and federal level to allow us to implement our tripartite mission of teaching, research, and education. For example, the 1890 land-grant scholarships, which were championed by Representative David Scott, are now allowing all nineteen 1890 universities, including UMES, to recruit and train students. Such initiatives are invaluable in moving the dial on the critically important issue of workforce diversity and inclusion. Agriculture is an indispensable endeavor, and I have tremendous respect for farmers who anchor this important industry.

About Together We Grow

Together We Grow is an agribusiness consortium with members that include major agricultural commodities companies, educational institutions, government agencies, and others committed to improving and expanding diversity in agribusiness. The consortium sponsors research and provides a platform to share best practices for building future workforce capacity; it will have its permanent home at the Spur Hydro building. For more information, visit twg.csusystem.edu.

About Spur: CSU System at the National Western Center

Coming in 2022: CSU System will open Spur, where innovative ideas and unforgettable experiences come to life at the National Western Center. Spur’s three buildings at the center of the landmark project in north Denver will ignite and fuel new ideas around water, food, and health and their impact on our lives and our world. Spur is where learning is open and accessible to all. Where researchers tackle the world’s most pressing problems around water, food, and health. Where art and culture challenge and surround you. Where rural and urban, local and global intersect. Learn more at csuspur.org.