OeAD Scholars Talk: Risper Ajwang’ Ondiek from Kenya

11. December 2021 ScholarsEntwicklungsforschung
screenshot of scholars talk with Risper
In this OeAD Scholars Talk on 9 November 2021 Risper Ajwang’ Ondiek from Kenya presented her PhD research on wetlands in the Lake Victoria basin in Kenya. Furthermore, she shared her experience of being a doctoral student at BOKU University in Austria.

Before starting her PhD at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) Risper Ajwang’ Ondiek worked as a research assistant under the Nile Ecosystems Valuation for Wise-Use project and as a part-time lecturer at Egerton University in Kenya. Risper has a BSc in Applied Aquatic Science and holds an MSc in Limnology and Wetland Management from BOKU University, Austria, Egerton University, Kenya, and IHE Delft, the Netherlands. In 2017 she got selected for an APPEAR scholarship to pursue her doctoral studies on 'Influence of land use/cover change on provisioning and regulating ecosystem services in a papyrus wetland in the Lake Victoria Basin in Kenya'. This topic was informed by the steady conversion of wetlands to agriculture in the Lake Victoria basin, and inadequate information on the consequences of the activity on the benefits people derive from the wetlands (ecosystem services). Therefore, in her research, she explored why households were converting wetlands to agriculture and the consequences in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water quality improvement, and production of crops and artisanal papyrus products. For course work, she had initially to fulfil 20 ECTS. But, approximately one year into her PhD, she joined the newly established doctoral school at BOKU, the Doctoral School Human River Systems in the 21st Century (HR21). Joining the doctoral school meant additional workload, i.e., 32 ECTs. However, as Risper explained it was beneficial for her personal/career growth as an upcoming wetland expert. She authored three papers, two published and one under review. Furthermore, she also contributed to the publication of two other articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Reflecting on her PhD journey she stressed that “it was not a bed of roses”. She faced several challenges during her course and fieldwork. Part of her course work she had to do together with fieldwork in Kenya. That meant that she had to attend the classes virtually. Unfortunately, the internet connection was so poor most of the time. Sometimes she had switch from one internet service provider to another to get a 'better' connection. Another challenge came during the Covid-19 pandemic. Risper was still doing her fieldwork and was scheduled to conduct face to face focus group discussions with wetland users in the villages neighbouring her study site. Covid resulted in restrictions on movement and large gatherings, so she switched to 'phone call' focus group discussions. The wetland users had to move from one spot to another to be audible. The discussions were mostly interrupted with “I can't hear you, I can hear you now” and “just stand where you are, I can hear you now.” Lastly, her fieldwork involved monitoring papyrus regrowth for six months. Unfortunately, the experimental sites were accidentally burnt two months later, so she had to restart the whole experiment. All in all, and despite the challenges the course and fieldwork were successfully finalised. Her advice to the participating students was “Each step counts. The journey is full of challenges and changes to the plan, but we learn to adapt. I wish you all the best!”

Risper successfully completed her PhD in October 2021. She stressed that this would not have been possible without her very supportive supervisors to whom she is forever grateful: Prof. Thomas Hein (BOKU), Prof. Nzula Kitaka (Egerton), Prof. Erwin Schmid (BOKU), and Prof. Julius Kipkemboi (Egerton). 

Prof. Thomas Hein who was also participating in the meeting concluded the PhD journey: “Risper Ondiek contributed new insights how human societies and wetlands interact and provided new insights in the role of wetlands. In her interdisciplinary research she faced several challenges and were able to manage successfully. I am confident that she will continue successfully in the field of environmental sciences. Young scientists like her are very much needed for future interdisciplinary ecosystem research.”