Gitonga Mugambi: A passionate leader and seasoned agronomist transforming lives

Gitonga Mugambi: Mr. Gitonga Mugambi is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Irrigation Authority (NIA) serving his second term following his reappointment on August 1, 2020. He is passionate about irrigation and says one of his biggest dreams is to see Kenya food-secure through irrigated agriculture.
Mr. Mugambi holds a Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management from Kenya Methodist University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Agronomy from the University of Nairobi. He is also an accomplished agronomist with experience of more than 30 years in planning and strategy, resource mobilisation and formulation of irrigation development programmes such as Economic Stimulus Programme. His experience is valuable in policy formulation, implementation and management of the National Irrigation Authority.

Describe yourself

I am a team player and driven by desire to leave a legacy. Currently, my main goal as the CEO of the National Irrigation Authority is to be remembered for the number of acres I have put under irrigation in my term of service. I am married to a very hardworking lady whom I love dearly. We have three children, a girl and two boys. My first-born will be graduating from university soon.
Additionally, I am a businessman. Together with my wife, we own a family business that cuts across fuel, transport, manufacturing and farming.

How do you balance work and personal life?

I usually wake up at 4:45am every day and get into the office by 6:00am. I purpose to scribble down my to-do list for the day in this black notebook you see here (he lifts it from his desk) and clear the files on my desk between 6:00am and 7:00am so as to create time to see those who come to seek our services. This being a public office I need to make myself available to see my publics and hear them too. In the evening, between 5:00pm and 7:00pm, I resume to finish any pending work on my desk then watch the 7:00pm news from my office and leave at around 8:00pm. This schedule has left me having very little time for my family and I know that sometimes my children miss me. Regardless of my tight work schedule, I always talk to each of them every morning and spend at least an hour with them every evening. Sometimes when taking my short breaks during the day I call them to catch up.

I have not heard you mention any hobbies…

(Chuckles) Actually, my family too has complained about this area. My life starts and ends with work. Having worked from Monday to Friday, you will still find me in the office most Saturdays working until noon. Upon leaving the office, I usually join my wife and get an update on the progress of our family business; after which, I get to socialise with my friends in the evening. I dedicate my Sundays to family and rest before resuming the same routine on Monday.
I have tried golfing but could never afford time for it and ended up dropping it. However, I love travelling and one thing I intend to do when I get the time is travel this world.

Given how much you have dedicated your life to NIA, was this your childhood dream?

Growing up, I wanted to become a doctor and my father really supported it. In fact, he would always tell me that I must become a doctor. Upon doing my Advanced Level exams, however, I was called to do dental surgery. I wanted to deal with the whole human body and not the head alone, hence refused to study dental surgery against my father’s wishes. During that time, I met Prof Jacob Kaimenyi, who was the Chair of the Dental School at the University of Nairobi then. He challenged me to consider other options and I opted to take a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture where I missed only one point to graduate with First Class Honours.

I started my career fresh from university in Mwea Irrigation Scheme. As such, I hold it very dearly to me. This is where I can say I built the foundation of my career. I believe the lessons I learnt while in Mwea guide my work to date. It is an honour to have been a contributor to the success story of Mwea Irrigation Scheme, being the biggest irrigation scheme, covering 25,000 acres as of today and cropped to the last inch.
The institution would later sponsor me to study Project Management in Japan for a year. I later did my master’s at KeMU [Kenya Methodist University] and studied Community Mobilisation in Morogoro University in Tanzania. I have taken several management courses and at some point even registered to take a PhD in Project Management but could not keep up with the demands and the pressure. One day however… one day… I will finish the PhD.

Having worked in the Authority for about three decades now, what has been your drive?

The space that irrigated agriculture holds in this country, Kenya, is immeasurable and the potential it holds in Kenya’s economy is far incalculable. The Authority gives Kenyans access to water for agriculture and consequently domestic use that in itself is fulfilling. The vision of the Authority, ‘Water to Every Irrigable Acre’ is thrilling enough to get you out of bed, get to the office to work. The fact that the Authority also ensures that its efforts bear fruit through offering extension services such as building the capacity of farmers through training and benchmarking to ensure the sustainability of the projects, is a game-changer. Who wouldn’t be passionate about this game-changer?

What are some of your major achievements as a CEO?

Allow me to start with the transition from National Irrigation Board to National Irrigation Authority. Operating under an old Act enacted in 1966 was limiting. The old Act was enacted at a time the country was still transitioning, just a few years after Kenya gained its Independence, hence you can tell many transition issues from a colonial country to an independent one informed the Act. Almost 60 years down the line there has been a need to change that and redirect irrigation to suit the modern Kenya. The former Irrigation Act was restricting the institution to the seven public schemes, yet there was a need to move to all parts of the country. For that to happen legally, there was a need to have the Act reviewed. It was an honour to take part in the process of review and enactment of the Irrigation Act, 2019 as well as overseeing the transition from NIB to NIA, a process that we are almost completing.

Ensuring that all irrigation schemes are functioning and initiating more irrigation projects across the country to involve more farmers in food production activities is also valuable to me. It makes me happy seeing farmers earn a living from their farms with the simple act of giving them access to water. To date, I have done more than 200,000 acres and my target by the time I leave this office is to reach about 300,000 acres. This means I will have doubled the acreage done before I took over.

It feels like there is more to add in the milestones basket…

Yes. There is joy in making a difference. Supporting education in remote areas like Turkana County through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives where the Authority has implemented a number of irrigation projects is also noteworthy. This support has been given in the form of building schools and it is a joy to take care of the future by getting our children in class.

Also, successfully restructuring the Galana Kulalu Food Security Project and realising success out of it, doubling the size of Ahero Irrigation Scheme and implementing irrigation projects in marginalised communities such as Wajir, Mandera, West Pokot, Turkana and Kajiado just to mention a few. My heart jumps with joy when I see peoples’ hope restored.
Last but not least, revision of the cost of doing irrigation projects from an average of KSh160,000 per acre to KSh90,000 per acre and this applies to the water pans as well, which we have reduced from about KSh700–800 per cubic metre to KSh180 is worth this basket.

What challenges have you experienced in implementing your mandate?

Resistance: Some communities have proven challenging to penetrate. From convincing them to teaching them how to farm to having them adopt modernised farming. Some move very fast and utilise the irrigation infrastructure whereas others have a slower uptake and a lot of capacity building is needed. You know how adoption of new ideas happens: from early adopters who take it immediately to laggards who take time.

Budget allocation: The 2021-22 financial budgetary allocation for irrigation was KSh11 billion compared to a budgetary requirement of KSh64.43 billion, according to our Strategic Plan. We appreciate the support the Government has accorded us, but I feel it should allocate more resources to irrigation to enable us tap into this huge potential and make the country food-secure.

Land compensation also comes as another challenge. It sometimes diverts resources from the main infrastructure. Sometimes we have enough resources to implement an irrigation project to completion but when the issue of compensation comes in, it diverts resources, making the project stall or delay. It also comes with a lot of activism, making it more difficult. There is a need to set standards and limitations for compensation.

In your capacity as the CEO, what has been your contribution to the Big Four Agenda?

The Authority is at the centre of it all, hence directly influences the Big Four Agenda pillars. In providing water for irrigation, we are empowering farmers to explore their potential. Our farmers hold this country. Through farming, there is provision of food, employment, raw materials and income to support livelihoods, hence covering health care and housing.
Our studies have shown that for every acre put under irrigation, five jobs are created. Raw materials such as cotton, sunflower, chamomile, rice by-products and more produced by farmers across the country supports industries, hence industrialisation. It is fulfilling to steer this ship (NIA) that aims to provide water to every irrigable acre and in turn contributing to the above. This is thanks to a unified management team working harmoniously with the Board of Directors and a committed work force.

Any advice to the young people starting out on their careers?

Work hard. Anybody who works hard and has integrity gets many blessings. The lazy and dishonest pay dearly. It has taken me more than 20 years to be the CEO of this organisation and 30 years to be where I am today, hence patience is a virtue one needs to afford.

Parting shot?

We need this county to appreciate irrigation. Irrigation can create a lot of wealth for this country and the potential for irrigation is enormous. We are carrying out new studies, which are showing that with water harvesting, we can have more than 10 million acres irrigated, up from the recorded three million acres.
Irrigation gives life and peace through feeding people. Some of the areas in Kenya that have insecurity due to competition for scarce resources such as grazing land and water for livestock have realized peace through adoption of irrigated agriculture. With more investment in water harvesting and capacity building, such communities will completely change and adopt farming as a new way of life.
Lastly, you need to be felt in whatever capacity you hold in your place of work, family, Government, church….everywhere.