Daniel Atula: My agriculture journey and success formula

Mr Daniel Atula is the Deputy General Manager, Operations and Irrigation Management Services at the National Irrigation Authority. He is also the Acting Deputy General Manager, Corporate Services. He has not only excelled in these roles but has a lot of wisdom about life. He believes depression or stress sets in when we carry unnecessary baggage and advises everyone to ‘walk light’.

He holds a Master of Business Administration degree in Strategic Management from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture from the University of Nairobi. Mr Atula is an accomplished agronomist and manager with experience of more than 30 years.

Describe yourself.

I am a result-oriented person that would do anything possible to get the desired results. I am also a family man, with a wife and three children; two in college and one in primary school. You cannot live without some basic family support. I am a young person at heart, quite talkative and love singing. I am a hodophile who loves discovering new destinations and exploring places.

How was it growing up?

I grew up in Nairobi County. I am the firstborn of nine siblings. My parents were modest workers in the government and resources were scarce all round from basic to secondary needs. My mother having attained her A-Level education inculcated the need to strive to get educated. She appreciated education gains which she said would earn us good jobs, thus breaking the hand-to-mouth cycle. At that time, I thought she was pushing us too far. Hii mambo ya kukuja na report card was not very interesting (laughs). I have a lot of respect for her.

I was a very playful child. I loved football and often got caned for coming home late because of playing football into the night. I was the captain of our estate team called Upper Hill Tigers. I used to enjoy going to watch the national league and was an ardent supporter of AFC Leopards just like my father until they started performing poorly and I lost interest. I used to escape from school and scale the walls of City Stadium to watch football since I did not have the gate fee. The police on horses would pursue us but I would manage to get in. The National League then was so competitive.

You have mentioned you love singing. Are you the type who says, “I was born singing?”

(Smiling) On the contrary, no. It is self-taught. When I transited to secondary school, some of my estate colleagues such as George Odhiambo and James Opala were in the choir and they encouraged me to join. At first, I had a difficult time juggling between football and choir practice. I had a bad voice then. In fact, the first time I sang, some ladies laughed so much that I disappeared from the choir for almost two years. As a vibrant young man, wouldn’t you? It took a lot of convincing from my friends as well as the same ladies who assured me that it’s normal for beginners to have croaking voice. I went back and slowly started enjoying my voice and singing. As we progressed, we felt the trainer and chairperson were taking the choir for granted by skipping sessions. We chose to privately learn music and I bought my first book, Since Singing Is So Good a Thing by Graham Hyslop.

I became the trainer. The first time I stood up to train, some older ladies kept mocking me because they doubted my ability. However, I soldiered on until we did a coup during elections and threw out all the leaders and appointed ourselves. Today, I am the Director of Music at St. Luke’s Church, Kenyatta.

Did you ever imagine yourself being in the field of agriculture?

Growing up, I had never imagined a career in agriculture. My dream and interest was to become a dentist and a veterinary was my second choice. However, I missed the entry points by one point. I was admitted to university to do Biochemistry, which I realised the Chemistry part of it came later. This was another disappointment. Reluctantly, I moved to Agriculture in the first semester.

How did you end up working with the National Irrigation Authority?

Born and bred in Nairobi — studied in Madaraka Primary School, Dagoretti High School, Highways Secondary School for my A-Levels and the University of Nairobi, Kabete campus — I had a sentimental attachment to the city. I thought life begins and ends here.

After graduation, I wanted a job that could maintain me in the city. I applied for jobs with the Authority which was then known as National Irrigation Board and Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS). KEBS — my preferred choice — had a three-stage interview which I aced to the second level. I however nailed my interview with the Authority and was posted to Ahero Research Station as a research officer. I must appreciate Mr Moses Muloni, the officer in charge and fellow officers at the station, who got me into developing interest and eventually my love for agriculture. As an officer, my first task was on crop and fertiliser trials. When I joined the Authority, we were growing a rice variety called BW196, which was a good yielder, but poor on the table and Basmati 217, which had good aroma but a poor yielder. Through our interventions, we were able to change and bring on board a variety called IR, IPA 310 and Basmati 370. Over the years, I have climbed up the ladder to my current position.

Lessons learnt this far…

When I got my first degree I thought I was a learned fellow, but when I sit here, I discover perhaps that’s when I started learning. In the course of this journey, I have learnt that it is important to be flexible as sometimes things do not work out as planned and one must adapt to different situations. In addition, if you want a different result, do things differently. I have also come to the conclusion that it is paramount to set goals and develop a positive attitude in life both at home and at work. The two environments can become complicated and frustrating, sometimes to the point of depression.

I cannot emphasise hard work enough. Work hard, earn your life. Nothing comes easy. The saying “ukiona vyaelea jua vimeundwa” still holds the same weight it did yesterday. Always seek to improve continuously in whatever field you are pursuing. Learn from published materials, your experiences and from other players. Spirituality is very important in life. There is a need to look at powers beyond your powers to cross some situations!

Advice to people starting out their careers…

The clock is ticking. Time matters every single moment. There is nothing like too early or too late to make the right decisions. Grow your career. Invest in multiple sources of income and plan for your retirement as early as now. Rome was not built in a day!

You are in your 50s, but you look 35. How have you managed this?

I walk light. I try to have as much peace as I can and with the right mindset. Singing has had its way in appeasing my body and mind. I watch my diet and work out for at least four times a week. I also have me-time; an hour daily to reflect on my life, which helps me to get new ideas and frontiers to improve on what I do. It relaxes the mind, too.

Any fears?

Of course death, failure and the thought that anything I do could not propel my children to the right path.

What is your take on giving back to the society?

Man is a social being. It is important to give back to the society as a humble way of appreciating the role it has played. The society shapes us. I create time to share knowledge with the old and youth on different aspects of life. I also contribute to the development and progress of my community both spiritually and financially.

What is the importance of diversity at the workplace?

There are inherent potentials and capabilities through diversity. The world today is very dynamic. In 1993, I was teaching staff on how to use computers but now I need the younger generation to enlighten me on emerging technologies. The most successful organisations are those that have a good mix of gender, and age differences in the management and running of the organisation as seen at the National Irrigation Authority.