PORTRAITS: African examples - Prof Norah Khadzini Olembo
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TITLE: AFRICAN EXAMPLES - Prof Norah Khadzini Olembo
SOURCE: The Standard, Kenya
AFRICAN EXAMPLES - Prof Norah Khadzini Olembo
Despite having spent most of the night marking university examination
papers, Prof Norah Khadzini Olembo was vivacious and jovial as she
ushered us into her lavishly furnished house in Lavington.
"Graduation is around the corner and I have to hand in the results
early," she says.
But she is not complaining. The scholar, who cherishes hard work, is
upbeat. Olembo never rests unless she has accomplished all her tasks.
"This interview will allow me to relax," she says, as she sinks into a settee.
Beneath Olembo's modesty lies a scholar of international repute with
penchant for details.
She is a professor, mother and activist fondly referred to as 'mama'.
Besides teaching, Olembo is the executive director of the African
Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF), a non-governmental organisation
that provides a platform for sharing, debating and understanding issues
pertaining to biotechnology agriculture, health, industry and environment.
"We are a very effective forum," she says.
The organisation has more than 80 individual members in Kenya, Uganda,
Ethiopia, South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria.
"In Kenya we have been at the forefront lobbying for a biotechnology
policy and we expect it to form part of the debate when Parliament
resumes," she says.
"Kenya is among the first countries in Africa to develop such a policy,"
"The forum has also been at the forefront in the organisation of
conferences and workshops for journalists, farmers, consumers and
manufacturers to help in the free flow of correct and balanced
information," Olembo says.
She says if used correctly, biotechnology is a formidable tool in
addressing food insecurity, disease, environmental pollution and poverty.
"The result is that we have better and accurate coverage of
biotechnological news and this has helped in disseminating the correct
information," she says.
The forum has been involved in enlightening farmers about genetically
modified crops. "We have not been able to do much in terms of education
because what is going on is still in the research phase," she says.
Olembo says Kenya has made great strides in genetically modified foods.
"We have come from far and we won't have to wait for long," she says.
Olembo is best remembered for her efforts as the director of Kenya
Industrial Property Organisation (Kipo) -- from 1992 to 2002 -- where she
raised the profile of the hitherto unknown organisation both locally and
Kipo was renamed Kenya Industrial Property Institute (Kipi) in 2002 and
she served as the executive director for another year. The organisation
is charged with protecting property rights or patents. Olembo vividly
recalls the events of mid-1992 that led to her appointment as the
director of Kipo. As the head of the Bio-Chemistry Department at
University of Nairobi she organised a Unesco seminar where the Minister
for Science and Technology was the chief guest.
"After the function the minister asked her to establish a patent
office," she says.
At first she was undecided and confused on whether to accept the
"It was my third year as the head of the department and I had grand
plans for it," she says. "My office was in a mess, with books strewn
everywhere. I remember breaking down in tears."
Despite her apprehension she quickly settled in her new role with gusto.
Born to religious parents, Benjamin and Berita Ngaira, in Kaimosi,
Olembo was brought up in a family of 11 children. Olembo's early
inspiration was her brother.
"My eldest brother, Dr Benyaya Masiju, was a geneticist who was
instrumental in the growth and expansion of Kenya Agricultural Research
Institute (Kari). He was the first director of the institution following
the break-up of East African Community," she says.
Growing up in a Christian setting, she learnt early in life the value of
humility and the importance of living in harmony with other people. "My
parents were committed Quakers and they shielded me from many things,"
Her father served as the chairman of Friends Church East Africa. From a
tender age, Olembo spent most of her time in a Christian environment. As
a daughter of a church elder, she was expected to lead a life beyond reproach.
"Though this was very demanding it taught me how to relate to other
people," she says.
Olembo's dream was to become a doctor. Throughout her education both at
Kaimosi Primary School and Butere Girls' High School, she excelled in
"I chose Butere Girls' High School because it offered pure sciences,"
After completing her 'O' level education at the age of 18, Olembo was
sponsored by Friends Church Kaimosi to pursue her 'A' level education at
Mount School York in Yorkshire, United Kingdom.
She only stayed in the United Kingdom for two years because she was home sick.
When Olembo returned to Kenya she was among the first women to join the
University of Nairobi. This marked the beginning of a warm relationship
with the institution she serves to-date.
At the university, Olembo was taught by some of the best scholars in
Africa including the late Prof Thomas Odhiambo, who was the founder of
the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe), with
whom she later worked.
"After my undergraduate studies, Odhiambo took me under his wings as a
graduate research assistant between 1968 and 1970," she says.
She graduated with a Master of Science in Zoology in 1972. Thirsty for
more knowledge, she returned to the university where she earned her
doctorate in Biochemistry. She crowned her education with a post-
doctoral degree in Molecular Biology, from University of London.
At Kipo, the Olembo had the daunting task of selling the patenting
concept to Kenyans.
"Many people, including scholars, were ignorant about patents," she
says. "We had to make them understand that we were out to protect their
creativity, the property of their mind."
Kipo strove to promote inventions by getting involved in intellectual
property matters. As an institution, the organisation was determined to
protect intellectual property holders against infringement through
"I recruited enthusiastic young university graduates," she says.
Together they moved around institutions lecturing on the benefits of
patenting to preserve the creativity of people, especially those in the
"We organised debates, seminars and workshops at various places," she
says. Her goal was to upgrade the local Kipo office to international
"We received many invitations from other countries and participated in
many international forums," she says.
After a short while, Kipo became the largest patent centre in Africa. To
help in the dissemination of information, Kipo published a newsletter --
The Inventor. At international conferences on life-form patents, many of
which she chaired, Olembo did not shy away from defending Third World
countries. Her work bore fruits when she was appointed the chairperson
of the governing committee of World Intellectual Property Organisation
(Wipo) for two years.
When Olembo left the organisation in 2003, she went back to teach at the
University of Nairobi. She received two presidential awards -- Moran of
the Burning Spear and Order of the Golden Warrior.
Other than teaching, Olembo has been involved in many national and
international assignments. Currently she is a consultant with Food and
Agricultural Organisation where she is helping with the establishment
and co-ordination of a website on Agricultural Biotechnology Network in
She served as a consultant at the Commonwealth Secretariat and as a
member of the steering committee of the International Food Policy
Research Institute on Biotechnology.
Other organisations that Olembo has worked with include United Nations
Environmental Programme, International Service for National Agricultural
Research, and International Centre for Research in Semi Arid Tropics and
International Centre for Maize Research.
Despite her international acclaim, Olembo identifies with the ordinary
people, especially poor women who she refers to as 'the wretched of the
"When I wake up every day, I ask myself 'how can I help my sisters
today'?" she says.
The lecturer belongs to a number of women's organisations, especially
those working in Vihiga and Emuhaya in Western Province. She believes
given the right environment and support, women can make a difference in
"Look at Prof Ruth Oniang'o, Dr Julia Ojiambo and Mrs Charity Ngilu and
their contributions in Parliament," she says. "They are perfect examples
of women who have prospered."
Though she acknowledges the lives of women has improved, she says there
is room for improvement.
"At least the traditions and myths that were used against women's
advancement are on the decline," she says. "We need to move faster and
build on the gains we have had so far."
The widowed mother of four -- three daughters and a son --owes much to her
"I teach my children to be the best that they can be in whatever fields
they are in," she says.
Olembo says she prays to God to guide them so that whatever they do
promotes human rights and dignity.Her late husband, Prof Reuben J
Olembo, was very supportive of her endeavours.
"We had a beautiful marriage. He was the pillar of my life," she says.
Olembo believes that with right leadership, the economic status of many
Kenyans languishing in poverty can be improved greatly.
"Due to corruption, resources are not distributed equally," she says.
This, she says, retards economic development. Recently, the
globetrotting scholar was in Ottawa where she attended a board meeting
of the International Development Research Centre.
"We were given a report on a new bracket of developing countries known
as Bricks -- Brazil, India, China, South Korea and Singapore."
She says Kenya would have been in this bracket had it not been for
corruption. "Look at Kenya going to beg from the Chinese and allowing
them to dump their products here," she says.
The Government, Olembo believes, can do better in terms of wealth
distribution and planning. "Why do we have floods and drought being
declared as national disasters each year?" she asks.
Though Olembo believes politics can be a vehicle for development, she is
non-committal about her political ambitions.
"Anything can happen," she says with a laugh.
Despite a demanding daily schedule, she finds time for herself and the
family. "I love reading and tending to my gardens," she says while
taking us on a tour of her flower garden.
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