Sunday, April 14, 2013

Dr. Erik Nordman - Sustainability specialist in Kenya

Sometimes it really seems like there are just a few degrees of separation between all of us humans. Recently I attended a celebration with colleagues I hadn't had a chance to chat with yet, and found out that one colleague's son, Erik Nordman, was currently residing in Kenya (his dad had just gone to visit him and his family). Of course, my curiosity was piqued, I went to read his blog at Nordman Sustainability, and emailed him to find out more. Below is the interview, conducted by email.
Son and father at Mount Longonot
(a dormant volcano in the Rift Valley)
What is your background?
I grew up on Long Island, where my parents, brother and sister still live. I moved upstate for college and earned a BS in Biology from SUNY Geneseo, and an MS (forest ecology) and PhD (natural resource economics and policy) from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. Since 2006 I have been a professor of Natural Resources Management at Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids, Michigan. My wife Jennifer and I have a daughter (8) and a son (5). My wife works as a school psychologist.

How did you end up in Kenya? How long will you be there? What are your activities there?
As a professor, I was eligible for a sabbatical leave. My research area is in renewable energy and there is a tremendous need for sustainable energy resources in developing countries. I have wanted to get involved in some research projects abroad for some time, but was never quite able to put something together. My wife, kids, and I were very eager to spend the sabbatical abroad. My wife's only criterion was someplace warm where we could escape a Michigan winter. I have a friend who is working in Kenya and he introduced me to some faculty members at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. With a letter of invitation from the university, I applied for and was awarded a Fulbright Scholar Grant from the US Dept. of State to teach and conduct research in Kenya. I am teaching classes in two departments: Environmental Studies and Energy Engineering. English is one of the official languages and is the language of instruction in all the schools, so that made the transition easier. I taught Environmental Economics, Principles of Research Methods, and Energy for Sustainable Development. My research assessed the potential for wind power at Kenyan tea farms. I have also started a couple of other energy-related research projects with students and faculty here

What is the relationship between Nordman Sustainability Solutions and your time in Kenya? 
I started the energy and sustainability consulting business to pick up on some projects and opportunities that did not fit into academic research. In Kenya, more than 80% of people, mostly rural residents, do not have access to grid electricity. Access to clean energy sources is essential for sustainable development. Electricity allows people to charge mobile phones, to read and study in the evening, to pump water. I am hoping that Nordman Sustainability Solutions can complement my academic work by bringing the latest research to bear on delivering clean energy services to communities in Kenya.

Will you be implementing any sustainability projects in Kenya? Will they be low-cost and/or with locally built elements?
So far I have just been getting to know the landscape and understand some of the players. There is a lot of activity here in the energy sector. The World Bank recently launched the Kenya Climate Innovation Center (KCIC). The center is a business incubator for energy, agribusiness, and clean water technologies. The idea is to help develop local solutions to climate change challenges and at the same time foster local economic development. I helped facilitate a collaboration between the KCIC and the Kenyatta University Energy Engineering Department. The collaboration will help engineering students lend their expertise to entrepreneurs who have good ideas but may lack the technical skills. It will also encourage the students, both graduate and undergraduate, to start thinking of their own innovations. I also met with some young Americans that started a wind turbine manufacturing business here in Nairobi. The company is called WindGen and they are making the turbines mostly from locally available materials. This keeps the cost down while having a substantial local economic development impact. The need for sustainable energy development is great and it is very exciting to see local solutions being developed and implemented. I hope I can become more involved in some of these projects as time goes on.

What are your feelings towards returning to the US after this stay?
We are looking forward to coming home and seeing our family and friends. It has been a fantastic experience for all of us, but we are ready to return to the US. The kids miss their pet rabbit, Chopin, who has been living with another family while we are gone. There was a culture shock moving here, and I'm sure there will be a shock moving back. We have realized how convenient everything is back in the US. You can get anything you want, any time of day. Life here in Kenya takes a lot more planning, and you learn to just go without some stuff. Like most Kenyans, we don't have a car. We walk a lot more here than we do at home. Fresh local vegetables are available all year long and that is something we'll miss. But sometimes you just want to grab a bagel and cup of coffee on your way to work - and that just isn't going to happen here in Kenya. 


What will you bring back with you from Kenya: physical objects, ideas, outlook on life?
Erik Nordman and children at Fort Jesus, in Mombasa
We will be bringing many things home with us, tangible and intangible. We've picked up some nice souvenirs like a handmade rungu (small club, symbol of leadership), Maasai shuka blankets, beaded bracelets, sandals, etc. What will really stay with us are the intangibles. Our kids have picked up a Kenyan-British accent from their classmates at school and we've been learning Kiswahili. We have made many friends through the university neighborhood and we treasure those. 
We also have many memories of the sights and sounds of Kenya. I attended a Catholic mass this morning and was so impressed with the singing and dancing. "Dancing" and "Catholic mass" are two phrases that usually don't go together back home, but the student dance troupe and chorus was amazing. The service was much more jubilant than a typical mass in the US. Today's mass also included songs in six different local languages (and the readings were in English). The cultural diversity in Kenya was surprising to me.
Another highlight was attending a Kenyan wedding. During the reception we all got to participate in some dances from different regions of the country. The wedding guests were certainly amused by the "wazungu" couple joining in the dances and it was a lot of fun. Music and dancing are such important parts of the culture and that is something we've learned to appreciate. 
The culture here is also much more community-oriented, even within the university. For example, our department meets to debrief after final exams to discuss the grades, what went well that term, and what needs improvement. This is something that my colleagues and I don't often do back in the US.  I think it is a great practice to swap ideas at the end of the term and get some good feedback. It is a practice I hope to bring back with me. 
I don't want to come across as naive - corruption, street crime, and a lack of trust are huge, systemic challenges; but overall the experience here has been overwhelmingly positive. We've made some great friends, personally and professionally, and we hope to make Kenya a part of our lives. I am confident we will be back again.

And lastly--any comments on the election?
Kenya made great strides since the disastrous election of 2007 and its aftermath. The country approved a new constitution in 2010 and this year's presidential election was the first under the new system. The candidates had their first-ever televised debates. There was a sincere attempt to speak to the issues. Electoral politics in Kenya is largely based on ethnic groups so attention to issues is relatively new. Ethnicity (and to a lesser degree, generational differences) still dominated the election. Overall, the election was a success and that was a relief to everyone. Our taxi driver got up at 3:30 AM and was on line to vote at 4:00. The polling stations didn't open until 6:00 and there were already more than 100 people in front of him. Another friend stood on line for eight hours. The level of commitment was inspiring. The voting was peaceful, even though the high-tech voting system totally failed and the votes were tallied by hand and physically delivered to Nairobi. The losing candidate contested the election in the Supreme Court, but Uhuru Kenyatta's victory was upheld. Every aspect of the voting system was tested and in the end the outcome was a peaceful transition of power. We were very relieved.