Update: 15th of August, 2019

Scouting for social scientists

Since June, I’ve been living in Cape Town. Apart from a brief foray to the UK, I’ve consistently been in the same place for nearly three months. For those who know me, this is about the limit, and I'm beginning to fray at the seams. So it was a very welcome break when I was invited up to Kenya last week, to scope out a social impact assessment role.

Back in March, at a conference in the UK, I was approached by the lead scientist of a REDD+ (carbon credit) project in the Chyulu Hills, in southern Kenya. He lamented the state of their social data, and asked if I would be interested sorting it out. I obviously agreed, expecting nothing to come of it. Months pass. And then, suddenly, the project wants me to come visit, can they book flights? Everything is arranged very rapidly, including a chunk of money for my time, and I get on a plane to Kenya. At this point, I am still 50% unclear what they want me to do.

Someone meets me at the airport. This is a unique and pleasant experience. He then drops me at a nice hotel, where I fail to sleep because the lions in Nairobi National Park were having a karaoke evening. The following morning, I am picked up and deposited again, this time at Wilson, the domestic airport for Nairobi. I lurk in the beautiful 1930s Aero Club, all old wood, polished surfaces, and great coffee, until my plane arrives. Flight time is ~1h, in a giraffe-spot 6-seater Cessna. Clear skies, excellent wildlife viewing as we pass over national parks at 6’000ft.

When we arrive, and I am whisked to the site via game drive, which is not a bad way to start the day. The whole arrangement is a bit complicated, but essentially the REDD+ project takes place across a landscape, with numerous project partners. The overarching organisation, which administers the REDD+ project, is called the Chyulu Hills Conservation Trust. There are lots of constituent organisations, and the details aren’t important, but one key partner is the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, which is the charity arm of Kampi ya Kanzi, a luxury eco-lodge in the Chyulu hills. So MWCT/Kampi ya Kanzi are responsible for looking after me on this visit. I can confirm the adjectives used by Kampi ya Kanzi. Sadly, I am not staying there... this time. I get taken down to the research site, where I will be based for the next three days.

What can you reasonably expect from a research camp? I think running water, probably in a central, shared bathroom, although I’ve been in (many) camps where that isn’t the case. Electricity – at least for the communal areas – although, again, this isn’t ubiquitous. Internet is an added bonus, but probably glacially slow. And it’s nice when a kitchen is well provisioned, ideally with some kind of cook, to make life a little bit easier. This project camp had individual en-suite bathrooms, with hot and cold running water; high-speed internet (I streamed Netflix); and a cook who brought you dinner in your room, if you didn’t feel like being sociable. I could get used to this.

From my tent, the view of Mt. Kilimanjaro was unobscured, excepting occasional clouds. The tent also, apparently, came with pets: a mildly annoying Thompson’s gazelle, and a much more concerning kudu, with deep-seated insecurities. It sounds like a delightful problem, but having a 2m antelope, complete with 60cm horns, following you around like a needy boyfriend is much more annoying/dangerous than it sounds (I since learned that, like so many needy boyfriends, if you ignore him, he stops being dramatic).

On the work front, the social data was a mess, and the data collection protocols were – if they ever existed – relegated to a place beyond memory for the staff. But, perhaps more frustratingly, the project was collecting data. Community outreaches, workshops, social enterprise - numerous projects were being run, and report sheets written up, but despite burdening staff with task sheets, this qualitative data collection was completely haphazard, and ultimately unusable. Moreover, to be certified as a REDD+ project, the site has to demonstrate that they are doing no harm – and ideally doing some good – in terms of local opportunity, wellbeing, etc. If this is currently certification standard, I’m concerned about the whole certification concept.

After a very productive board meeting, all the members were agreed: the social study needs seriously overhauled, and I am probably the person to do it (being cheap and available are surely key selling points). It looks like we will agree a 12-month contract, including a number of trips to the site, to overhaul the whole social arm of the project. So regardless of what I’m doing in the near and slightly more distant future, at least this gives me another steady income stream, and a way to escape to Kenya at – seemingly – regular intervals.


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