GeoInspirations: Simon Onywere - Shining A Geospatial Light in East Africa and Beyond

By Joseph J. Kerski

Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations, a column celebrating the work of geography’s most influential professionals. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski,features Dr. Simon Onywere, director of the Directorate for Research Dissemination and Uptake at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya, and dedicated GIS educator.

When I reflect upon those who are true “lighthouses” in terms of spreading the message that spatial thinking and the use of GIS brings value throughout the university system — to instructors, administrators, and students — and that it can enable wiser decision-making in society, one of the people I think of first is Dr. Simon Onywere.  Dr. Onywere serves as director of the Directorate for Research Dissemination and Uptake and as associate professor of Environmental Planning and Management at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya.

After hearing so much about him and reading his many articles and press releases, I finally met Dr. Onywere face to face at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, September 2013, when he hosted the first Esri Eastern Africa Education User Conference. This first-ever event is typical for Dr. Onywere — he is continually trying new things, reaching new people and departments, and spreading the word about the application of GIS technology in new ways. His style is welcoming and lively (evident in this segment of his closing address), and he is a rare individual who serves as a university administrator, remains highly technically proficient with GIS, and maintains a very active role in teaching and research. He also still finds time to get out into the field regularly to collect data and apply his knowledge to real-world problem-solving, such as flooding.

One of my favorite things about him is that he continually challenges others to break down the barriers that divide departments and institutions to think about broader aims of service to communities and the wider society. During a personal campus tour that he gave me and my colleagues, I was amazed how many students and faculty knew him, and how many departments and programs were using GIS technologies and methods because of his efforts.  After meeting him, my colleagues and I were so impressed with his work that we invited him to the Esri User Conference in San Diego in 2015 to share with others his innovative activities and to receive a Special Achievement Award in GIS.  Now, several years later, my respect for him continues to grow. 

Dr. Simon Onywere leading a team of Kenyatta University researchers in assessing the impact of Lake Baringo level rise.

I asked Dr. Onywere about his pathway into GIS.  He answered, “My interest in GIS was awakened in 1987 when I was a Master of Science student in the Department of Geology at the University of Nairobi. The stereoscopic viewing of aerialphotographs especially fascinated me because of their three-dimensional view of the terrain. Taking geology was a choice I made in my undergraduate degree mainly because not many students were interested in it and little was known about it as it was not one of the subjects taught in high school. I made the right choice as it turned out. I was studying the earth, its formation, and the resources it holds: rocks, minerals and water.”

“During my study for Master of Science in geology, I was introduced to structural geology and rock mechanics, environmental geology, photogeology, exploration geophysics, engineering geology, and hydrogeology. This training gave me a better understanding of the central role geology plays in Anthropocene, and how man is using resources for development and to better his life conditions, along with attendant challenges. Photogeology gave me the possibility to see the relationship between geological resources, the structure of the surface (landforms) and the infrastructural development. This triggered me to seek more knowledge in photogeology, which pushed me to the remote sensing domain. I therefore developed a master’s research proposal entitled ‘Application of Remote Sensing Techniques in Geological Mapping of the Nairobi-Kajiado-Machakos area’,” Dr. Onywere said.

“My master’s research proposal, however, faced strong opposition from faculty members at the Faculty of Science of the University of Nairobi, right from the departmental head and the dean of faculty. I was strongly advised to desist from considering using remote sensing for my master’s project as the cost of data was prohibitive. The quest for knowledge and the potential to use space technology to understand the earth and the dynamics therein however, drove me to the Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development at Kasarani, Nairobi, then known as Regional Center for Services in Surveying, Mapping and Remote Sensing. This led me to meet Dr. A. Falconer, a representative of FAO and USGS handling Landsat data and the AfriCover Project. Dr. Falconer gave me access to Landsat and SPOT image data, supported me with a vehicle for ground truthing of the image interpretation and advised me on what was required of a master’s thesis: not a research discovery but a narration in a book form of my interpretation of what I was observing on the images. Could this have been a forerunner of Esri Story Maps? The question of not doing my master’s project using remote sensing data was resolved and this marked my first step into the domain of remote sensing,” he said.

Early experiences such as a training workshop in 1988 on geological mapping using SPOT satellite data of the Lake Bogoria-Menengai area shaped his growing enthusiasm. He said, “The area is a fascinating volcano-tectonic environment in the Central Rift Valley of Kenya.” The same year, he also participated in a 20-day geological field trip by Elder Hostel from California State University to various national parks in Kenya. “It was a very enriching and adventurous trip where I encountered diverse Kenyan wildlife and witnessed various geological formations.”

Based on his remote sensing work during his master’s research, he landed his first job at the Department of Geography, Egerton University in 1990. The field of remote sensing was just growing in the region and very few people in Kenya had ventured into it. Dr. Onywere recalled, “The teaching assignment propelled me to dig deeper into the application areas of remote sensing. Immediately after joining the Ph.D. program, I saw the need to develop further capacity in GIS. I used part of my research grant to pay for a three-month training course on Urban Information Systems that had been mounted for the Urban Physical Planning Department of the then City Council of Nairobi. As I was concluding my training, a new collaboration was brewing between my University of Nairobi Ph.D. Supervisor Prof. Nobert Opiyo and Prof. Maarten de Wit of University of Cape Town.  During a Universities Sciences, Humanities and Engineering Partnerships in Africa fellowship, I designed a GIS database and a three-dimensional model of East Africa Central Rift Valley in Kenya as part of my Ph.D. research.” 

Afterwards, he worked as a researcher at the University of Munich, working on the application of Landsat TM and Modular Airborne Imaging Spectrometer for imaging land cover, followed by serving as head of the Department of Geography for three years at Egerton University before moving to Kenyatta University in May 2001.

Dr. Onywere has long been passionate about education.  He was one of the 16 recipients of a grant with the Association of African Universities to the University of Zambia that built African research ethics in science, engineering and humanities and capacity development of young academics.  He was also instrumental in the development of a master’s degree program in the Department of Environmental Planning and Management at Kenyatta University, and in forging partnerships that have given Kenyatta University students and staff access to spatial data, tools, and training at the Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development at a very low fee since 2005. He has especially been instrumental in integrating and infusing GIS tools in enriching the delivery of content in the programs at the School of Environmental Studies.

Dr. Onywere has been active in research for his entire career.  For example, he examines sustainable management of watershed resources in the Nzoia River, Nakivubo and Mwanza Gulf drainage basins and studies pollutants in the Lake Victoria Drainage Basin.  These research projects often aid students and further the use of GIS in education.  For example, during a groundwater resources examination project in the East African Rift, five Ph.D. and 23 master’s degrees were obtained by students of geology and hydrogeology.  His projects also include capacity building of community, regional, and national leaders and decision-makers; for example, his Regional Disaster Risk Management training in Hawassa, Ethiopia under IGAD REFORM Programme, involved people from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda.  He is keen about communicating what he is doing through such media, as seen in his story maps on the rising water in Lake Baringo, with the aim of teaching others, modeling good research and instructional practice, and fostering collaboration.  In another example, he organizes GIS Day events at Kenyatta University -- where over 45 institutions participated last year -- and has played key roles in the organization of the Esri Eastern Africa Education Users Conferences since 2012.  He is also involved with the GIS for 100 African Universities Programme, which is giving campus-wide access to geospatial tools to students, through the ArcGIS enterprise license.  His memberships, which include the following, are further evidence of his interest in research, education, and collaboration:  National Steering Committee on MESA - Monitoring for Environment and Security in Africa, the African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment, Africa Regional Director of the Society for the Advancement of Science in Africa, former chairman of Kenya DAAD Scholars Association, member of Kenya’s National Platform on Disaster Risk Management, and the United Nations University Network for Disaster Risk Reduction in Africa.

Dr. Onywere closed with these words: “During my career, there are several achievements and hurdles that have inspired me. The success stories of students who have applied GIS and remote sensing in various research topics have always been a motivation. The students have discovered a world of limitless opportunities with GIS and remote sensing as described in this article about the GIS program at Kenyatta University.  The students have recognized the efforts I have put in, enabling them to “get the GIS power with the password that location matters,” which has now gained recognition from across all the schools in the University.  With the establishment of the GIS lab at the University, we are likely to see more research projects infusing geographical knowledge in their implementation.” Outreach being one of the core mandates of the university, Dr. Onywere broadly and freely shares his love for GIS and the change it can bring to his colleagues, and indeed, he cannot finish a conversation without bringing in the subject of GIS. He is a true evangelist of GIS and his students are his disciples, reaching out to other universities in the region, as this example shows.  “GIS is self-driving and therefore able to change the mindset of students from engaging in theory for “A” grades to gaining practical skill for self-discovery and drive them to what the job market requires,” he asserted. “To champion the cause of spatial thinking requires foresight, passion, dedication, and commitment.”

Perhaps this quote sums up Dr. Onywere’s philosophy best: “The shining light will only have an impact if it attracts and carries others along.”


Published Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

Written by Joseph J. Kerski

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