Field Work on the Fields

After a bit short and not too refreshing night in tents under the starry African sky we woke up before sunrise to be ready for the first measurements on the Maktau fields. In the morning dusk the students manned the three study plots with the FLIR thermal camera and Licor, the leaf area index calculator.  With FLIR we pointed on cassava leaves to measure their temperature, and Licor was used to measure how much the leaves prevent the sunshine from prenetrating into the ground level. As the devices were only two and we had three plots, the morning was quite peaceful as there was no hurry with the measurements and we could enjoy the savannah’s bird symphony.

When the groups were done with first set of measurements, it was time to enjoy a delicious breakfast at Mwadime’s house with plenty of cooked eggs, oatmeal and local bakery products. After breakfast we had a small break for taking a nap, watching birds and so on, to be ready for the next set of experiments: chlorophyll and infiltration measurements and taking pictures of leaves with a hyperspectral camera. A more thorough report of the measurement results will be published in the course blog later.

One group practices using the hyperspectral camera. 

Between measurement tasks, Mwadime walked with idle groups to tell interesting details about local farming practices, flora and fauna and the Kenyan society. We quickly fixed his fence broken by a hungry elephant rushing through towards his maize fields, and learnt how the farmers can upgrade the soil quality by leaving the after harvest biomass onto the fields instead of burning it.

One of the infiltration measurement plots was at the bottom of a huge, 6 meters deep water pit a local farmer had mostly dug without any machinery in order to collect enough irrigation water for his crops during the rainy seasons. As a reward for being allowed to conduct research on the farm, University of Helsinki has provided a plastic cover for the bottom to prevent water from infiltrating into the soil.

The pit a local farmer had dug to store rainwater for irrigating his crops.

The day on the lowlands was hot despite remarkable cloud cover, especially out on the open fields without any shadows, which is why everyone was happy to leave the farms behind and head back to the cooler mountains and research station. On the way to Taita Hills, we had a brief stop at Mwatate to support local kiosk keeper by emptying his refrigerator of cold soft drinks. 

Participatory GIS Wundanyi and field work preparations

On third day students got in touch with the local people at the town of Wundanyi, the home of Helsinki research station. The idea was to harness local knowledge and perceptions services in the town. This PGIS (participatory geoinformatics) practical started with an introduction from Dr. Tino Johansson, after which students headed to the town to do interviews and draw maps with the people of Wundanyi, trying to include all the age and gender groups for an inclusive perspective of local services.


The practical turned out well with students learning about both possibilities and challenges of the method. Local people’s perspectives of Wundanyi services varied among interviewees and both positive and negative perceptions were observed.

While students spent their afternoon at the town, teachers and assistants remained at the station to prepare for the next day’s field campaign in Maktau. This included checking and packing all the measurement devices, as well as five big tents since the next night was going to be spend at a farmyard. So once everyone got back together it was once again time to jump into a bus, this time destination being Maktau.

In Maktau the group was heartwarmingly welcomed to research station manager Mwadime Mjomba’s farm by the whole family. After students set up the tents next to a maize field, the dinner was served inside the house in traditional Kenyan manner. Later in the evening, while the course assistants were setting up temperature and moisture sensors in cassava and cowpea fields, the students enjoyed watching the breathtaking night sky by the tents. To keep the unwanted guests, such as lions and elephants away from the camp, lanterns were set up and it was time for a rest.

Ngangao forest and drip irrigation

Monday started of nicely with the power of oatmeal and bread with delicious Blueband-spread. We traveled with bus from Taita Research Station to Ngangao cloud forest.  Along the way, we saw landslides that had occurred during the November-December rainy season. Luckily, the roads had been fixed. The weather was quite pleasant during the hike up the hill to the peak of Ngangao forest. Generally, it rains more on the east side of the forest compared to the right side.

The hills are called the “Switzerland” of Kenya because of the large local height differences and good prosperity.

Approximately 90% of the tree cover in Ngangao forest are indigenous species and 10% exotics like cypress, eucalyptus and pine. Grevilleas are planted to the outskirts of Ngangao in the fields as their leaves are good for fertilizing agricultural land. The trees itself are great as carbon stocks, to catch fog and for biodiversity. Also an indigenous tree, Albizia gummifera traps rain since its leaves are suitable for that purpose, unlike Eucalyptus trees, for example. It has been estimated that the fog deposits increase the amount of water available about 20% in the area.

Since Ngangao is a conserved forest, Kenya Forest Service supervises the use of the forest. For example, firewood collecting and trespassing without permission are illegal activities. Forest fires are common in the region since fires are set out on purpose at the end of the dry season to induce rain, which is a misunderstanding unfortunately.

Deep in the Ngangao forest…

People grow maize, sweet potato, banana trees, vegetables and beans in the hills. The average farm size is only about 0,4 ha in the area. Dracaena and sisal are used as border posts between the estates in the hills and Napier grass is used for soil erosion prevention and fodder. Monkeys, rodents and birds can destroy the crops, so people keep dogs close to the fields for protection against the pests. They also use lights, fires and even human guards with slingshots to protect their crops. According to research, the larger the community is, the safer individual farm estates are from human-primate conflicts.

Size doesn’t matter, since monkeys are afraid of all dogs.

Before entering the forest, we were divided into four groups to perform a GPS-exercise in the Ngangao-forest: Lion-group mapped the locations of big boulders, Ostrich-group kept an eye on fallen down trees, Impala-group mapped the locations of saw pits and Giraffe-group saved the locations of big trees. Saw pits form when people cut trees on the spot, because tree trunks are too heavy to carry. We mapped the points while we climbed up the hill to the peak.

GPS waypoints along the hiking route in Ngangao forest.

Newtonia buchananii, the largest tree in the forest.  Some people have even tried to cut it down, but luckily they have failed.

We started our hike at 1750 m a.s.l. and hiked all the way up to a peak at 1956 m a.s.l. The hike was definitely worth it, even though mosquitoes and ants bothered us. The view from the top was unbelievable!

On the way back, we visited Mr. Bobson’s farm. He uses drip irrigation on his farm, which is a great method especially during the dry season. It takes less water since the whole field doesn’t need to be watered. In addition, drip irrigation takes less labor and less weeding. Mr. Bobson doesn’t have to use so much gas either, since the water comes down the hill due to gravity. The method isn’t as suitable for low land areas because of flooding and silt that can block the system.

Mr. Bobson is planning to plant Spinach seedlings on the field. He also grows banana trees next to the field.







The road trip day

We spent our first night in Kenya in ACK (Anglican Church of Kenya) guesthouse in Nairobi before our buss ride to Taita. The hotel was welcoming and comfortable with artistically folded towels and everything. After breakfast in the hotel we backed our bags in the roof of a minibus that we are going to be using through our whole journey and hit the road with our driver Robert. The ride to Taita Hills from Nairobi is approximately 350 km and takes about 7 hours.

After a short drive we stopped in a supermarket to buy snacks and water for the whole trip. Before entering the supermarket, security guards performed a body check for all of us which was new experience for me at least. The Kenyan ban for plastic bags was visible in the supermarket: fruit and all our other purchases were not packed in plastic bags. Instead plastic reducing or completely alternative packaging were used.

After few hours of driving we stopped to eat lunch in a Sikhi temple in Makindu. The temple was build over 100 years ago so that the Indian railroad builders would have a place to practice their religion. Lunch was delicious and free but it was custom to leave small donation (around 200-300 Ksh aka. few euros) as a way of thanking the temple for their hospitality.

Our road trip included nerve-racking moments in the traffic as the style of driving differs from Finnish one greatly. We passed many small villages that are located next to the road. We got our first sightings of the great wildlife of Kenya. We saw the vegetation types changing as the climatic conditions vary along the leg. And Africa really looks like the Africa from nature documentaries!

Closer to the end of our drive we stopped to buy some sauna beers at a village called Voi.

At 6 pm we made it to the Taita research station after a long day of sitting in the minibus, surrounded by amazing scenery though. We met staff of the station who welcomed us here warmly. Then we finished the day with a nice dinner that the station chefs had made for us.

We’re finally here!


The journey begins

Our trip  towards Taita hills started with a long journey of over 10 000 km from Helsinki to Amsterdam (or Doha) and then to Nairobi. But aside from physically traveling to Taita we had been preparing for the fieldcourse by attending seminar for few months and some of us took a course called ”Geography of megatrends”. I feel like there was a lot more to prepare for this adventure compared to other travels I have done. We had to consider different vaccinations and possibly buy new gear for different situations (hiking shoes etc.). But packing was only the beginning.

Half of the group took KLM connecting flight through Schiphol airport and other half went through Qatar. KLM flight was the one I took so I’ll be writing about that, pretty uneventfult, trip here. Most of us arrived to the airport between 5 and 6am. We had seats around the plane and avoided everyone else for reasons truly finnish or just unknown. Most of us felt exhausted and got hungry by the time we reached Amsterdam, where we would have around 3 hour layover. I left others to find a sandwich place and took off to see the art museum at the airport. It was quite small but it did have small Rembrant on display which excited an art geek like me. Aside from visiting few shops we just hungaround and took it easy since we would still have 8 hour flight to Nairobi ahead.

On the Nairobi flight we were again seated around the place and didn’t get to bother each other too much. I watched the award winning Korean movie ”Paracite” and few action movies. Nothing really that interesting or mention worthy happened during the flight. Food was normal airplane quality and people traveling by the plane were quiet and respectful.


By the time we got to Nairobi we had been traveling for what seemed like an eternity. We still needed to go through the customs and apply for a visa, but our group had people that had visited Kenya already and they knew which forms to fill. The customs officer was asking me about the group and my profession but all of us got through without too many troubles, and no one lost a luggage, which meant clean socks to everyone. We had a driver to pick us up with (unfortunately uncustomised) Matatu, which is a small minubus we would get accustomed to during the up coming days in Kenya. It felt bit surreal to watch people on the streets of Nairobi late on Saturday evening, we are really in Africa and our field course was about to start


Welcome to our course blog!

Taita Hills seen from the surrounding plains

This blog belongs to Taita field course (18.1 – 29.1.2020), part of University of Helsinki’s MSc programme. The purpose of this blog is to share our activities and coursework.

Please find more information on this blog and the course here.