Career Profile: Peter Ndunda

When young people use geography for sustainable development, they can make a difference in their own communities and around the world.

Peter Ndunda is such a young person. Ndunda is a Kenyan geographer and alumunus of the initial year of the AAG-coordinated My Community, Our Earth (MyCOE) program in 2002. He plans to join Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Kenya, after finishing the final weeks of a position at the World Bank. In a recent conversation with the AAG, Ndunda described his experiences with geography, the MyCOE project, his commitment to sustainable development, and the educational and career opportunities that he has had since 2002.

Peter grew up in a rural area of Kenya called Mitaboni. Twice a day he walked to the area’s closest primary school ten kilometers from his home. His good grades earned him a place in high school, and upon graduation, he was accepted in the geography program at Moi University. Peter said of his decision, “I decided to focus my studies on geography so as to equip myself with the basics of ‘what is on, above and below the Earth’s surface—i.e. Earth’s natural resources. In my third to fourth year of undergraduate study I focused on GIS and remote sensing techniques in order to learn the techniques that I would need in spatial decision making to make a real contribution in solving natural resource management issues—including the environmental problems, and urban and regional planning issues in my country.”

In his third year of university, Peter attended the Africa GIS Conference in Kenya, where he heard keynote speaker Carmelle J. Tebrorgh (nee Cote) give a keynote address on the power of geography and GIS. She also spoke about the newly started MyCOE program and its goal of promoting sustainable development through geographic learning. Peter was inspired. After the meeting, he decided to organize a GIS Day on campus and formed a team of fellow students to do geography projects and presentations. That year his team presented their research at a national scientific exhibition attended by Kenya’s president.

The next year, Peter devised a monumental project for the MyCOE program. He concentrated on land use mapping of environmental problems in an area of Mombasa called Changamwe, looking at issues of soil erosion, garbage dumping in public streets (a health hazard that sometimes blocked entire roadways), and flooding and health problems in slums near sewage drainways. These were all issues that Peter grew up seeing and he wanted to do something about them. He made sure that after his study was completed, copies of his MyCOE project were given to local lawmakers along with an action plan with an analysis of which areas most needed remediation and which were at the greatest risk.

 As a result of his project, Peter was one of four international students who received sponsorship to attend the 2002 ESRI User Conference. It was at that conference that he met two individuals he would later work with, Cynthia Moss and Harvey Croze from the Amboseli Elephant Research Project.

Not only did his hard work on a MyCOE project help bring him to a geographic conference in the U.S. but, Peter says it shifted his thinking toward community involvement. While school felt abstract and grade-driven, the MyCOE project exposed him to many different people including officials at the Ministry of Environment, and encouraged him to try to make a difference and engage issues in the local community.

He said, “the project changed the way I viewed my role in the community—I felt more responsible for my own actions and how they affected others,” and he took on the responsibility of being a role model for conduct that would help the community.

Peter finished his BA in the same year and took his first geographic job with ESRI’s Eastern Africa regional distribution group. Later he joined the Amboseli Elephant Research Project where he developed a land use GIS database to foster sustainable conservation of the elephants in Kenya.

 In the fall of 2004 Peter began the master’s of science in GIS program at the University of Redlands. While enrolled in school, he found time to devise and carry out a modeling and research project creating visualizations of soil erosion in San Mateo, California. The project won second place in ESRI’s 2005 Best Practices in Science Modeling Global Contest. His graduation project at the Redlands was to design an enterprise GIS campus.

Despite Peter’s desire to return to Kenya, after graduating from the University of Redlands he took a position in Washington, D.C. at the World Bank as a geo-information consultant. He viewed his work at the World Bank as a way to help people by working towards the resolution of environmental and sustainable development challenges around the world. While at the World Bank, he was introduced to Dr. Wangari Maathai, recipient of a 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and leader of the African “Green Belt Movement.” When Maathai offered him a job establishing a GIS for the Green Belt Movement’s reforestation efforts, he eagerly accepted. Not only will he now be able to work on sustainable development issues in Africa by helping to analyze historical land cover changes, map reforestation efforts, provide information required to monitor and manage forests, and support decision making for land use planning and regulatory requirements, but he is also happy to be returning to Kenya to continue making a difference at home.

The AAG acts as secretariat for the MyCOE program. For more information visit http://www.aag.org/cs/mycoe/.

This profile was published in 2006 by Megan Nortrup. Peter is currently a GIS Specialist with the Kenyan-based Green Belt Movement.