Continuing Fieldwork in Africa Despite COVID-19 / / by Michael Watts and Odipo Osano

Michael Watts from BGS specialises in the study of geochemical factors that affect the mobility of metals or nutrients and their effects on ecosystem or human health, with a particular focus on applied projects in sub-Saharan Africa.

Odipo Osano specialises in environmental toxicology at the University of Eldoret with a background in Veterinary medicine, public health and environmental epidemiological studies with both community and laboratory orientated research.

Three research assistants stand in a field in Nandi County with various farming and scientific tools
Kenyan research assistants with Odipo Osano

Throughout 2020, BGS, the Universities of Nottingham, Plymouth and Loughborough, and Kenyan partners from the University of Eldoret (UoE), Moi University and Kenyan Marine Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) have been able to progress research activities on joint environmental geochemistry projects funded by the BGS ODA programme and a Royal Society International Collaboration grant despite the COVID-19 crisis.

Tackling Geochemistry and Health related problems has engaged cross-disciplinary collaboration between geochemists, epidemiologists (IARC-WHO), health practitioners, farmers and local agricultural extension workers. 

Three research assistants stand by a river wearing PPE and holding instruments
Research assistants Jo and Melvine during fieldwork

A great deal of interest was created amongst local communities who welcomed the research and could provide useful local knowledge with respect to the environmental influence on farming and local health issues (

Notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic, the consortium of researchers have readjusted their activities to focus on communication of environmental and public health data to local authorities and communities. With usable data tools from the previous few years of data collection in Western Kenya, we have been able to carry out research with minimal human contact. For example, one of the data activities includes the generation of predictive modelling for soil chemistry, which will be presented to stakeholders in the agricultural sector for co-design, based on BGS’ UKSO data platform. This data format will extend through to staple crops and the association with health status/biomonitoring data capture for a range of health issues to study a potential spatial influence on health conditions. 

Hills in Nandi County on a cloudy but bright day
Landscape showing steep slopes and rapid land clearance, Nandi County

In connection with the BGS ODA funded geochemistry-health and aquatic biogeochemistry-fisheries activities in Western Kenya, an established partnership started in 2020. A Royal Society International Collaboration grant connects these strands of research. The project aims to establish the dynamics of land degradation via soil erosion by determining soil erosion rates and land-to-lake transfers into the Winam Gulf catchment of Lake Victoria (e.g. metals) via source apportionment modelling and the consequences for the rapidly growing aquaculture industry. 

Various farms across a large swathe of agricultural land. The sky is bright but cloudy and the flora is green.
Examples of farming and tea cultivation in Nandi County

Thankfully, in March significant fieldwork was undertaken before international lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first component of the project was commenced with Sophia Dowell’s aligned NERC DTP ARIES PhD (BGS-UoE-Plymouth Uni) project to set-up field experiments for the determination of soil erosion rates and losses of micronutrients/fertility in soil available for crop nutrient composition (yield, nutritional value) over the next few years. Fortunately, the BGS labs were reopened in May subject to careful COVID-19 considerations. This enabled progress on geochemistry analyses, including method development to speed up analyses to define erosion rates – plutonium isotope ratios at 20-30 analyses per day versus using Pb-210 activity at one sample per day. Whilst international travel was curtailed for all partners through the middle of 2020, we have leveraged communication technology to refine field planning and data processing to deliver impactful data tools. One example includes a soil erosion model for the Winam Gulf catchment by Olivier Humphrey which has helped to frame and refine fieldwork planning, as well as deliver a practical tool for communicating the need to mitigate for soil erosion on land and subsequent input to the lake environment. 

Soil Erosion Risk Map

In addition, training and planning between partners was undertaken virtually through the middle of 2020. Two Kenyan MSc students (Melvine Otieno and Job Isaboke were taken on by the project in April as research trainees to provide data/data handling skills for their MSc projects and forward planning for fieldwork starting November to March 2021, to capture data and keep on track for the source apportionment modelling of the project. National restrictions for travel within Kenya were eased in the second half of 2020, allowing us to plan for Kenyan-led fieldwork, albeit with careful assessment of the risks of fieldwork, coupled with COVID-19 considerations for the field team and members of the community. 

The third component of the project, to determine the consequences for land-to-lake transfers on the important fisheries industry in the Winam Gulf catchment, has been restricted owing to the difficulty in operating the KMFRI research vessel with appropriate social distancing. We will return to the fieldwork on this component later in 2021 to catch-up in earnest. However, Andy Marriott (BGS) has made progress with Chris Aura (KMFRI) on the presentation of existing data from the BGS-ODA project to assist in the planning and advisory capacity to the development of aquaculture, which had a follow-up stakeholder meeting just before Christmas to consult on the co-design of data presentation and usage. 

Melvine stands in front of some of Nandi County's slopes, holding her fingers in the peace sign
Melvine Otieno in Nandi County

Whilst the COVID-19 crisis has immensely inhibited physical contacts between the partners, it has ironically enhanced opportunities for communications via Zoom/WhatsApp and increased focus on data dissemination for practicable outcomes. It has forced the speeding up of training and transfer of responsibility for undertaking fieldwork and in-country activities, which will be hugely beneficial to the capacity strengthening goals of our partnership. All being said, as a team, we look forward to Kenyan visits to the UK once again and for those of us in the UK to experience the warmth of working alongside our colleagues in Kenya in the hopefully not too distant future. 


A view of the slopes, with a tree in the foreground. The leaves are green and the sky is blue but somewhat cloudy.
Steep slopes, experiencing land clearing, Nandi County