Marine research in Africa with Joan Kawaka

Joan Kawaka is a Marine Research Scientist working with CORDIO East Africa ( and a proud mother of two. She has over six years of experience working with East African coastal communities and in the marine ecosystems of the Western Indian Ocean. Conservation Careers Blogger Michael Murunga interviewed her to hear her fascinating story.

Joan Kawaka

How would you describe CORDIO East Africa?

CORDIO stands for Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean. We’re a regional research-based charity focused on marine and coastal ecosystems in the Western Indian Ocean. It was initiated in 1999 as a direct response to the El-Niño caused mass bleaching and coral mortality in the Indian Ocean in 1998.

The organization’s mission is to generate and share scientifically sound knowledge for developing solutions to the problems and challenges facing coastal and marine environments and people in the Western Indian Ocean.

CORDIO has offices in Sweden, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles, with the primary coordination secretariat in Kenya. CORDIO East Africa is headquartered in Mombasa with another office in Nairobi, Kenya.

What is your specialty as a Marine Scientist?

I spend most of my time planning research, collecting and analyzing data to better understand the changing dynamics of marine research globally. I have had an exciting conservation career journey so far, and specialize in a few areas of personal interest. Most notable among them are invertebrate ecology (particularly sea cucumber reproduction), coral reef and sea grass research.

What are the best and most challenging parts of your work?

There are very many moments that you draw joy from, especially when I learn something new and develop an understanding that it’s going to influence people’s lives and change my line of doing things. I also appreciate when I find that my wildlife conservation work is also helping a local community person by placing sustainable food on their table.

I also enjoy working with primary school students – being able to talk to the next generation of young scientist makes me very proud.

However, the most challenging part of my job is that it can be frustrating when your research just doesn’t work out as planned. That’s life, but it’s also hard to take!

Joan Kawaka 2

What attracted you to work in Conservation?

I have developed a passion for conservation with particular emphasis in seeing communities benefit directly from conservation initiatives. I wanted to make an impact by creating a difference to the lives of people and wildlife. I started out in Ecology and Biology, and later obtained an MSc specializing in community development from the University of East Anglia (UK).

What Advice would you give to someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

In my opinion, marine conservation is an exciting area and still being developed. It faces growing global challenges, however you just have to find your niche and work on that area. There is always an opportunity for you to explore something new.

Some of the core things is that you have to be ready for criticism; it makes you sharp, especially when it comes to scientific writing.

As with all areas of conservation, you need to work effectively with other people. In the current conservation atmosphere with varying challenges, collaborations and personal networks are very important.  You have to maintain a comfortable and healthy network of professionals in the Marine research field.

In terms of training, you need to first of all love reading, so as not to lag behind in knowledge and information. For students and early-career professionals, enrolling for courses in coastal, marine or aquatic science can be really helpful. You can also specialize in community and sustainable development studies. Linking your profession to other skills such as communication and negotiation skills can also be very valuable.

Thank you Joan!

About the author

Michael Murunga

Michael Murunga is a Conservation Biologist based in Kenya with a passion for understanding climate change and sustainable development and its impact in coastal communities, developing nations and island states.

Has specialization in conservation communication and community adaptation strategies. Holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Conservation and Natural Resources Management from the University of Nairobi, Kenya.

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