Helen Gichohi – Go-getter who carved her niche in Ecology

A love for ecology and the outdoors led to a career in wildlife conservation, and prompted Dr. Helen Gichohi to spearhead the move to bring the African Wildlife Foundation headquarters from the US to Africa. Conservationist Dr. Helen Gichohi spent the first 10 years of her life with her grandmother in Nyeri, as her mother worked in Nairobi. She saw older women and fellow villagers toil to make a living, developing a strong work ethic as she fetched water, collected firewood and cultivated crops at a tender age.

She often thought of pursuing a career in agriculture “so that my grandmother and mother would not have to work so hard.” When she moved to Nairobi and had greater exposure, Gichohi considered becoming a medical doctor. She loved playing tennis in secondary school, getting up early to bang the tennis ball against the wall. “I called it my tennis madness,” she reminisces. She still dabbles in sport — a little. She moved to a different school for her ‘A’ levels. She got slightly derailed in her studies, she confesses. “We were a very bright class, but fun-loving. I also spent a lot of time in sport.” Feeling smug about her good ‘O’ level results, Gichohi failed her first term. “It was a wake-up call.”

You have to negotiate for things to happen Things don’t just happen; they are made to happen. Despite changing gear, her final grade failed to earn her a place at the Chiromo Campus of the University of Nairobi, where she wanted to take a science degree course. She was called to Kenyatta University, where she initially refused to report. “The thought that I could end up teaching was terrible. I was going to wait until I got into Chiromo, but my mother said, ‘you’re going to KU!’” It was a time of transition for Helen, who got married to a young man who owned a construction firm. She enjoyed her studies, especially the fieldwork, but she hated the mandatory teaching practice. “I didn’t feel challenged. I found it very repetitive, and I did not have the qualities needed. I was not a patient person.” After two terms of teaching, she abandoned that career path and found herself at a crossroads. She wanted to continue with her education, but was not sure of what course to take. She loved the sciences and harboured thoughts of doing medicine, a dream that quickly evaporated after a student body visit to the hospital. “My experience was horrendous. We were taken to the children’s ward and saw many kids with cancer and hydrocephalus. I took one look and I think I fainted.” She decided that medicine was out.

Meanwhile, as the top graduating student in her class at KU, Gichohi won a scholarship to her coveted Chiromo Campus for a Master’s degree in Immunology or Parasitology. She turned down the offer to give herself more time to think through what she really wanted to do. As a young woman, Gichohi was a go-getter. “You have to negotiate for things to happen. Things don’t just happen; they are made to happen,” she philosophised. A career had to resonate with her values and goals. She continued soul-searching until she found her niche. She took an accounting course at Strathmore and had a stint as a biologist at the International Life Sciences Laboratories. However, she did not fancy peering into the microscope for her entire life.


In the midst of her introspection, Gichohi remembered that during her studies at KU, she loved the outdoor component of ecology. She decided to focus her energies on finding a job in wildlife conservation. She did not believe in writing applications, so she drew up a list of organisations in the sector and went knocking on doors. “I would ask to see the person responsible for hiring. If they said there was no job, I would ask them to explain why.” This approach landed her first job at Wildlife Conservation International, which became the African Conservation Centre. She recounts that the boss was never in, because he was a field biologist. When she finally met him and he told her that indeed, there was no job for her, she countered: “In your absence, there must be things that are not done, so you do have work for me.” Thus, she created a job for herself. Gichohi eventually persuaded her employer to fund her Masters’ degree in Zoology and Biology. Her initial assignment was to examine why wildlife moves around Nairobi National Park, where they went, and how they interacted with people. She found the people–wildlife question fascinating and loved getting involved with local communities. She continued rising up the ladder and ended up managing the organisation.

Her thirst for knowledge spurred her to pursue a PhD as she juggled the full-time jobs of boss, wife and mother of two daughters. “I’ve never been so busy in my life! I needed to be up by 3am as I mostly did my study work at night.” This was not easy, hence Gichohi counts her educational achievements as major milestones. Driven by her mother’s value for education as a tool for advancement, Gichohi finds time to give back. She provides financial support and guidance to youth with potential. “I mentor several bright girls from largely disadvantaged backgrounds.” She remains calm and productive even under pressure, a quality she attributes to her upbringing where everyone worked hard without bemoaning his or her fate. “You must have a lot of energy and focus; an ability to get things out of the way, finish the task at hand and move on.” This ethos has served Gichohi well in her various managerial positions.

Words of Wisdom

  • “Don’t let people define you. Always seek solutions rather than challenges.”
  • “You need time for deep-thinking, reflection and introspection…These are essential for continuous excellence, inspiration and effective leadership.”
  • “I have learned not to think of myself as female when doing my work. It is still a very male world, but we should not spend time thinking about it.”
  •  “Take time; travel; see what’s out there then decide.”
  • “You don’t have to know your exact path immediately out of the womb! It’s ok not to know.”
  •  “Do it; keep going. Challenges force you to think of different ways to do things.”
  • “Life journeys are like roads with bumps and detours and twists and turns.”

In 2001, she moved to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). She felt that she had reached the apex at the conservation centre, which was primarily research-oriented. She wanted to implement research and bridge the gap between learning and doing and thereby have a tangible impact on communities.

Gichohi also wanted to address the people–wildlife question and she took up the cause head-on at the AWF, where she headed the African Conservation programmes before ascending the ranks to head the organisation. As AWF president, she decided that the organisation needed to have a more African focus. A global structure of governance was implemented and they created an international board membership to replace the American board. The organisation spread to 14 countries and grew its smaller programmes, mostly targeting land. Experience had taught her that land was at the core of poverty and human–wildlife interaction. “It’s what we share in common, so unless you deal with the land question, we will always have human–wildlife conflict.” The conservationist is proud of AWF’s projects to empower communities on a lasting basis. The Foundation built tourism lodges owned by the local communities in Uganda, Mt Kilimanjaro, Botswana, Zambia and Congo. This helped translate wildlife into an income-generating asset, creating a sustainable relationship between communities and wildlife.

She often faced individuals who were unwilling to listen to her because of her gender. She recalls the challenges of addressing local leadership in the Maasai Mara, soon after joining AWF. When she arrived, they would not entertain the thought of listening to a young woman. She took it in stride and told them that she would keep coming until they could work together. “It was important to make sure they understood that it was about competence and not gender as I was offering solutions, ideas, knowledge and capability.”

Her citizenship was also an issue she tackled. “In Tanzania I had to ask my audience ‘are we struggling with this because I am Kenyan? Might we separate my being a Kenyan from what I was offering?’” She tackled this hurdle through diplomacy, and all parties laughed as they left the meeting, which included a former Tanzanian Prime Minister. At times discussions collapsed and Gichohi felt she could have negotiated better or differently. She would take it as a learning experience and apply that knowledge for future interactions.

One of her key achievements was moving the AWF headquarters from Washington DC to Kenya. She strongly believed that this was essential as the organisation’s work principally focused in Africa. The task required dogged persistence, creative problem-solving and serious networking. Obtaining a headquarters agreement also involved extensive and convoluted negotiaions with several government entities to secure exemptions and immunities. The process had to be approved by the Kenya Wildlife Society, the Office of the President, the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, the Treasury and the Cabinet. Lobbying politicians (who knew little about wildlife and were bent on blocking the process) was not for the fainthearted as regulations and goalposts kept shifting.

For five years, Gichohi persisted, convinced that it was the right thing to do for conservation and for Africa. “Most of those who suffer the problems in wildlife are Africans, so we needed stewardship from Africans at community level and from senior Africans.” Eventually, the headquarters found a new home in Kenya. It was time for her to move on.
She joined the Equity Group Foundation as managing director in 2012. She felt the brand had a level of trust and resonated with her 25-plus-years of experience managing social impact programmes. What especially appealed to her was the foundation’s philanthropic focus on creating change in communities, assisting people and protecting the environment. The Foundation also supports education and leadership training, financial literacy training, entrepreneurship training especially for women-run businesses, health programmes, agriculture programmes and environmental conservation.

She gives credit to a former secondary school teacher as one of her earliest mentors. She also had several interactions with Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, whose passion for conservation she wishes to emulate. Gichohi has traversed boardrooms and parliaments, mud huts and informal settlements and shared a table with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Focusing on a cause greater than herself has always been a key to her success.

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