The Taita Research Station of the University of Helsinki celebrates its tenth anniversary

For ten years now, the University of Helsinki has provided a base for studies with Africa at a multidisciplinary research station in Kenya. The tenth anniversary of the Taita Research Station will be celebrated on 28th January, 2021

Nearly one thousand students, researchers, and school classes from Finland, Europe and Kenya have visited Taita Research Station during these years. It has offered a view to conditions in a developing country and a chance to follow up the effects of climate change, and inspired the master and doctoral theses of almost 100 students in subjects like geography, biology, geology, forestry, and environmental physics, mostly at the University of Helsinki, but also in Kenyan and European universities. In the montane rain forests of the Taita Hills, researchers from the University of Helsinki have only recently discovered previously unknown mammals;  tree hyrax and dwarf galago.

Geoinformatics professor Petri Pellikka started his research in the Taita Hills in 2003 and his active networking with local research institutes created a basis for establishing a University of Helsinki research station in 2011. He carried out field work for his own MSc thesis in Taita as a geography student in 1989.

A permanent home base has supplied stability and proven necessary. The accumulated local knowledge, geoinformation data, measuring stations and the research data they have gathered about e.g. the effect climate change has had on nature, form a good basis for many research and development projects.  

The station is also locally appreciated, which was manifested in the Kenyan Hero award conferred on the supervisor of the station.

Taita is like a miniature Africa

What makes this five-thousand square-kilometre area in the Taita Taveta District such an interesting region to study?

–The geographical location and the variation in elevation from 500 metres to over 2,200 metres, says Pellikka. Taita is like a miniature of Africa, with its dry grass savannah in the plains and humid rain forests on the Taita Hills, all within a small area. Because of the climate and weather conditions, land use and human activity are different on the plains and in the highlands. Add to that the largest sisal plantation in Africa, mining activities, large conservation areas and tourism in them, and the main railroad and trunk road of Kenya Nairobi to Mombasa, and we have a model of a developing African country with respect to natural conditions. The Indian Ocean is 150 kilometres away and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is looming during clear weather conditions 100 km to the west.

Since the beginning of the 2000s, geographers from the University of Helsinki have carried out research and development work in Africa with the aim of studying the effect of changing land use on climate change. They have also developed mitigating strategies for land use and changes in land cover, and adaptation strategies for climate change through remote sensing and environmental measurements.

In addition to Taita, Pellikka manages the Earth Change Observation Lab research group, which has studied the megatrend of land cover change in Eritrea, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone. This work can now be utilised in the ESSA project, which will implement global responsibility, one of the strategic objectives of the University of Helsinki and part of Finland’s official Africa strategy.

At the end of 2020, the ESSA project (Earth observation and environmental sensing for climate-smart sustainable agro-pastoralism ecosystem transformation in East Africa ) was launched with 5 Million Euros of funding from the European Commission’s Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development, with the purpose of developing sustainable solutions for diversifying livestock management in East Africa. Livelihood uses up large areas of land while producing less food security than croplands, but cuts back on biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

–Without the long-term collaboration and local knowledge we wouldn’t have such good premises for applying for and supervising large research projects, Pellikka says.

Global responsibility for the best of the world

The research station has been a vital arena for many of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland’s and Academy of Finland’s multidisciplinary projects, from remote sensing to virology.

–Many graduates who have written their MSc thesis in Taita have ended up in international development postings, or have personally worked to bring knowledge about Africa and its development closer to Finland. Our research station is implementing the global responsibility for the best of the world called for by the University of Helsinki, Pellikka summarises.

The work is not limited to Africa, since Pellikka’s research group includes also Asian and South American researchers with interests in the deforestation in Amazonia, for example.    

Land cover change megatrend taking place at Taita occur all over in the Global South, in general. The dwindling rain forests, establishment of plantations, and the expansion of agricultural land at the expense of woody vegetation are part of a process that is occurring on a larger scale in the Amazonia and south-eastern Asia. Deforestation also leads to increased contacts between wild animals and disease bearers on the one hand, and humans on the other; something Professor Olli Vapalahti and his research group is studying in Taita.

Taita Research Station 10-Year Anniversary Webinar

The tenth anniversary of the Taita Research Station will be celebrated on 28th January, 2021, at the Tavastia jubilee hall of the Hämäläis-Osakunta student association of the University of Helsinki. There will not be a large audience, but you can attend the diverse programme via Zoom. Salutations and a wide range of current projects will be presented in situ, but the most distant speakers, the staff of Taita Research Station, will participate from the celebrating venue, Taita itself. 

More information

Taita Research Station

Earth Change Observation Laboratory