Meet the West Africa Specialist: Karen Kent

A photo of Karen Kent
Photo submitted by Karen Kent

Karen Kent
University of Rhode Island

Tell us about your background and international/research-for-development interests.
I have a master’s degree in international development management with a concentration in environment and development. The majority of my professional life has been spent living and working in Africa. My current interests include small-scale fisheries governance and cross-sectoral linkages between natural resource management and food security, especially for women as primary producers.

How does your professional background inform your approach at the Fish Innovation Lab?
I have had the benefit of working across a diversity of sectors and institutions in more than 12 countries over the course of my career. Before joining the University of Rhode Island's Coastal Resources Center team 10 years ago, I started as a fisheries extension agent for household-level tilapia aquaculture as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Subsequently, I worked at regulatory (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), donor (USAID), and implementer (U.S. international NGOs) institutions in government and civil society designing and delivering food security, livelihoods, environment, education, and health programs, primarily in Africa. Based on this experience, I have a deep appreciation for the value of research agendas that include the full range of social and hard sciences, explore cross-sectoral linkages, and are grounded in the context of their intended application. My experience has also taught me the importance of institutional partnerships and local organizational capacity to develop, disseminate, and sustain the uptake of innovation at scale.

In your view, what are the most pressing challenges related to food and nutrition security worldwide, and what are some ways we can overcome these challenges?
Globally, fish are one of the last remaining wild-caught sources of animal protein and micronutrients that is mass consumed. Wild-caught fish is generally still accessible in small relatively affordable units by food insecure households in developing countries and contributes to a diverse and healthy diet. Sustainable management of fisheries as globalization, population, and the impacts of climate change put additional pressure on the resource is critical to maintaining contributions of wild-caught fisheries as well as aquaculture to food security in these countries. Continuing to develop aquaculture that does not threaten coastal and other biodiversity-rich ecosystems and aquaculture feeds that do not depend on a wild-caught fish meal for protein is also important for ensuring that all households in developing countries can benefit from the high nutritional value of fish.

What do you wish other people knew about fish and/or food security?
I wish there was a greater understanding of and investment in the role of women small-scale fishers in the sector. Because the fisheries dominated by women harvesters are often not be counted in GDP and because fish processing and trading by women is often largely in the informal sector, their contribution to household food security is frequently overlooked and underestimated.

What other careers might you have pursued if you hadn't pursued a career in academia?
I really did pursue that other career for more than 20 years primarily as a development practitioner based in Africa. Working within academia at the University of Rhode Island's Coastal Resources Center for the last 10 years has provided me the opportunity to focus more on the need practitioners often feel brings a more rigorous evidence base to their work, while also facilitating more demand-driven applied research from academia.

What are your hobbies or activities outside of work?
I enjoy the outdoors, swimming, paddling a kayak, bicycling, or on foot. I also paint, draw, and garden in my free time.

What is on your bucket list? (What do you hope to do, accomplish, see, experience, etc. in your lifetime that you haven’t yet?)
I have yet to visit some of the U.S.’s great National Parks in the West, go on a long biking trek, and follow some of my own creative pursuits in a more focused way.

Published March 30, 2022