Remembering Nicole Kenton

IIED staff and partners pay tribute to the former co-editor of the institute’s Participatory Learning and Action journal.

Article, 15 February 2023
A seated woman talks animatedly to colleagues.

Nicole Kenton at an event organised by environmental design charity Charushila (Photo: copyright Charushila)

Nicole Kenton joined IIED in January 1991 and worked for the institute, mainly on its drylands programme, for over 22 years. An expert in participatory processes, she co-edited Participatory Learning and Action, the world's leading informal journal on participatory approaches and methods, that was published twice a year and was free to readers in the global South.

She has acted as an international development consultant and was a trustee of environmental design charity Charushila, while most recently was the co-editor of a book on 'Social Protection, Pastoralism and Resilience in Ethiopia'.

Below, a number of current and former IIED staff and partners share their memories of working with Kenton, who died on 21 January.

Camilla Toulmin, former IIED director and now a senior associate:

“Nicole joined IIED in 1991, to help run the drylands programme. This was created by Robin Sharpe and I in 1987 to get people talking and exchanging ideas and experience across Africa’s vast semi-arid areas, and to share news about projects and policy between French and English-speaking countries.

“We had a number of team members travelling out to distant lands and coming back with stories and pictures of the many difficult travails facing pastoral people across dryland Africa – and Nicole was the highly organised and enthusiastic colleague who took charge of the operation.

“She supported us all with good humour and commitment, keeping good contact with partners across the Sahel. In particular, her language skills and unflappability were essential elements in keeping the show on the road.

“We planned and published a regular bulletin – Haramata – and a series of issue papers, which all needed editing and proof-reading. Nicole always had a pile of proofs and stack of subscribers for me to check on long train journeys to Scotland.

“Independent, cheerful and hard-working, with a close eye for detail, Nicole was the ideal person to keep this loose association of people and places in order. And as new faces arrived, Nicole provided the solid foundation on whom everyone could rely.

“Her knowledge and commitment to IIED meant she was sought by other programmes and teams to provide a wide range of key tasks, such as co-editing Participatory Learning and Action. And when she left IIED in 2013, she was back on a regular basis working on various freelance activities.

“We were shocked at the speed of Nicole’s illness, with no time to tell her how much we admired and loved her. The grief of her death must be hard to bear for Steve, Adam, Reuben and Livia and for close friends and colleagues like Zeremariam Fre. We hope our warm memories of Nicole and her love of life and friendship will lighten the sorrow.”

Holly Ashley, co-editor of Participatory Learning and Action (PLA):

"I first met Nicole when I joined IIED in 1998. Although we didn’t work directly together for the first few years, we got to know one another well. Nicole was at the heart of the IIED family and later Angela Milligan, Nicole and I worked closely together as co-editors of PLA – a shared role that could be hectic and challenging at times, but immensely rewarding. 

“Nicole had such a generous, positive and vibrant energy, and she was always there both to listen and to laugh. She had a true dedication to her family and friends, to her ethos and her work.”

Woman sits among friends and smiles while posing for a photo, with drinks on the table in front of her.

Nicole Kenton with IIED colleagues in 2013 (Photo: IIED)

Bara Guèye, IIED trustee and former IED Afrique director:

“Nicole was a close colleague for many years in the drylands programme, and was well respected for her dedication, professionalism and genuine support to our team. It’s a terrible loss for her family, friends and colleagues.”

Judy Longbottom, research fellow at atns (agreemenats, treaties and negotiated settlements project) and former IIED employee:

“I can still see Nicole sitting at her desk in the mid-90s, with plenty of light belying the fact that she was sitting under the eaves. She was surrounded by bookshelves of drylands publications, issue papers, the Pastoral Land Tenure series and Haramata. There were colourful posters on the walls and various piles of papers on the desk of work in progress – drafts of publications and correspondence.

“It was all paper back then, but beneath the busy messiness of it all was Nicole’s warmth, enthusiasm and dedication to the purpose of the drylands programme – gathering and sharing knowledge about issues facing some of the poorest people in the world.

“As administrator of the programme, Nicole was a focal point linking IIED in London, Bara in Senegal and our Edinburgh office. The phone rang constantly and communicating with research partners and colleagues in Africa was often challenging. Nicole managed publication deadlines, liaison with authors, editors, translators, organising workshops and generally being the programme’s heart and soul. 

“I started at IIED as a stop-gap administrator in environmental economics, but as I had previously worked in northern Ghana and Togo, I really had my heart set on drylands, so I would often nip up the stairs while awaiting a work opportunity there. Nicole showed me the ropes, so I was well equipped to sit in for her during her maternity leave. 

“Nicole spoke her mind and had a wonderful sense of humour – I can still hear her laugh. She loved a good party and everything that went with it! I admired the way she stuck firmly to her values and her priorities all her life. She put her family first always, but she had deep commitment to issues of social justice, environmental sustainability and participatory democratic processes.” 

Nick Greenwood, former IIED human resources director: 

“I remember when I first joined IIED in 2002 she helped explain the principles of sustainable development to me, green as I was to the subject. I will forever associate her with Participatory Learning and Action – I always looked forward to reading the latest issue because the articles were always so interesting, accessible and creative. 

“At every September picnic in Regent’s Park it was a joy to be with Adam, Ruben and Livia, and see the family side to my work colleague. Fun times were not always work times – we pressed apples together in a big cider press; we danced and laughed and drank at weddings; and we danced and drank again at a gig in London where Steve was playing. All wonderful memories of someone who will be sorely missed but never forgotten.”