Monday, January 26, 2015

Act now to stop collapse of smallholder agriculture

Three myths. Agriculture contributes between 20 and 75 per cent of Africa’s GDP. Over 70 per cent of Africans depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Agriculture is a critical driver of economic growth and wellbeing in sub-Saharan Africa.

These myths often preface development discourse and are the Holy Grail of keynotes at conferences on Africa’s development. Moreover, Africa has exploited these myths in global climate change negotiations. The first two myths have been accepted as self-evidently true, some kind of axiom. And the third myth is accepted without challenge or question, especially among development economists.

The claims about the contribution of agriculture to economic growth, livelihoods and wellbeing for a majority of Africans are conjectural at best. The proponents of these myths believe that they speak for the voiceless, and make a compelling case for the smallholder farmer, pleading for technology, infrastructure and financial services for the African farmer.

African farmers are trapped in poverty. Thanks to subsistence agriculture. They want out because they are rational, value driven entrepreneurs. They get it; subsistence agriculture is comatose. A majority of young men aged between 25 and 35 years often leave the village for the city. The flow of remittances to rural Africa from the cities is instructive. Increasingly, rural women depend less on income from farm labor. Buttressed by the unprecedented success off village savings and loans, rural women now own small businesses. The motorcycle taxi epidemic, which pays at least $10 a day, has made subsistence agriculture a terrible idea for young people aged below 25 years.   

Statistics have little value in Africa. For example we cannot give a number on the acreage under maize cultivation in Kenya in 2013. Neither do we know the total maize yield in 2012. And we don’t know how many chickens were reared or sold by rural farmers in 2014? Do we know how many goats and sheep and cattle smallholder farmers own? Numbers is not our thing. So it is highly unlikely that value of agricultural goods ands services generated by smallholders are included in our national accounts.

If agriculture contributes 20-75 per cent of Africa’s GDP, it is certainly not coming from subsistence farmers. It comes from the big commercial agri-business operations; tea, sugarcane, coffee, cut flower, dairy, wheat, large-scale maize and the large value addition operations like Bidco Oil Refineries, Unilever, Del Monte Foods, Karuturi etc., as well as the packaging and freight companies.

Smallholder subsistence agriculture is at a critical point, with three possible outcomes. First, climate change, aging farming population, uneconomic fragmentation of land, low productivity, and the flight of the youth from the land has put smallholder farming firmly on a path of imminent collapse. Such collapse is exacerbated by poor infrastructure, lack of essential services such as health, education, and clean water. Moreover, a dysfunctional rural economy makes life on the small farm short, brutish and fans out migration.

The second outcome is transformation through production intensification on the small farm, made possible by use of modern inputs, including appropriate mechanization, transition from subsistence to high value market-oriented products, taking advantage of the rise of local supermarket and global markets. Such transformation would be reinforced by access to high quality education and health services, clean water, good roads, agricultural advisory, and financial services, including credit and insurance. In this scenario, the youth are the new small farm entrepreneurs, driving high tech innovation, value addition logistics and marketing.

The third outcome, the emergence of large-scale commercial agriculture, would be made possible by the collapse of subsistence agriculture; pushed over the cliff by climate change, land fragmentation, aging farming population, low profitability, exodus of the youth, collapse of rural economy owing to lack of investment in social services and infrastructure. Local and multinational operations take over through buy out or long-term lease.

Displaced subsistence farmers would stay on the land providing unskilled labor. But access to better education and health services, thanks to private investment, could make it possible for their children to gain higher education, and re-inventing smallholder production. It is probable that large commercial operations will co-exist with smallholder systems, leveraging their competitive advantage in high value organic produce market segment.


We must decide what a post-subsistence agriculture dispensation will be. We must favor not collapse but the emergence of climate smart, high-tech market-oriented smallholder agriculture, thriving alongside large-scale commercial agriculture.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Larger, targeted investments needed in healthcare

The recently published Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 reveals three important things. HIV/AIDS remains significant health challenge in sub-Saharan, non-communicable diseases are the most critical threat to public health in the developing world and global child mortality declined by 52 per cent.  

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which led the study, utilized an unprecedented volume of input data. Analysis of the so-called big data in fields ranging from genomics to marketing has become a major driver of knowledge and evidence discovery for decision-making. Data science, the analysis of big data, is critical to the assessment of the global burden of disease. Understanding the causes and distribution of the global burden of disease, injury, disability and mortality is key to rationalizing investments in prevention and care.

Life expectancy for men and women increased from 65.3 years in 1990 to 71.5 years in 2013. Globally, the top five causes of years of life lost include, heart disease, lower respiratory infections, stroke and diarrhea. The top five causes of years of life lost in Kenya include, HIV/AIDS, lower respiratory infections, diarrhea, tuberculosis and preterm birth complications. Years of life lost is an indicator of premature mortality.

Globally, mortality for children under 5 dropped by 52 per cent. Diarrheal diseases, lower respiratory infections, neonatal causes, and malaria are still the top five causes of child mortality. Communicable and nutritional causes accounted for more than three-quarters of deaths, while lower respiratory infections and malaria accounted for more than a third of the deaths.

However, half of the improvements in child survival have occurred in two countries; China and India. A majority of countries in the sub-Saharan Africa have seen either no change or an increase in absolute numbers of newborn and under-5 mortality. Post 2015, the moment is right for making healthcare an economic and political priority, both nationally and globally.    

Public health experts have argued that achieving convergence in health outcomes between high and low income countries is possible within a generation. The Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 reveals that grand epidemiological convergence between developed and developing countries remains a distant mirage. Health outcomes, across all age groups, for sub-Saharan Africa are deplorable, albeit significant improvements in the last two decades. We have work to do before we can get Africa firmly on a health convergence path with Asia and the rest of the world.

Two questions are worth are asking. Why should governments invest in health? What specifically should governments invest in? Achieving health equity is an important dimension of social justice and a fundamental human right. But this justice and rights argument would not convince the finance minister to allocate more resources for health care.

Leading economists have estimated that malaria is responsible for an annual “economic growth penalty” of up to 1.3 per cent in malaria-endemic African countries. Malaria costs African countries an estimated US$12 billion per year (circa 36% of Kenya’s annual GDP) in lost productivity. Treatment of severe episodes takes up to 25% of household income and accounts for up to 40 per cent of public sector health expenditures in sub Saharan Africa.

The World Development Report 1993, Investing in Health, demonstrated that well targeted health expenditures are investment in economic prosperity, not an economic drain. Recent analysis reveals that reductions in mortality accounted for about 11 per cent of economic growth in low-income countries. Moreover, about 24 per cent growth in income in low-income countries resulted from value of additional life years gained in the last decade. Healthier is wealthier. A healthy population is more productive, earns more, and consumes more, generating a positive impact on GDP.

A recent report, Investing in Health for Africa, argues that an average additional average spending in Sub-Saharan Africa of US$ 29 could by 2015 save over 3 million lives, 90 per cent of which would be children and women, generating US$100 billion in economic benefits. For Kenya, this translates to a modest additional spending of US$1.2 billion dollars annually.


Increased investment in health should focus on the main contributors to the burden of death, namely child and maternal mortality, HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, lower respiratory infections and non-communicable diseases. Significant public and private investments must be targeted at strengthening health delivery systems, inter-professional coordination, expanding access to and enhancing functional capacity of points of care, while ensuring equity and social inclusion in health service delivery.

2014 hottest year on record, time to turn down the heat

Scientists have described the “global warming hiatus”, which shows that although global temperatures were rising, the rate of warming slowed in the last decade. Skeptics, especially in the United States, have seized this as evidence that anthropogenic global warming is a myth. Politicians have used this hiatus claim to justify inaction on green house gas emissions.

However, recent data shows that global warming has not stalled. In fact, warming has been relentless. Last year, 2014, was the hottest on earth since 1880. Moreover, the 10 warmest years have all occurred in the past 1 7 years. This is consistent with the retreating Artic sea ice, rising sea levels, heat waves and droughts. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is now estimated at 400 parts per million, about 40 percent higher than in pre-industrial times.  

Twenty years of global negotiations, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), aimed at slowing the growth of heat-trapping emissions have yielded limited progress and generated much division between and among the so-called developed and developing world. Led by China, the developing world argues that the industrial west exploited global atmospheric resources and powered their way to unprecedented economic growth and human development. The developed world maintains that there can be no binding caps on greenhouse gases until they pollute their way to development.

Hence, the developing and middle-income economies will not commit to any commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the United States will not sign up for a global agreement, which requires its economy to de-carbonize. The discourse in the US has been dominated by climate change skeptics and those who ague that any caps or tax on carbon emissions would confer undue competitive advantage on China and emerging middle-income economies. Today China happens to be both the largest economy and the largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Africa is stuck with the victim discourse. Africa’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions is low, but Africa is the most vulnerable region, and because of a myriad geographical, socio-economic and governance factors it suffers the greatest impact of climate change. Africa’s agriculture, which employs over 60 per cent of the population, is especially exposed and sensitive to climate variability. Crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa could decline by 50 per cent by 2020. Similarly, the population at risk of water stress is projected to be 75-250 million by 2020. Moreover, with a projected decline of 25-40 per cent, wildlife conservation and tourism as we know it today could collapse. 

The case for global cooperation and action to break our addition to fossil fuels, decarbonize growth and slow down global warming has never been stronger. Last November, in a dramatic shift in the politics of climate change, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to cut emissions. The United States pledged to cut emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. China promised to cap its greenhouse gas output by 2030 or earlier.

One would hope that this unprecedented leadership by the United States and China could encourage other countries to make unilateral, nationally determined commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, delivering the much needed momentum and consensus for a new global climate agreement. But the China-US pledge is not enough to slow down global warming and avert irreversible damage to livelihoods, economies and ecosystems.

There is no place for half-hearted measures. The impact of climate change is not in the future. The catastrophic impacts of climate change are already here; extreme droughts, brutal winters, heat waves, rising seas, irreversible ecological damage, conflict and hunger, emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Delay will only worsen climate change impacts and make the cost of adaptation steeper. 

Steering the global economy on a low carbon path presents techno-economic and geo-political challenges, but also unprecedented opportunities. Against the ravages of disease our forebears invented medicine. They redefined productivity through two revolutions and delivered unprecedented leaps in human flourishing.


Our generation has the opportunity and duty to deliver an energy revolution, end our addiction to fossil fuels and power a new green global economy. A new global agreement on climate change must feel the burden of history, rise above narrow national economic interests, turn down the heat, halt the rising seas and heal a fragile planet. A new climate agreement must re-set the climate for growth and development and demonstrate that we can be green and grow.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

We must allocate educational resources more equitably

A high school education should not be a privilege of the few but a birth right of every Kenyan child. In a competitive globalised world, and especially as we enter a post knowledge economy, basic literacy and numeracy alone just won’t do.

About 1.3 million children enrolled in primary school in 2007. Only 880,486 completed Standard Eight. A staggering 417,483 children dropped out, rather too soon, from our school system. In the just released KCPE examination results 445,981 students scored below the average 250 marks. What this shakes down to is pretty ominous, and we ought to be both ashamed and very afraid. Out of the starting cohort of 1.3 million in 2007, only 432,000 or 34 percent of children, who scored above 250 marks, have a realistic chance to transition to a decent secondary school.

However, according to education aficionados, 687,000 students who scored above 200 marks will transition to high school. This would jerk up the transition rate from 34 percent to 53 percent by dragging into high school an additional 255,000 children. A transition rate of 53 percent sounds pretty decent. But we must remember that 47 percent of the 2007 cohort who won’t make it beyond primary school.

Dragging these 255,000 kids to high school is disingenuous. We are setting them up to fail. This is because most of the kids who score below 250 marks will very likely end up in under-resourced high schools, which often lack teachers and the most basic learning resources such as labs, course texts and reference books. This is the kind of learning environment, which caused them to underachieve in primary school.

Under-resourced schools admitting struggling kids, are different and supremely inferior to the well-resourced highly selective schools, which admit the cream of the crop. The vast majority of the cream of the crop is often drawn from elite urban public day or boarding schools or high cost private schools. A majority of these kids come from families with literate parents whom more often than not have a regular income and have the resources to support their children’s education.

Conversely, a majority of struggling kids come from rural schools in pastoral, arid and semi-arid regions or subsistence farming communities or poor urban neighborhoods. Their parents live just above or below the poverty line, earning a living as farm laborers. They rely on meager remittances sent by relatives who work in Kenya’s rapidly expanding urban areas. For these struggling kids hunger and malnutrition are not unfamiliar experiences. In some parts of the country, rural households are food insecure for up to nine months a year. Teacher and pupil absenteeism is chronic and school drop out rates are high.

It was imagined that free education would remove all barriers to school attendance and learning. We believed the social mobility wagon was finally on track and circumstances of birth or poverty would no longer limit how big our children could dream. Perhaps I missed a memo. Methinks it has become incredibly difficult for poor children to enroll in primary school, stay in school, learn and transition to high school.

Here is another way to think about it 47 percent of our children fail to proceed to high school. About 46 percent of Kenyan households live below the poverty line. A majority of kids born in poverty have no chance in a highly competitive, exam-centric and resource intensive education system. A chance to get a high school education and secure a toehold on the first rung on the ladder of opportunity in our society is essentially a privilege of the very few.

There is everything wrong and unjust about how we allocate educational resources and the associated dividends. I will say it again. It is time to devolve education. Devolving education is about empowering local stakeholders and moving away from a top-down input-oriented management to an outcome-oriented approach. Devolution must be accompanied by an education achievement equalisation fund, which would be allocated to each country based on long-term average mean scores in all national standardised tests. This could use the same logic as CDF allocations. When can we get a bill on the floor of Senate?


Our system of education, how we govern and allocate educational resources, is the most virulent vector of inequality, and socio-economic and political exclusion. Fifty years is enough. We must act now to secure Kenya for posterity.

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