Tuesday, March 3, 2015

African Agriculture needs more than a Green Revolution

Four years ago, I visited a gutsy grandmother in a village in western Kenya. Ann was 75 years old then.

On a tour of a her half-acre estate we stopped at a vantage point, a termite mound on the edge of her farm, for a beautiful mid day view of her field and the village beyond.

Ann’s field, like her neighbors’, was planted with a local maize variety. In the village beyond, tin-roofed homes looked like shiny islands in a sea of yellow leaved maize. The maize was thin, with spindly stalks, and barely knee high.

Ann recounted memories from three-quarters of a century living on the land. She talked about a drier climate, barren soils and poor yields, denuded hills and scarlet rivers and frequent floods. She talked about the water hyacinth and the collapse of the native haplochromine fisheries.

Ann talked about hunger and malnourished children and the flight of young men from the land.
She remembered her youthful years when the water was clear, when fish were abundant, when the hilltops were green and lush, when the harvest was plentiful and her grandmother’s granary was filled to the brim.

“There are just too many of us, each scrambling for space to live, land to grow food, and pasture for our livestock. We toil harder on barren fields, for a paltry harvest, much less to eat and nothing to store. The big trees, the expansive grassland, the wetlands, the butterflies, the colorful birds and the wild animals of my grandmother’s folktales stories are no longer here. It is a very different world.” Ann remarked thoughtfully.

I have told this story before. But it is especially relevant today.

A recent study by the Institute for Security Studies revealed, unsurprisingly, that  40 percent of  Kenyans live in extreme poverty; earning or spending less than Sh.160 ($1.75) a day.  Over 90 percent of Kenya’s poor live in rural areas, where there livelihoods depend on subsistence agriculture and pastoralism.

Last week, Devolution and Planning Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru announced that 1.6 million Kenyans in 23 arid and semi-arid counties are faced with famine and will need assistance in the next six months. From my own experience, working in the coast and in western Kenya, a majority of rural households eat less than two meals a day 9 out of 12 months in a year. We know that nearly 40 percent of children born in Kenya are stunted.

In another continent-just an ocean away- and in Anne’s lifetime, a green revolution doubled cereal production. And even as the population increased by 60 percent, cereal and calorie availability increased by nearly 30 percent. The Asian Green Revolution stimulated the rural nonfarm economy, which in turn grew and generated significant new income and employment of its own. Real per capita incomes almost doubled in Asia between 1970 and 1995. Poverty declined. Malnutrition, as proportion of the population, retreated. And Asia prospered and Africa stagnated.

Ann’s story is an indictment on six decades of stagnation. It is an indictment on African governments. It is an indictment on the international development and research community. It is an indictment on Africa’s academic and research institutions. It is an indictment on all of us.
Although there has been some progress, it is neither deep nor good enough.

We have failed because a disproportionate number of African families are staggered by poverty and hunger. Over 40 percent of Africa’s children will not live their full potential because they are stunted. Africa rising will be stymied by unconscionable and grinding inequality, which is also an existential threat social and political stability. 

Africa needs more than an Asian style Green Revolution. Africa’s farming systems are far too complex compared to the narrow cereal production systems of the green revolution. Africa is the perched continent. Cheap mechanization is not feasible. Soils are inherently infertile and respond poorly to inorganic fertilizers alone.


Solutions for Africa’s agriculture must not be formulaic but integrated. It cannot be based on a big bet for maize alone like Bill Gates suggests in their 2015 Annual Gates Letter. Africa must leverage ago-biodiversity and ecological principles such as agroforestry to build resilience and harness natural capital. Africa also needs genetic intensification to enhance genetic fitness to adapt to climate change. Africa needs responsive fit-for-purpose institutions to support research, access to financial services, inputs, markets and value addition.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Has a strong and free civil society outlived its usefulness?

The complex and often improbable task of national development must be a joint effort of public and private actors. In Africa civil society organizations (CSOs)– voluntary, not for profit organizations including foundations, trusts, development and rights based organizations – have played a key role in delivering fundamental improvements in human wellbeing.

CSOs have been reliable partners for Africa’s. But something strange is happening. Over the last decade, they have faced considerable risks and restrictions. New laws, which will constrain their programs and impact, are being enacted. And yes, some African governments have proposed to limit how much money CSOs can raise from foreign sources.

Has a strong and free civil society outlived its usefulness in Africa?

African leaders have characterized CSOs as unelected, unaccountable institutions beholden to elsewhere. Sections of Kenya’s media have warned that CSOs should not expect easy accommodation by governments if they act at the behest of foreigners. Robert Mugabe views civil society as the perpetrator in chief of a regime-change agenda. In Ethiopia, CSOs that receive more than 10 percent of operational revenue from foreign sources are barred from engaging in advocacy for human rights and civic education. At the African Union Assembly, African leaders have charged that before the International Criminal Court, resolutions by African sovereign nations are subservient to opinions of civil society activists.

The plight of Africa’s CSOs has striking similarities with China’s CSOs. In 2013 China’s Communist Party accused NGOs of cultivating “anti-China forces”. Fundraising activities for NGOs must go through Government Operated Non governmental Organizations. Hence government controls how much money NGOs receive. Moreover, control over foreign funding is very tight.

Four trends could explain why the relationship between CSOs and the African leaders is becoming complicated. One, Africa’s economic renaissance has bestowed upon its leaders a defiant “Africa can do” attitude. Africa’s pride and sovereignty assertions have become impudent. The late Meles Zenawi argued that Western societies evolved without external meddling and so should Ethiopia. President Kenyatta has cautioned that Africa must be vigilant against persistent machinations from outsiders who desire to control Africa’s destiny.

Second, the rise of China as a counterweight to the West and its economic influence in Africa has encouraged African leaders to characterize the West as an imperial exploiter crashing into pits of impoverishment, and as a world police crippled by shambolic domestic dysfunction. China has been very clear about not “meddling in” governance, stating that trade and commercial interests drive its foreign policy.

Third, strong civil society with a bottom up participatory, community driven, rights based development agenda is antithetical to big results, top down, mega infrastructure development ideology of most African countries.
Four, diminishing and undermining the legitimacy of civil society, viewed as a bastion of Western hegemony, is liberating and underlines Africa’s sovereignty. Civil society is easy prey for hawkish African leaders who thirst for affirmation.

However, clamp down on civic space is unhelpful. Moreover, it cannot be business as usual for CSOs. A more complex society; rapid urbanization, globalization, rising life expectancy, and the irrepressible rise of a new middle class means citizens will increasingly look beyond government and elected representatives to respond to social needs and influence policy-making. Government must realize that civil society possesses many qualities it lacks; innovative ideas, hard-won understanding of the challenges at the community level, and trust from the local community.

CSOs must win the hearts and minds of citizens. They must move beyond the petri dish model of development, which has no potential for scaling up or catalyzing large socio-economic transformation. Through their work in varied sectors and diverse communities, CSOs effort represents excellent “development experiments”, which could demonstrate evidence of what development interventions work, where and why. Such evidence would provide a reliable basis for fiscal or social policy framing and designing interventions.

Without a strong civil society: working in livelihood and social protection programs, levels of extreme poverty in Kenya could be higher than 40 percent; maternal and child mortality could be orders of magnitude higher; more children would be out of school; we would never have known the liberating power of village savings and loans on Africa’s women. CSOs must work together and share their story of transformation.


Civil society organizations must show impact, win the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens and to prove once again to government, that it is an invaluable partner in progress.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Africa will reap the future it sows for its children.

Is this Africa’s century? We are experiencing the most rapid economic expansion in more than half a century. But Africa’s future, its rise and sustained properity is inextricable bound to child-focused investment strategies.

The poorest 20 per cent of Africa’s children are twice as likely as the richest 20 per cent to be stunted due to poor nutrition and to die before their 5th birthday. This inequality extends beyond childhood. Those who survive will have have less years of schooling and earn signficantly less. It is unconsciuonable that in the 21st century the future of an African child is subject to the lottery of where she is born; whether her parents are educated, have a decent job and can afford nutritous food, provide decent shelter and pay for her health and education.

Today there are more stunted children in Africa than there were 20 years ago. Eradicating stunting in is a critical for equitable and inclusive development in Africa. Africa must harnes its demographic dividend –,enlist an army of healthy educated children; boys and girls; rich and poor, urban and rural, christian and muslim, disabled and not disabled – to deliver inclusive development and claim its place in the league table of middle income economies.  

The prevalence of stunting is Africa is estimated at about 36 per cent. Under-nutrition causes 45% of all child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa – 3.1 million deaths annually. Compared with normal children, stunted children: score 7 percent lower on math tests; are 19 percent less likely to read a simple sentence at age 8, and 12 percent less likely to write a simple sentence; and, are 13 percent less likely to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school.

The cost of Hunger study a joint initiative by the African Union Commission, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and World Food Program shows that stunted children achieve up to 1.2 years less in school education. Moreover, 7-16 per cent of grade repetitions are associated with stunting.

In a survey of 350,000 children in Kenya Uganda and Tanzania, Uwezo found that 2 out of every 3 children in grade 3 failed to pass basic tests in English, Kiswahili or numeracy set at the level of grade 2. More importantly, the study revealed that children from poor households perform worse at all ages. And, remember that children born in poor households are twice as likely as the richest 20 percent to be stunted. Circumstances of birth matter, and yes poor health outcomes and socio-economic wellbeing can be handed down from parent to progeny.

A majority of Africa’s children are raised in rural households, where livelihood is derived from subsistence agriculture or pastoralism, which are vulnerable to climate change. It is projected the impacts of climate change on agriculture and pastoral systems could cause the number of malnourished Africans to rise to from 132 million to 220 million by 2050.

Given the prevalence of stunting owing to poverty and malnutrition, millions of children are out of school and a majority of children entering pre-school and primary school have critical early-life growth failure, with adverse consequences on cognitive capacity.  Malnutrition, stunting and poor learning outcomes have far reaching consequences. According to the Cost of Hunger in Africa study, 40-67 per cent of the working population was stunted as children. Moreover, the annual cost associated with under nutrition ranges between 1.9 and 16.5 per cent of GDP in Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and Swaziland.

HIV/AIDS has a disproportionate impact on Africa. However, little attention has been paid to the psychosocial and economic effects of HIV/AIDS on Africa’s children. Half of the world’s population living with HIV/AIDS lives in Eastern and Southern Africa. The region has 48 per cent of the world’s new infections among adults and 55 per cent among children.  In 2011, 90 per cent of pregnant women with HIV/AIDS resided in Eastern and Southern Africa. Moreover, the region has 10.5 million children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.


 The African Development Banks estimates the cost of closing Africa’s infrastructure gap at USD 360 billion, with significant investments required by 2020. But nobody knows the cost of closing the opportunity and flourishing gap for the African child. Stalked by hunger, malnutrition and disease, and staggered by poverty and lack of opportunity, the future of the Africa’s children is dire. 

Africa will reap the future it sows for its children.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nairobi traffic is tragedy of the commons

Where grazing is open, one would expect that every herder would strive to bring as many livestock as they can to the pastures. But this would only be possible, indefinitely if the number of herders and beast stay below the carrying capacity of the pasture resources.

As a rational, self-interested individual, each herder seeks to maximize their gain, adding livestock, hoping to maximize utility. At a certain herd density, livestock exceeds the carrying capacity of the commons. This is how American ecologist Garret Hardin described the “Tragedy of the Commons”.

About a month ago, pump prices of petroleum dropped. Today driving in Nairobi is an experience from hell. The traffic situation in Nairobi is a veritable tragedy of the commons. The automobile population has exceeded the carrying capacity of existing road infrastructure.

As a rational being, each car owner sought to take advantage of low gas prices, and to maximize their gain. But the use of a personal car has a positive and a negative consequence. On the positive side, the car owner enjoys the comfort and convenience of a personal car. The downside is the paralyzing immobility created by one more car on the road; a shared nightmare by all car owners.

If there is anyone out there, who still doubts that Nairobi needs an efficient mass transit system, the awful traffic gridlock and revolting immobility is your answer. Breathing nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile compounds and particulate matter is your is your answer. The needs of the commuting public can no longer be left in the hands of a band of ragtag mini van operators. Neither can it be left in the hands of self-interested, not so rational car owners. Moreover, the Nairobi County does not have the capacity to build and manage a mass transit system.

One thing is clear from the traffic fiasco. You cannot build enough roads to accommodate the whims of private car owners. Metropolitan roads must serve public, not private interests of suburban middle and wealthy classes. I have always argued that the more roads you build the more vehicle traffic you get. We must not invest more taxpayers’ money on road expansion if they don't expand mass transit capacity.

 In a sense the logic of the road as open commons has generated an unrelenting tragedy of gridlock and immobility. What shall we do? Here are some policy suggestions.

The first suggestion is to create express matatu lanes, recognize and privilege public transit, giving priority to matatus. The expectation here is that commuting time will be shorter on these express matatu lanes. The second suggestions is to introduce parking meters paid on the hour and convert 40 percent of public parking to recreational spaces and pedestrian walkways. This would be complemented by creating park and ride facilities within 10 kilometers from the CBD.  Nairobi county government could structure the park and ride facilities as public–private partnerships to make up for the 40 percent loss of parking revenues in the CBD. It would also make sense to introduce a congestion task for private cars transiting through the CBD.

 The third suggestion is to convert all major roads into Nairobi into toll or turnpike roads. These would include Thika super highway, Waiyaki road, Mombasa road, Langata road Ngong road, and Jogoo road. A 10-kilometer distance threshold from the CBD would be perfect. In future, toll roads should be part of agreements for build operate and transfer that could help mobilize private money for road infrastructure.

The fourth suggestion is to re-think urban planning and land use. The sprawling of Nairobi is unsustainable. We must encourage mixed residential and commercial use with the core of the city. City neighborhoods outside a radius of 10 kilometers from the CBD must be designated low density. This would reduce, significantly, the population of commuters into the city.

The fifth suggestion is do nothing and hope for two things; that something appeals to the conscience of the car owner to desist from driving to work, or that gas prices will rise again and make driving to work too costly for most car owners.


I am mindful that these policy suggestions are objectionable. But we must act. We cannot afford the senseless inefficiency wrought by partially rational self-interested car owners. And we cannot acquiesce in the abuse the commons that we call public roads.

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