Monday, November 17, 2014

Reform antiquated exam-centric education system

“Exams are a necessary evil”. These words were proclaimed by my high school headmaster annually, to calm terrified and nervous candidates. Back then, these words were incredibly sagacious. Today they sound hollow; a shameful acceptance of a failed education system.

A high-stakes exam-centric education has turned schools into grade factories. Our school buildings, in my view are mausoleums, housing the remains of education. We have murdered the soul of education and defiled the creative proclivity of our children.

The word education is derived from the Greek word educatio, which means bringing up, or raise. Education is about knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and habits through story telling, debate, learning, training and or research.  

The so-called education is delivered through passive rote learning and regurgitation of facts. It does not matter whether the student can argue a position or express their ignorance or skepticism through precise questions.
Rote learning and didactic teaching is a linear product-oriented approach. The output is measured by achievement in standardized test scores. This grade oriented system is characterized by the absence of independent thinking and an abundance of subservience and a follow the leader mindset.

 Sadly, what happens in our schools is not education. Our schools are obsessed with examination grades. Parents demand high grades. Teachers crave high subject mean grades and headteachers want prestige to drive high enrollment and revenue. Parents and teachers want high grades from students by hook or by crook.

Evidence and examples abound, which demonstrate how the product-oriented education was used by the colonial government to institutionalize rote learning and unquestioning acceptance of facts, discouraging, critical thinking and perpetrating cultural and intellectual subjugation. Half a century after colonialism, the product-oriented, exam-centric education system is still alive. Clearly, the colonialist is no longer here. Whose interest is served by unthinking citizens?

How we are educated offers unsettling insights into the archetypal Kenyan, especially our unquestioning allegiance to ethnic head honchos, impunity and disdain for analytical reasoning and robust public debate. How we are educated explains our winner take-it-all attitude and the belief that our competitors are enemies to be humiliated. It explains the primordial and contemptible zero-sum ethnic calculus of our politics.  

The didactic, fact-based and exam-centric approach to education has its origins in the era of scarcity of facts and information. Books and other learning resources were rare, the Internet was not even imaginable.Today we are inundated with information and facts. Facts and information are a click away, on our mobile phones, tablets and computers. You do not need school or college to memorize facts or get information.

We must re-appropriate education to optimize curiosity, creativity and innovation. Our schools must foster playful exploration and emancipate education from rote learning and the tyranny of a didactic, fact-based and exam-centric approach. Education must be a recursive process of learning, sense-making, collaboration, application, discovery and re-learning.

Primary education must be the first rung on the ladder, where we learn how learn, to learn how to think, to learn how to ask questions, to learn how to play, how collaborate and to learn how to be moral, ethical citizens. Moreover, primary education must not be about how to take a meaningless test, which do not challenge their wonderful creative and inventive minds. It is time to abolish KCPE.
Transition to high school must be a birthright of every Kenyan child. We must abandon the colonial logic of artificial scarcity of high school education resources. Moreover, the colonialists wanted to create a small cadre of pliable and subservient educated elite, for obvious reasons.

A radical change in Kenya’s education is imperative, if we are to build a stable democracy and prepare skilled and employable citizens to drive the political, socio-economic and technological transformation imagined in Vision 2030.

I offer some ideas to motivate debate: i) replace current fact-laden curriculum with a problem-based approach to learning to encourage critical thinking, analytical reasoning, collaboration, innovation and discovery; ii) eliminate standardized national testing for primary school; iii) assess learning through multiple measures, including school-based formative assessments and student portfolios; iv) promote knowledge application and reflective practice at all levels through service learning because “tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember and involve me and I will understand”.  

Half a century later, do we have the courage to reform our education system, emancipate our children and secure the future for posterity?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Unlocking the Power of Africa’s Smallholder Agriculture

Africa accounts for 60 percent of the world’s arable, uncultivated land, according to a report published by McKinsey Global Institute in 2010. The FAO has shown that cereal yields in Africa are currently less than 50 percent of those in Asia or South America. Such low productivity is largely attributable to the current state of smallholder farming.

It is estimated that about 75 percent of all farmland in Africa is less than 2 hectares in size. Nearly 70 percent of Africa’s population lives in the rural areas where they depend exclusively on agriculture as farmers and/or laborers for their livelihoods. A large percentage of these smallholder farmers are women.

A World Bank report published in 2011 estimated that the global food price spikes in 2008 pushed 44 million people below the poverty line, most of them in developing countries. According to Oxfam International, poor people in developing countries spend 50-80 percent of their income on food. Over 90 percent of Africans who live on less than $1.25 a day also happen to own and live on small farms.

As the green revolution in Asia showed, the potential of smallholder development can be realized. But conditions have changed. Now smallholders face higher transaction costs and have to cope with the fact that agricultural research is biased towards large-scale production. This raises new challenges in small farm development. On the other hand, higher prices of staple foods present opportunities for farmers.

India and China have similar proportions of small farms as Africa, but have achieved significantly higher productivity. Despite the success of smallholder farmers in Asia, who fueled the green revolution, there is skepticism that East Africa’s smallholders can replicate this model and deliver agricultural transformation and improve livelihoods among rural smallholder farmer.

It is argued that for agricultural growth to gain traction, Africa’s agricultural and labor productivity will have to increase massively, requiring vast proportions of smallholder farmers to move out of out of the farm. High productivity of modern agriculture is associated with high technology, intense capital input and market linkages, and hence higher capacity to compete aggressively in factor markets, including land, labor and capital. However, these factors are not appropriate for the smallholder farm model. While there is a strong poverty-based case for trying to assist smallholder farmers, the agenda for African agricultural growth should be to introduce commercial agriculture on a competitive basis.

Why is it that with all our research, technology and innovation, managerial capability and investment capacity, we are unable to make even a modest contribution to the pervasive problem of poverty, hunger and malnutrition in the smallholder farm families in sub Saharan Africa? We must learn from successes and failures of the past.

Doing more of the same by refurbishing the solutions of the past – development aid, nongovernmental organizations, training and visit, farmer field schools, international agricultural research organizations – is vital and has a critical role to play, but has not addressed the problem of low productivity, hunger and poverty among millions of smallholder farm households.
Paul Collier has argued that having the single most important sector of Africa’s economies almost exclusively managed by reluctant micro-entrepreneurs – smallholder farmers – is a recipe for continued divergence Africa’s from global agricultural productivity. But in the logic of the timeless wisdom of C.K. Prahalad, we must stop thinking of smallholder farmers as victims or as a burden as start recognizing them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers.

What would be the defining characteristics of agriculture over the next half century if Africa were to converge on the performance of the Asia and Latin America?

I argue for a focus on small and medium sized enterprises (SME) agribusiness. But harnessing Africa’s agricultural potential requires talented managers and entrepreneurs that can attract capital, apply technical expertise to develop profitable SME agribusinesses. Moreover, serving SME agribusiness sector will demand innovations in technology, services and business models. Africa’s large youth population provides a ready pool from which to develop talented entrepreneurs and managers who will drive the growth of African agriculture.

Those of us in the research, education, policy, development and business community can be a positive force in making this a reality by using our resources to build the capabilities of the African SME agribusiness sector to generate economic growth and achieve food and nutritional security. 



Under the project Maximizing the Development Impact of Extractive Resources, the East African Institute seeks to recruit qualified men and women to carry out interdisciplinary policy-oriented research on Kenya’s nascent extractive sector. The objective of the project is create a platform for building a shared understanding and common vision among key stakeholders and aims to re-cast natural resources as a boon and potential engine for national and local economic growth rather than an object of narrow political, economic squabbling or arena for agitation for indigenous entitlement
Key Responsibilities:
1. Undertake a stakeholder mapping, detailing, interest in extractives, power dynamics and relative influence
2. Examine and evaluate livelihood transformation strategies and explore the potential for impact investment, which could lead to poverty reduction in resource rich communities;
3. Develop and deploy an appropriate criteria for assessing the capacity of local business to leverage local content opportunities in oil/gas sector;
4. Identify and prioritize capacity needs for communities and local government, who are likely to receive huge revenue inflows without much preparation.

A master's degree a social science related field, preferably sociology or political science. Strong skills in qualitative and quantitative research are critical. Proven report writing and oral presentation capability are highly desirable. Other desirable attributes include multitasking, strong orientation to detail and ability to work independently and as an effective team member.

Applications together with detailed Curriculum Vitae should be emailed to The Recruitment Manager, Aga Khan University Hospital on not later than 26th November 2014.  Applications by email are preferred quoting the position as the subject.
Only short listed candidates will be contacted

Monday, November 10, 2014

Flawed Global Health Policy and Racial Attitudes Undermine Ebola Response

In a relentless sweep across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the largest outbreak of Ebola – a virus that causes dramatic internal bleeding and often quick death – has now claimed  4,960 lives from 13, 268 reported cases since February 2014.

Named after a river in the DR Congo, the Ebola virus is among the deadliest of any known virus, with between 70 and 90 percent mortality. At present there is no cure for Ebola. The global epicenter of this epidemic are three west African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The Ebola virus is spread through contact with infected fluids. Once an individual is infected, the virus swiftly attacks internal organs, causes severe bleeding, vomiting, and dementia. The typical cause of death is multi-organ system failure. 

Accounts of the disease paint African culture as an obstacle to prevention and epidemic control efforts, associating Ebola eruption with practices such as burial traditions or consumption of bushmeat.

The association between African culture and Ebola amounts to racialization of the epidemic. In a sense race and culture are instrumentalized as “risk factors” for Ebola infection. African “otherness” is presented as inimical to enlightened Ebola control efforts. African immigrants living in Dallas have reported fewer handshakes and more frequent curious glances since  a Liberian man, Thomas Eric Duncan, become the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States of America. But thankfully, nothing clinically differentiates vulnerability on account of skin color. 

Glaringly absent in the Ebola conversation is what in my view are the larger structural determinants of the patterns of the epidemic. Globalization of Africa’s extractive resource sector – mining and forestry, ecology, political and economic factors offer a more credible explanatory power of the emergence and proliferation of the Ebola virus.

Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have one thing in common. They have experienced unprecedented rates of deforestation. For instance, the rainforest has declined to less than a fifth of its original size. In Liberia, loggers have decimated half of the forest. Similarly, Guinea has lost about a quarter of its forest. According to UNEP, with only 4 percent of forest remaining, Sierra Leone is on track to be completely deforested by 2018.

Deforestation creates ideal conditions for vectors to breed and spread diseases. The association between deforestation and the emergence of zoonotic, vector-borne diseases is well established. Deforestation alters ecosystem structure and invariably changes breeding habitats for disease vectors. Research has shown that deforestation enhances mosquito reproductive fitness, increasing mosquito population growth potential in the western Kenya highlands.

Deforestation is known to lead to increased contact between humans and wildlife. In 2005, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Consortium for Conservation Medicine showed that 75 percent of infectious diseases, including Ebola, are caused by pathogens, which started in wildlife and then jumped to humans. Moreover, there is evidence that Ebola outbreaks in West Africa are strongly associated with deforestation.

The Ebola epicenter in Guinea is in the south east of Guinea, close to the iron ore reserves in the forest. Mining has become big business in the region, employing thousands of workers who make excursions into bat territory to access the mines. More mines in the forest means more frequent contact between bats and other wildlife. Fruit bats carry the Ebola virus, but do not die from the virus.

I have argued in this column that the Ebola virus has and continues to expose Africa’s soft underbelly. Ebola is not just a medical emergency. National and global efforts to combat Ebola – build hospitals and  enhance medical response capacity – are supremely well intentioned but miserably reductionist, hence limited.

At the heart of the Ebola epidemic is an unfolding environmental catastrophe that is upsetting the balance of nature and creating a perilous situation where infectious diseases jump, easily, from animals to humans. At the core of the Ebola crisis is conflict, corruption and governance incapacity, all of which have eroded the capability of a majority of African governments to deliver vital social services; healthcare, education and economic opportunity.

It is not enough to stop the hemorrhaging. We must tackle the systemic dysfunction, which underwrites the governance incapacity of African states.

As African scholars and public intellectuals we have a solemn obligation to re-shape the narrative on the Ebola emergence and re-contextualize global health policy and action frameworks taking into account of ecology, poverty, political economy and globalization. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

To Harness the Youth Bulge, Expand Access to Secondary Eduction

Kenya’s youth bulge, can be a curse or a blessing. According to President Kenyatta “a large number of idle and frustrated youth pose a significant risk to the survival of the Kenyan State”.

 In Mr.Kenyatta’s view to turn the youth bulge into Uhuru a blessing is pretty straight forward. He believes that if many young people get money and opportunity to earn a living and “buy into the Kenya dream” they could be a veritable driver of growth and prosperity.

Mr. Kenyatta’s fears are not unfounded. His remarks, made at the  National Security Strategy seminar last week, came just after the African Development Bank said Kenya’s growth has made a few richer while majority struggle to survive. According to the bank Kenya risks degenerating into a fragile state when only a few reap the benefits of prosperity. 

We are witnessing prosperity of the few by the few for the few. According to the African Development Bank, high levels of poverty, regional disparities, limited access to basic services, inequality and unemployment underline the prosperity of the very few and the exclusion of the many from “buying into the Kenyan dream”. Like Mr. Kenyatta, the bank warns that if not addressed, poverty, inequality and the high rate unemployment could pose a threat to Kenya’s stability.

According to Mr. Kenyatta, idle and frustrated youth can be “drawn to ideologies that undermine the legitimacy of the State and can be used to destroy our democratic dispensation”. Just in case you forgot, the median age is about 19 and nearly nearly 80 per cent of Kenyans are classified as youth, aged below 35 years.

The high walls, razor wire fences, the booming security industry underscore a growing sense of fear and insecurity among Kenya’s upper middle and wealthy classes. The rich want to scoot out of town. The proliferation of the exclusive gated suburbs is nothing but a shameful reminder of the dogged determination of the wealthy to secede from the messy insanitary state of our cities.

Think about the tens of millions of Kenyans who work so hard and yet cannot feed or clothe or provide shelter for their loved once. They are the majority. I am reminded of the words spoken by JF Kennedy more than half a century ago;  “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”.

I have said many time in this column that we must summon the courage to act to confront inequality, tackle poverty and extend opportunity to all citizens. And it must start with the 890,000 kids who will sit KCPE this week. Consider that over 7million children are enrolled in primary school compared to just over 2 million enrolled in secondary school. Such a high drop out or attrition rate is both immoral and unconscionable. 

We have too few secondary schools. The ratio of secondary schools to primary schools must be one to one. Moreover, secondary schools are simply unaffordable for a majority of Kenyans. For instance national public schools charge up to $1,200 a year, a figure, which until the economy was rebased, was higher than our per capita GDP. In a competitive, globalized knowledge economy, secondary education must not a privilege of the few but a birth right of every Kenyan child.

The task force on secondary school fees has made recommendations to make secondary education more accessible. These include elimination of unnecessary levies and increasing annual government subsidy from $120 to $146. Wealthy Kenyans spend between $3,500 and $12,000 per year on tuition for their children.

To paraphrase Kennedy’s words; can we forge against these enemies a national alliance – bringing together all the ethnic ragtag coalitions – to deliver the solemn pledge of our forbears to expand opportunity for a majority of youth and build a more inclusive society. Divided, there is little we can do against the unholy trinity of poverty, unemployment and radicalized youth.
And in the immortal words of JF Kennedy, the trumpet summons us again to bear the bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

If the bulwark inter-ethnic understanding and cooperation may push back the jungle of petty strife, let all of Kenya’s people join in forging a new order, not more fractious and fleeting balance of ethnic power. What is sorely needed is a new dispensation in our politics, where the strong are just and honorable and the week live in dignity and security.

The youth bulge would be boon because if 75 percent of every cohort graduated from tertiary education with skills they would add more than $10 billion annually to the economy. 

I encourage the government to consider carefully, the recommendations of the task force on secondary school fees. Affordable, high quality secondary education capped with tertiary level skills is the best way to forestall the risk posed to the Kenyan state by idle and frustrated youth. 


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