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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Investing in smallholder agriculture critical to inclusive economic growth in Africa

Rapid urbanization, a youth bulge, an expanding middle class are the hallmarks of Africa’s unprecedented transformation. Some of the world’s fastest growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa. According to most western leaders and aid agencies the state of Africa is no longer “a scar on the conscience of the world”.

Africa’s unprecedented transformation is also spawning new and urgent challenges, many of which defy conventional approaches and solutions. Despite impressive average GDP growth performance Africa is stalked by hunger and malnutrition. It is estimated that the number of malnourished Africans will rise from 132 million to 220 million by 2050.

The scale of hunger and malnutrition could undermine human capital formation and economic growth prospects. The Cost of Hunger in Africa study of 12 countries estimates that Egypt has 1.9 percent cut from its GDP because not all of its children get enough to eat, while Uganda loses 5.6 percent, Ghana 6.5 per cent and Ethiopia a staggering 16.5 percent.

According to the latest Cost of Hunger report released in Accra early August 24 percent of child deaths in Ghana were associated with under nutrition, which had also reduced the country’s work force by 7.3 percent.  Moreover, it is estimated that under-nutrition causes 45% of all child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa – 3.1 million deaths annually.

At the heart of Africa’s hunger and under nutrition challenge is its dysfunctional food systems – the interdependent socio-economic and ecological factors that influence production, post-harvest handling, distribution, processing, marketing, access and consumption. Africa has the lowest per capita staple food production in the world. The use of modern inputs, including technology, irrigation, fertilizers, and improved seeds is uncommon.

Africa’s small rural farm units rely on family labor; have limited access to advisory services, technology or improved inputs. These remote small-scale production units are often isolated and poorly connected to supporting services, such as decent roads, healthcare and markets. According to FAO the average age of the African smallholder farmer is about 60 and mostly women, even though the median age of the population is about 19 years. Small-scale farm households in many parts of Africa are often food and nutrition insecure between 6-9 months a year.

Food security and good nutrition is the cornerstone of healthy communities and economies. Without adequate and nutritious food African children cannot live, learn, flourish and communities cannot achieve their aspirations of inclusive socio-economic prosperity.

Africa must begin to invest to revitalize smallholder agriculture and as foundation for durable and inclusive prosperity. Such investment must target and respond to critical constraints especially in production, post-harvest handling, value addition, use of technology, markets and equitable access to nutritious food.

African governments, the African Development Bank and the World Bank must lead this effort and appreciate that, structural transformation, sustainable economic growth and shared prosperity in Africa will not the delivered by multi-billion infrastructure projects alone.

Thriving smallholder agriculture can revitalize rural economies, provide stable income and secure livelihoods for women and youth, drive real economic transformation and deliver inclusive prosperity.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Is orderly urban growth possible?

Nothing is more certain and regular as change. It may tarry but it certainly will come to pass. Everything, everywhere is changing Look at you, look around you – your neighborhood and community; the country; Africa and the world. The only safe bet is on change.

We live in the epoch of great acceleration. What this implies is that in our time the pace of change has been greatly enhanced. Technology, human population, climate, urbanization, inequality are a few examples that might give you a sense of the sweep of change.

But the change that is on my mind is the pace at which human settlement is changing. Today Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing landmass on the planet. By 2025, Africa’s urban population will outstrip that of South America and Europe combined. In Kenya, the rate of urbanization outpaces the rate of annual population growth by 60 percent. This is simply breathtaking.

There are two sides to the urbanization saga. The first is the unprecedented growth and messy sprawl associated with existing urban areas such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru. The second is the haphazard eruption of small towns and market centres such as Kitengela, Rongai, Ahero, Luanda, Lessos, Mulot and Keroka.

That Kenya’s urban settlements are in a state of chaos is an understatement. In the cities and big towns we are confronted with intense squalor and poverty in informal settlements. A majority of children born in urban settlements live in insanitary neighborhoods, lack access to safe places to grow and play. Downtown Nairobi is drowning in garbage. Less than 10 percent of the residents in Kenya’s large urban settlements have access to running water on a regular basis.

Today, Kenya’s large metropolises like Nairobi are choked by slums and enfeebled by unplanned urban sprawl. Blinded by the grandeur of highways, we left behind common sense land use planning and refused to be persuaded that investment in public transit was critical to efficient mobility in large urban areas. Moreover, for some inexplicable reason policymakers are convinced that a social housing has no place in our society. Instead we believe that squalid unsafe housing by crooked private developers, which collapse every so often, is good enough.

Small towns and market centres are growing in a chaotic way. There is absolutely no planning. Residential and commercial buildings erupt randomly, without thoughtful consideration of enabling infrastructure and amenities, such as roads, street lighting, schools, hospitals and recreational spaces. Kenya’s small towns and markets are domains of unbridled private entrepreneurs, unbound by planning or building regulations. 

Urbanization is unstoppable, especially because about 80 percent of our population is aged below 35 years, relatively well educated and not enamored by rural life on a farm. Hence, we should accept that urban settlements large, medium and small are going to get very much larger in the decades to come. 

But urbanization, even though rapid and unprecedented must be orderly. We can manage urban growth and deliver equitable prosperity for all “cityzens”.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Kenya is bleeding, morally half dead, where is the Good Samaritan?

Kenyans of every creed assemble regularly in religious houses and with bended knees and in solemn supplication commune with their maker. And there could never be a more solemn petition than the opening words of Kenya’s national anthem.

The fabric of our society is dyed in faith and religion, a testament of unsullied ethical or moral tendency. At this point I am reminded of the story Jesus told about a man fell among thieves on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was beaten, stripped and left half dead. A priest and Levite happened to walk by and saw the man lying half dead but they did not stop to help him.

A Samaritan came by on his animal. He stopped and poured oil and wine and dressed the man’s wounds. He put the man on his animal and took him to an inn. He paid for his upkeep and asked the innkeeper to look after the man and he would settle accounts on his return.

Jesus told this parable in response to a teacher of the Law who asked him “who is my neighbor?” I would like us to consider a different question; who is a Kenyan citizen? To respond to this question, I would like to share a story with you.

In 2014/15 the Aga Khan University conducted a surveyed about 1900 Kenyans aged between 18 and 35 years. Fifty percent believed it doesn’t matter how one makes money as long as one does not end up in jail. About 73 were afraid to stand up for what is right for fear retribution. Another 47 percent admired those who make money by hook or crook.

About 30 percent believed corruption was profitable and another 35 percent said they would take or give a bribe. Only 40 percent thought it was important to pay taxes. On political participation, 40 percent said they would only vote for a candidate who bribed them. About the future, 40 percent believed our society will be more corrupt, and 30 percent believed the country would be poorer in ethics and we would see a surge in substance abuse.

If this is how the youth of this country think and would act, the future is in peril. I don’t know about you but these statistics paint in my mind a picture of a society that has been assaulted, stripped, bleeding and left morally half dead.

In response to the state of our country many of us have chosen to act like the priest and the Levite. Consumed by our own busy lives and a lack of courage to stand up for what is right, we choose to walk by on the other side.

This dark moment of grave ethical and moral crisis summons all of us to stand up and live up the true meaning of citizenship. Citizenship is like being the Good Samaritan. We must get engaged in the inconvenient task of attending to the urgent issues that confront our society.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Stop the blame game on school fires, the buck stops with you

Related to the Greek notion of educere, education is to bring forth or cultivate potential. Education is a process of inviting truth and possibility. Schools are therefore an embodiment of our singular and collective commitment to the ideal of education.

Although not optimal, schools provide a social and physical environment in which hopeful and respectful nurturing of human potential can happen. Schools have a unique, and unequaled capacity to enable formation that comes through knowledge, ideas, beliefs, concepts and visions of society, culture and civilization.

I like to think about schools as hallowed places. But the recent epidemic of school fires in Kenya is perhaps an emphatic demonstration that my view is not shared, especially, by the students who have set ablaze over 100 schools in 2016.  Learning for thousands of students is now disrupted. The loss in property and damage to school infrastructure runs into billions of shillings. How did we get here?

Just like any society, we have faced our dark moments. In December 2007 we pushed our country to the precipice of Armageddon. The social and political foundations of this country were shattered, the country nearly fell apart and we lost our innocence. Since the post-election violence, our aspiration for national unity and common purpose has never been more hollow and doubtful.

But I think this epidemic of school infernos is our darkest hour. These fires implicate two things that are at the core, the essence of the present and future of our society; education and youth. In my view no amount of provocation can justify reckless evil at such a scale. Maybe I am wrong because as Phillip Zimbardo in his seminal book, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, demonstrates that it is possible, given under certain situational factors for good people to become perpetrators of evil.

I believe that our children are not innately evil or nihilist. According to Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangi, the high priests of the lucrative exam cheating business are fighting back and inciting students and teachers to burn schools. Former President Mwai Kibaki and President Kenyatta have suggested that pressure to excel in national examination could explain unrest and arson in public schools.

That young people aged 13-17years would resort to such evil and lethal violence is deeply disconcerting. Something is gravely wrong with how we have socialized our children. As was shown by the survey conducted by the Aga Khan University, the youth of this country are really like the adults. Over 30 percent would take or give a bribe. About 47 percent admire those who make money through hook or crook.

As Irish philosopher Edmund Burke said,  Tell me what are the prevailing sentiments that occupy the minds of your young men, and I will tell you what is to be the character of the next generation”.

To redeem the future we must look no further than the person in the mirror in front of us. Change starts with you, and in your household.

Monday, July 25, 2016

We must deal with the root causes of school unrest


According to Education Cabinet Secretary, Dr. Fred Matiangi, 317 incidents of school fires have been reported since 2007. In 2015 98 school facilities were set ablaze. Since January 2016 nearly 70 school buildings in 28 counties have gone up in flames. 

What is implicit in the statistics and how long this has been going on is that orgies of violence and even arson are nothing new in Kenyan schools. Somehow this is the nature of our children and our society. As a society we resolve our differences in ways that include violent confrontation.

Examples of the use of violence to resolve differences abound. We see violence in the name of mob justice on our streets and battering of children and spouses in our homes. Outright rabid rage and aggressive verbal exchange on our roads is not uncommon. We saw politically motivated violence of catastrophic proportions in 1992 and 2007. We often see civil protests degenerate into sorties of violence between police and citizens, with fatal consequences.

Somehow in this country, authority or seniority is inextricably bound with being mean.  People in authority, such as the police, senior public officials and even teachers have a license to behave in ways that abuse, demean or harm fellow citizens. The only way we know you are important is if you are nasty and abrasive to others you deem less important or powerful than you are.  Like chimpanzees, we are knotted in an incessant duel to be the alpha party.

While the anarchy and arson in our schools is neither new nor unprecedented, the recent orgy of school burning across the country is barbaric and abominable. Such evil acts of deliberate arson by the student – our future, the hope of this nation – diminish all of us.

As always, following events of crisis proportion, a task force has been constituted and has less than 30 days complete thorough investigations.  As one newspaper editorial put it, “the task force should give preliminary reports early enough, preferably, within the next two weeks to help tame the chaos”.  We are bleeding and in dire need of a bandage.

We need to do more than stopping the bleeding. We need to grapple with the complex situational factors that create an enabling environment for student unrest. The situational factors include lack of adequate food, incitement by teachers, peer pressure, high-handed head teachers, school routine and pressure to deliver high mean scores, living conditions in boarding schools and lack of dialogue between students and teachers.

There can be no easy solutions to these issues, especially the regimental school routine, which runs from 4 am to 10:30 pm that is necessary to support rote learning and feed a national obsession with grades. We must also be mindful that we have raised our children in a culture where disdain for dialogue, tolerance for lawlessness and use of violence as a tool to resolve dispute or express grievances is acceptable.

Modifying the situational factors or eliminating them can have greater impact on reducing or eliminating undesirable student behavior. In my view remedial actions designed to discipline students and reign rogue teachers is like applying bandage.

While unrest in our schools is not new, the recent orgy of school burning across the country is barbaric and abominable. Such evil acts of deliberate arson by the youth – the future of this country – diminish all of us.

It is time to fix our education system. The school must not be a grade factory. Learning must be allowed to happen by stimulating and sustaining playful curiosity and discovery. School must be about communing with peers learning to live together, to share and to know that your friends will also have your back. Life in school must be about a journey in discovery of self and other. Only a small part of school must be about grades. If everything about education is passing standardized tests then we must draw attention to what is definitely a fundamental flaw in our collective understanding of teaching and learning in a complex and uncertain world.

And it is time to re-think boarding schools as a dominant model of schooling. I know this is controversial and many smart behavioral psychologists won’t even agree on the merits or de-merits of boarding schools. But sending young children to what in a majority of cases are squalid living conditions with little adult care is to say the least troubling. And to expect that education can even happen in those stifling prison like hovels we call public boarding schools is to ask for too much.

Again, where you sit on this boarding school debate must have a lot to do with how you think about education and how children learn, and most of all the how much school grades determine consequential life outcomes.

The orgy of violence and arson in our schools is merely a syndrome of a grave social condition. Ours is a culture of impunity and lawlessness. Ours is a culture that privileges violence as a mechanism for solving grievance. Spouses are battered in our homes. Suspects are lynched buy bloodthirsty mobs on our streets. Our politics is about ethnic mobilization for war, not a platform for competing models for building a great nation.

Why would we then expect our children who are bombarded with images of violence and the glamor of impunity to be civil about expressing their grievance? Do we expect students who live in squalid conditions and know that the head teacher steals both their fees and public funds from taxpayers? What about a punishing school schedule that starts at 4 am and ends at 10 pm, which only serves to demean and subjugate the student and boil out the joy and playfulness that learning is?

Only we, the citizens as parents and students can and must deal with the root causes of school unrest.


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