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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Technology and Market Based Solutions Must Drive Africa's Growth

Conventional approaches tend to address Africa’s unmet needs in education, energy, health care, clean water, or food access and nutrition by making big plans for meeting those needs through direct public investments (often through aid and public debt). The most recent of these plans is the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The goals are worthy, but progress is painfully slow. As one who is familiar with both the developed and developing world, sustainable wealth creation and poverty prevention cannot result from isolated investments through aid. No society has ended poverty through plans and aid.

Like many others, I argue that public spending through centralized plans backed by aid is a sub-optimal strategy for tackling global poverty. Scientific, technological innovation and a market-based approach can help re-frame the debate on poverty reduction more in terms of creating and enabling business opportunity and less in terms of hand-outs. A successful science, technology and market-based approach would catalyze significant new private and public investments and stimulate participation of hundreds of millions of Africa’s people.

Technology advancement and market-based solutions must be driven by research and innovation that seeks to solve the most critical problems that continue to stymie sustainable social transformation for 75 % of Africa’s circa 1 billion people. The search for these solutions must: i) stimulate collaboration among public and private (industry, finance) institutions, schools, universities, research institutions and local communities; ii) have a scientific evidence base of what works where and why; iii) co-create technology, innovation and markets as well as entrepreneurship around the most critical unmet needs of the majority.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A World Food Crisis?

Globally, and especially in Africa, food production distribution and access is complicated. It is a witch’s brew with ingredients include soils, knowledge, technology, oil prices, credit, labour, weather, corruption, infrastructure, poverty, water availability, urbanization, land tenure and more recently, biofuels.

Eliminating corn sucking ethanol plans would go a long way in reducing food prices and reducing world hunger. Biofuels now occupy centre stage as big business in industrialized. More importantly, biofuels funnel politically expedient subsidies to ill-tempered, whining farmers in North America. More than a quarter of US corn production goes into ethanol. The US is committed step up biofuel-content requirements, including ethanol content of 12 % in 2010.

But ethanol-blended gasoline reduces a car’s fuel economy because ethanol has lower energy content. Moreover, there is no rigorous evidence that ethanol lowers greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is ample evidence to show that corn-based ethanol creates a negative energy balance-burning one unit of ethanol produces less energy than was used to produce one unit.

Worse still, biofuels are making people, especially in poor countries, hungrier. A 2008 World Bank report estimated that as much as 75 % of food price increases between 2002 and 2008 could be attributed to biofuels.

It is therefore ironic that developed countries spent $ billion in financial support to biofuels in 2007. How would one appeal to the same wealthy countries to make contributions to halve the number of hungry by 2015.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Beware of Your Chair

Olivia Judson on the influence of science and biology on modern life. Full story in The New York Times (February 23, 2010, 6:20 pm)

It doesn’t matter if you go running every morning, or you’re a regular at the gym. If you spend most of the rest of the day sitting — in your car, your office chair, on your sofa at home — you are putting yourself at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, a variety of cancers and an early death. In short, regardless of whether you exercise vigorously, sitting for long periods is bad for you.

So what’s wrong with sitting?

Sitting is one of the most passive things you can do. You burn more energy by chewing gum or fidgeting than you do sitting still in a chair. Compared to sitting, standing in one place is hard work. To stand, you have to tense your leg muscles, and engage the muscles of your back and shoulders; while standing, you often shift from leg to leg. All of this burns energy.

Thus, a little more time on your seat today and tomorrow can easily make the difference between getting fat and staying lean

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Science and Africa

For all of its problems, South Africa has a robust and productive corpus of university-based researchers. And since the end of apartheid, the country's universities have been enriched by significant population of students from other African countries. Hence, South Africa has the potential to become not just a foremost player on the international research stage, but also a catalyst for the development of science throughout the African continent.

But South Africa must overcome the enormous challenges of education reform a lack of good science teachers and inadequate funding (both public and private). See Nature Nature 463, 709 (11 February 2010)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

In the past 18 months governments have pumped cash into their economies to fight financial seizure and recession. This infusion prevented the financial catastrophe. Today, assets prices are rebounding and every major economy has stopped constricting.

The big emerging economies (China, Brazil, India) are growing briskly. But in the US and Europe, recovery is fragile and will depend for the foreseeable future on government stimulus (deficit spending). But the rich countries cannot spend their way out of economic stagnation. Budget deficits are rising and public debt is mounting. If the current situation in Spain, Ireland and Greece is anything to go by, the so called rich countries may soon be out of fiscal wiggle room.

China’s economy is predicted to grow at 12 percent this year. This growth reflects a revival in exports and strong consumer spending. China’s economy is now widely perceived as the preeminent engine pulling the rest of the world out of economic recession.

But internally, this rapid growth is worrying the China’s politburo. Public spending binge and state directed lending could trigger catastrophic asset bubbles and cause dangerous inflation. A month ago China raised banks’ reserve requirements and began to clamp down on lending.

China’s commercial banks have become important lenders to the rest of the world as American banks have considerably reduced lending. There are fears that raising bank reserve ratios could slow the pace of global recovery.

It is abundantly clear that the Chinese authorities are becoming more concerned about containing inflationary expectations and managing the risk of asset price bubbles as a following aggressive expansion of credit over the past 18 months.

China’s national bureau of statistics show that annual inflation in producer prices had more than doubled in January 2010 from December 2009, to 4.3 percent. Average housing prices in large and midsize cities were up 9.5 percent in January from last year, the fastest rate of increase in 19 months.

Authorities in Beijing are walking a delicate and difficult line. They consider controlling inflation as key to domestic peace because in the past the erosion of the spending power of workers has led to unrest.
The United States had strong growth in the fourth quarter, leaving many wondering when Washington will start increasing interest rates. The Fed has indicated that this is still months away. In his first State of the Union address, Barack Obama proposed tax cuts and spending worth an extra 1.8% of GDP in the next two years.

Japan has added to its deficit spending plans. Many more countries, such as Germany, will see budget deficits rise as parts of earlier stimulus packages kick in. Tighter budgets are on the way.. Bond-market troubles are forcing the Greeks to freeze public-sector wages and raise taxes. Portugal’s and Spain are constrained to accelerate budget cuts. When the Conservatives take power in June, Britain will have to pay attention to its large and growing budget

Clearly, fiscal policy responses are disparate. And they will continue to be shaped by domestic political imperatives. But can we expect that an “invisible hand” created by the conjunction of national interest is capable of steering the global economy back to a path of robust and sustained recovery?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Cost of Biofuels

A new study published in PNAS (8th February 2010) reveals that biofuel plantations in Brazil could accelerate deforestation, creating a carbon debt that would take 250 years to repay. This study by Lapola et al., uses a spatially explicit model to project land-use changes caused by caused by expansion of biofuels plantations in Brazil in 2020. These land use changes could offset the carbon savings from biofuels.

Comparison of Chinese and U.S. Energy Statistics

Comparison of Chinese and U.S. Energy Statistics

Today, each Chinese citizen produces only one-fifth the GHG emissions of an average American consumer, and China still has many unmet energy needs. Most Chinese have a much lower standard of living than the average American. Half the Chinese population has no access to winter heating, and most have limited access to motorized transportation. Therefore, the challenge for China in the short term is to reduce the rate of growth of its GHG emissions as it strives to meet the growing energy demands of its people.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Rural Light and Water: Not by Bureaucracy but Enterprise

There has been much buzz about the water-purifying machine that Segway inventor Dean Kamen has been working on. You toss anything that looks wet into the Slingshot and it comes out as perfect distilled clean water. Obviously gasoline, diesel and paraffin are not part of this wet family.

The Slingshot can supply 1000 liters of clean water per day. You can use practically any water source; ocean, puddle, domestic waste water. The slingshot uses vapor compression distillation and takes only 2 percent of the power needed by a typical distillers. There are no filters and no charcoal to replace.

The Slingshot can utilize waste heat (450 watts) from a sterling engine electrical generator (prototype being developed by Dean Kamen) to boil water. The heat put into the water is recovered through a “counter-flow heat exchanger” and recycled to heat the next batch of water. This sterling engine which can run on anything that burns (propane or cow dung), can generate 1 kilowatt, energy enough to power 70 high efficiency light bulbs.

Inventing something that is great is often only half the solution. The other half is putting the technology in the hands of the people who need it most. An estimated 1.1 billion people in the world don't have access to clean drinking water, and an estimated 1.6 billion don't have electricity. Those figures add up to a big and important pair of problems for the world and an equally big opportunity for entrepreneurs.

Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa is just the place for portable water and energy solutions. The real invention needed here is a financial model that enables the access of both the Slingshot and the sterling electrical generator to millions of thousands of parched and dim households.

I think 500,000 one-kilowatt electrical generates would create both light and wealth for rural households, as opposed to low quality public works employment and public debt from 500-megawatt hydropower built using a loan from the Peoples Republic of China. Similarly, investment in one million Slingshots that supply 1,000 litres per day could deliver real water and entrepreneurs as opposed to the millions of aid dollars spent on water sector reforms in Kenya that generate more bureaucracy, public debt and less water.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Age and Driving

Vision changes related to aging is associated with reduction in the size of the all important “field of view”. This can make older drivers especially dangerous behind the wheels.

Younger drivers, particularly those younger than 18 have an elevated risk of crashing. Teenagers are at significant risk on the road not just because they lack both the judgment that comes with maturity and the skill that comes with experience.

Anatomically, teenagers have an underdeveloped dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that involves decision-making and the ability to understand consequences.

More importantly, we drive the way we do because of our brains, which start off immature, pass through an all-too-brief peak and, often, descend slowly into decrepitude.

See January 2010 issue of Scientific American.

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