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Thursday, June 24, 2010

The time for perennial grain crops is about now

Despite doubling of yields of major grain crops since the Green Revolution, more than one in seven people are hungry and malnourished, a majority of who live in the developing world.

Global GDP is rising in places like China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. This is pushing further the demand for food, especially meat. Much of the arable land in the developing world is either eroded or at moderate risk of severe land degradation, largely due to agricultural operations associated with annual cropping.

Global food supplies depend primarily on annual grains. However, annual grain production takes a heavy toll on ecosystem resource and services, often pushing some to the brink of collapse. To ensure resilient food systems, farmers, especially in Africa will need more options under a less benign and uncertain climate.

In article just published in Science Vol 328 pp 1638-39, Glover et al suggest development of perennial varieties of important grain crops could expand food production options while taking pressure of the land and reducing cost of inputs such as fertilizers, seeds as well labour.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ideas for Stimulating Economic Growth in the EAC Region

The three large economies of the EAC, Kenya Uganda and Tanzania read their budgets last week. All the three countries seek to catalyze economic growth and job creation through public spending.

A recent article by Jeff Sachs in the Financial Times has what in my opinion are pretty cleaver ideas about reducing spending, raising public revenue and stimulating investment in the economy.

Here are I paraphrase parts of Jeff Sachs’ Op-ed. And I think the minders of the economies of the EAC countries ought to take a look.

Government and the public must understand that there is little that economic policy can do to create high-quality jobs in the short term. Good jobs result from good education, reliable infrastructure and a social and political climate that inspires investor confidence and attracts private capital.

Government must step up support for universal access to basic healthcare and education, scale up skill building and job training programmes as well as promote higher education.

In view of the widening income gap and growing inequality, both the government and the public should insist that the rich pay more in income and wealth taxes. The upward re-distribution of the past few decades has turned the economies of the region into extravagant playgrounds for corrupt a politicians and their business associates.

Study finds that as per capita maize consumption in sub-Saharan Africa countries rose, so did HIV transmission rates

There are large variations in HIV transmission rates between African social groups and nations. These differences have been the focus of significant research to understand the epidemiology of the disease and to develop interventions against the spread of the disease. Early research established links between social behavior and transmission rates. Many of these factors, such as male circumcision, faith, and partner concurrency have been further studied and proven important through detailed study, models, or clinical trials.

Food and nutritional factors have not received the same attention from a transmission perspective, but micronutrients in particular have been studied for their role in the progression of HIV. Mycotoxin contaminants in foods may also be important in the HIV epidemic. For example, chronic aflatoxicosis is associated with immune suppression and a reduction in essential nutrients and may result in deficiencies known to promote HIV progression.

In a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Jonathan H. Williams of University of Georgia and colleagues examine whether corn contaminated with a fungus-derived toxin is helping to facilitate the transmission of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Using data from the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, the study found that as sub-Saharan countries' per-person corn consumption rose, so did HIV transmission rates.

In countries with a relatively higher percentage of Muslims – a factor linked to lower HIV rates – those with high per capita corn consumption had an estimated HIV infection rate of 291 per 100,000 people in one year. In contrast, the rate in those with low corn consumption was 74 per 100 000 people. Countries with both fewer Muslims than average and higher-than-average corn consumption had 435 HIV cases per 100 000 people.

The study also found that higher per-capita corn consumption correlated with a higher rate of esophageal cancer. Since fumonisin toxins have been linked to that cancer, the finding serves as an indicator that populations with high corn consumption were exposed to higher levels of fumonisin toxins. Thus, dietary sources of aflatoxin are a potential factor in the HIV epidemic.

Based on their statistical model, Williams and his colleagues estimate that if the "maize (corn) factor" were eliminated in sub-Saharan Africa, HIV transmissions could be cut by as much as 58%.
 In a region where an estimated 1.7 million people become infected with HIV annually, that would mean more than 1 million infections averted each year.

The study suggests that contamination might be prevented, for instance, by planting corn varieties genetically modified to be resistant to pests. It may also be possible to remove contaminants through certain milling technologies or by soaking the grain in water; fumonisin is water-soluble, so soaking and rinsing the grain or meal, then discarding the liquid may remove the toxin.

This likely to be the first study to find an association between corn consumption and HIV transmission rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Although it is biologically plausible that high fumonisin intake could make an individual more susceptible to HIV infection, these findings must be considered preliminary and need be backed up by further research.

See full article in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition May 19, 2010 as doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28761.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Snake populations in decline globally

Distinct populations of snake species have crashed over the last decade, raising fears that the reptiles may be in global decline, according to a study. The pattern across the eight species monitored was alarmingly similar despite their geographical isolation, which points to a common cause, say researchers.

Although the causes of these declines are currently unknown, we suspect that they are multi-faceted (such as habitat quality deterioration, prey availability), and with a common cause, e.g. global climate change, at their root.

So-called 'sit-and-wait' foragers - snakes that lie motionless, waiting for prey to come within striking distance - are also more severely depleted in numbers than counterparts that are active hunters.

A sharp decline in snake numbers would likely have serious consequences for many ecosystems.

See full article by Reading et al June 9, 2010, doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0373

Kenya's 1 trillion (KES) budget

The Kenyan budget is set to hit just under KES1 trillion. This sounds like many, many, many truckloads of cash. And it is. But that does not tell us much.

It helps to put this figure into perspective. In US dollars, this is about 12.2 billion. This is about equal to the budget of the US state of Maryland with a population of just 5.7 million, roughly equal to the population of greater Nairobi. If you were to divide 12.2 billion equally among every Kenyan alive today, every woman, man and child would get about $305 or KES 24,400 by today’s exchange rates. That is about $0.8 a day. Yes less than one dollar a day.

So I hope this provides some perspective.

My sense is that this is very little money; given the scale of problems we have to solve, many of which are seriously big-ticket items. But I think there are more fundamental problems beyond the budget totals. The structure, and I must confess I have not seen the detailed budget lines, is problematic and reflects a very old problem; big government. 68 % of the budget will be used to pay salaries for pubic servants and most of that cash is in the bag. The estimated deficit only applies to the so called development money. Very cleaver. As government, you cover your back side. The money for development (investment in growth and public services such schools, water, electrification, health) is a mere 32 %.

It is immediately easy to see why public servants will continue to be under employed. Yes they have their salaries but where are the resources they need to do their work? Let’s break the numbers a little further. The Ministry of Education will get the largest share (KES 140.5 billion) of budget allocations. 93.2 % of the budget will be used to finance re-current expenditure, a large part of which goes to pay salaries for teachers and ministry staff and the rest to provision of free primary and secondary education. These are all great and worthy reasons to spend my tax money as well as rack up public debt.

The education spending is 5.7 % of our GDP compared to China’s 3.48 % .We are investing more in education than China! Watch out dragon, we are coming for you! It is a widely held belief that public expenditure on education should account for at least 4.07 percent of GDP when the per capita GDP reaches $800-$1,000. Kenya’s GDP per capita is estimated at $857.

But here is what is troubling about the budget and expenditure structure. A back of the envelope calculation estimates that we have a total of 7,996,000 kids in school, including children enrolled in early childhood education programmes. 5,876, 000 are in primary school. So if we are spending KES on education, it breaks down to a per capita expenditure of KES 16,125.

I support universal and free access to education as a public policy. But clearly, we have left the money behind. Out of KES 16,125 of public expenditure on education, KES 15, 028 goes to t salaries and only KES 1,096 is used, you would hope, to provide books, equipment, and basic infrastructure such as school buildings. But as you very well know, the minster for education and his staff as well as teachers and suppliers have their dirty little fingers in the money bag.

You certainly cannot deliver quality education in a highly globalized and competitive world if you are not putting money behind it. I am convinced that Kenya’s future lies squarely on the quality of education we give our children. Our children must be equipped to compete. But KES 1,096 will not do.

I am not sure I know how to fix this. But it is not wrongheaded to suggest that a sizeable proportion public expenditure should go not to paying wages but investing in our future – our children.

How about a budget structure like 60 % on the students and 40 % on the operational expenses such as salaries? This would translate to a direct investment of KES 9,675 per child per year, up from KES 1,096.

Think about it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Africa's Leadership

A disconcerting pattern is emerging in sub Saharan Africa. Countries that have embraced competitive multiparty politics are recording poor economic performance and are mired in official corruption. Conversely, countries that have remained under strong-arm leadership are enjoying rapid economic growth and official corruption is under control. The first category includes Kenya and Nigeria. The second category includes Rwanda and Ethiopia.

It is also interesting to note that the strong-arm countries (Rwanda and Ethiopia) have more competent and capable state control. Law and order are effectively maintained, socio-economic inequalities are low and there seems to be a general sense of harmonic coexistence among the social groups.

I am not sure that this is a fair comparison. It is also based on a very small sample. But it presents an indicative dynamic that is potentially problematic, albeit at face value. But if you consider the countries of North Africa–Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco–all of which are governed not by western style democratic tenets, then the correlation between governance type and economic growth becomes more troubling. Then throw in China, its governance, human rights record and its breathtaking economic transformation.

My hypothesis is that electoral contests in the so-called African democracies cannot produce competent and able leaders. Look at Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana for instance. The late president Umaru Yar Adua was innocuous and incapable. Mr. Kibaki has presided over the weakest state in Kenya’s postcolonial history. And Kenya’s next president will be not the most competent of the political crop but the individual who is most the most corrupt manipulator of ethnic passions. Mr. Kikwete is under the clutch of the moneyed CCM mafia who bankrolled his election five years ago. I submit that the process through which the strong-arm type leaders ascend to power is more rigorous and yields, generally, more competent individuals capable of running more effective states.

Love them or hate them, Paul Kagame and Meles Zenawi are not uncharismatic. They are visionary and driven by an unyielding dream to transform their countries. The results are apparent for all to see. We can argue at the margins about their human rights records, but Meles is not Mengistu, neither is Museveni an Amin kind of monster.

Leadership matters in this competitive globalized age. Incompetent leadership will gravely undermine the pace of Africa’s socio-economic transformation. Can democratic processes yield the caliber of competence that we see in the strong-arm type African leaders?

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