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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Are Our Children Learning?


A recent report by Uwezo, a civil society group that monitors educational achievement, revealed that although access to education has expanded, the quality of learning has stagnated.

A majority of students will complete primary school without being able to read or write or add. The Uwezo report found that more than two out of every three pupils who have completed two years of primary school fail to pass basic tests in English, Swahili or Math.

Stakeholders in the education sector have raised questions about the state of teaching and learning from kindergarten to university. Taxpayers and parents are concerned about the value and returns to public investment in education.

Employers are asking whether graduates of our education system have the necessary skills and creativity to ensure competiveness in globalized knowledge economy. The minders of Kenya’s vision 2030 must worry. Its attainment is predicated on the abundance of creative imagination and innovation, especially among the youth.

There are fundamental systemic problems with Kenya’s education system. We can enumerate ad lib the foibles of the 8-4-4-education system. At the school level, the curriculum is unwieldy. There are unspeakable problems with the quality of teachers. Failure to invest in high quality public schools and universities has encouraged a ruthless exam-centric culture, which has stripped learning from schools and undermined the cardinal goal of education.

Owing to pressure to attain and maintain high grades, teachers teach to the test and mandate extra classes under the pretext of completing an ungainly syllabus. Today most public high schools have boarding facilities, ostensibly to sequester and drill out creative imagination and playful discovery from our children.

Immoderate emphasis on standardized national testing has led to grade or test score inflation and numerous exam-cheating scandals. Precious resources are diverted to preparatory testing and learning time is lost as students spend weeks preparing for the tests, and preparing tests and scoring them consume valuable teaching time. It gets better. On a designated day, just before the start of the national exams, parents and teachers pack churches and school assembly halls with bended knees and beseeching hearts to pray for divine wisdom.

Thirty-six years ago, an American sociologist, Donald Campbell, made an intuitive observation that became known as Campbell’s Law. The basic idea of Campbell’s Law is that the more you base major social decisions on a singular outcome or criteria, the more likely it is that people will either cheat or try to game the system.

High scores in Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) determine the kind of secondary school a student will be admitted to. Private primary schools are notoriously famous for these super-high scores. A majority of students who ace the KCPE examinations gain admission to the highly coveted so-called national schools. An inordinate proportion of students from these national schools get admission into prestigious undergraduate programs in science, engineering, medicine, law and business in public universities.

But high-test scores are not equivalent to enhanced individual capacity for critical thinking and complex reasoning. Many students, a majority with super high test scores, come to college poorly prepared – thanks to the drill and exam-centric approach of primary and secondary school – for the demanding academic demands of university education.

My experience while teaching 3rd year undergraduate engineering students at a leading public university was uninspiring. While their motivation and effort was impressively high, these “A” students were atrociously weak at seeing connections, synthesizing information, extrapolating ideas or generating hypotheses. Sadly, our undergraduate programs are not developing the capacity for writing, critical thinking, complex reasoning and problem solving.

Teachers and professors are in agreement that teaching students to think critically and intuitively and ensuring that graduates at all level of the education system are capable of independent, analytical and logical thinking must be the ultimate mission of our education system. There is consensus that the exam-centric education system has created a citizenry more adept at imitation and mindless execution than creative thinking and innovation.

A radical change in Kenya’s education is needed to enable learning and build the human capital necessary for socio-economic and technological transformation imagined in Vision 2030. I offer some ideas for education reform:
·      Introduce student-centred and problem-based approach to teaching and learning to encourage, inquiry- and-discovery-based learning to support retention and application knowledge.
·      Eliminate standardized national testing in primary and high school and introduce a seamless kindergarten to high school system.
·      Assess learning through multiple measures, including formative assessments and student portfolios. Portfolios enable teachers and students to share the responsibility for setting individual learning goals and evaluating progress.
·      Eliminate joint admission to undergraduate programs and empower universities to design and administer admissions.


Ultimately, the key to education reform is high quality teachers and a curriculum that allows children to be children, while challenging them to play, experiment, discover, reflect and doubt.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Managing Demand Key to Nairobi’s Water Security


Nairobi ranks high on the league table of unlivable and inequitable cities globally. Inequitable because only 22% of inhabitants of the city’s informal settlements, home to over 60% of Nairobi’s residents, have access to piped water.

Unlivable because today running taps and showers are luxuries of a glorious, nostalgic past. And lets face it, Nairobi is insanitary; only 40% of Nairobi residents with access to the city’s water have access to water-water borne sewerage.

The water shortage in Nairobi is acute and chronic. The prognosis is dire; it could get worse. Here is why: inexorable demand owing rapid urban growth; declining water supplies form source areas; climate variability and change; dilapidated distribution infrastructure; and, stupefying ineptitude of the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company (NWSC).

Historically, water management by municipal utility companies has been characterized by a ‘supply-side’ paradigm. The primary goal of this approach is to continually find and secure sufficient water to meet projected future demand. Moreover, the general level of awareness regarding water is highly variable among urban users. The culture of urban water use is such that unlimited access to high quality water is an expectation.

The long-term solutions to solve Nairobi’s chronic water problems are patently wrongheaded because they are trapped in the logic of a supply-side paradigm. For instance, a feasibility study and master plan for developing new water sources for Nairobi and satellite towns recommends groundwater development, abstraction and diversion of three rivers to supply additional water by 2017.

Why is NWSC expending vast resources to find new water supply sources when they cannot account for 40-60% of the water pumped to the city Nairobi? Regrettably, the new water supply sources will only raise the daily supply to 685,980 cubic meters per day in 2017, against a projected daily demand of 1 million cubic meters.

For nearly a decade, NWSC has handled water shortages the same way; reduce supply. They enforce, with mischievous alacrity, a punishing water rationing schedule. You would imagine that the chronic water shortage might motivate investments in water use efficiency and encourage efforts to reduce demand and consumption.

Nairobi’s water problems undermine the city’s prestige and diminish the respectability of our public institutions. Although Nairobi’s water crisis is a scourge on our national pride, it presents an opportunity to re-imagine how we think about, use water. We can take a number of steps that can transform, gradually but irreversibly, how we manage our precious but finite water resources. And we can start today.

There are literally thousands of leaks in the city water system. Plugging leaks in the water distribution system should be a priority for NWSC. New digital technology can help identify the most serious leaks.

I have argued elsewhere on this blog that new technology, low cost distributed innovations can harness new water sources, deliver phenomenal reductions on urban water demand while creating new jobs in green plumbing and ecological engineering.

Mandating the installation and use of low flush toilet would reduce water use per flush by 50%. Vacuum toilets use 0.5 liters of water per flush to transport the same volumes of human waste. Conventional flush toilets in the Kenyan market use 10-13 liters per flush, consuming nearly 40% of domestic water.

Building codes should be reviewed to require new to buildings submit water conservation plans including infrastructure and harvest and store rainwater that falls on their land and roofs. Harvested rainwater can be stored for use or returned to the ground. An ecological engineering approach through the application of constructed wetlands and wastewater aquaculture can be used effectively to treat and purify roof and urban storm runoff. Imagine how much water we would collect from roofs, city roads and other paved surfaces.

Wastewater from showers, baths, hand basins, laundries and kitchens – is relatively easy to reuse. With minimal treatment, in the form of physical filtering and settling, wastewater can be recovered and reused to flush toilets. Water quality cascading, an approach that aims to match water quality to water use, is an important demand management measure. Diversion of wastewater from hand washbasin, washing machine and showering to toilet flushing is an example of water quality cascading.

There is need for a national water efficiency authority to coordinate investments in demand management, enforce water efficiency standards and public education. Education for politicians and planners is absolutely critical because they are largely unaware of the levels of inefficiency associated with conventional supply side technologies and practices, or that demand side alternatives exist.

At a personal level, habits and practices that conserve our limited water supply must be encouraged. Reusing, recycling or reclaiming water extends our finite water resources. The less we use the more we will have in the future and bequeath posterity. Think of it as a savings account. The les you withdraw the more you save.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Addressing the Root Causes of Kenya's Chronic Hunger


The global food outlook is grim. The US, the world’s largest exporter of maize and wheat, is facing the most severe drought in more half a century. And it could get worse. Severe weather has also visited havoc in other major food exporting countries like Australia, Brazil, Russia and India.

There are growing concerns that decline in output in the world’s leading grain exporting countries could touch off a global shortage of vital food commodities. A couple of week ago, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that global food prices hade jumped 6%, with price of maize going up 23%.

Thank goodness Kenya is not facing a drought of the proportion currently ravagining the US. But even when no single disaster befalls Kenya, our food economy remains fragile and vulnerable to the vagaries of events in far off places. Thanks partly to globalization.

Early indications are that maize harvest for 2012 could decline by 20-30%. Widespread crop failure is expected in parts of Mwingi, Makueni, Kitui and Taita. The long-rains in these regions were erratic; starting 2-4 weeks late and ending 3-4 weeks earlier than usual. The outbreak of the highly contagious maize lethal necrosis disease in southern Rift Valley affected nearly 15,000 hectares and could cause a 20% decline in maize harvest.

In April this year it was reported that the Kenya’s Strategic Grain Reserve was short of 540,000 tonnes of maize. It is noteworthy that Kenyans consume 270,000 tonnes of maize per month. According to the Global Information Early Warning System of FAO, the national maize deficit or import requirements for 2012/13 is projected to be 1.15 million tonnes, up by about 15% compared to 2011.

Maize prices in Kenya have generally increased during the last 3-4 months by an average of 20-25% in main wholesale markets. According to Oxfam International, poor people in developing countries spend 50-80 of their income on food. A majority of Kenyans find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into a food insecurity induced poverty trap. A World Bank report published in 2011 estimates that the global food price spikes in 2008 pushed 44 million people below the poverty line, most of them in developing countries.

High food prices have led to significant declines in daily nourishment levels, leading to a surge in stunting, which now stands at about 35% among children under five years of age. A report published by UNICEF in 2009 concluded that because of low caloric intake poor nutrition, the next generation of Kenyans would be shorter, less intelligent, less productive and hardly capable of sustaining the country’s dream of a prosperous nation within the Vision 2030.

Why hunger and malnutrition persists on a vast scale in Kenya and what can be done about it have proved to be two of the most intractable questions in research, development policy.

The Green Revolution-style agriculture is not new to Kenya. In the 1970s the Kenya government poured money into fertilizer, seeds and farm mechanization as well as price support. These Green Revolution-style interventions caused farm output to grow by 4% per year and the country was producing maize surplus. A combination of a glut in the global grain market, soaring fertilizer prices, World Bank’s structural adjustment program in the late 1980s caused Kenya’s agricultural boom to crash. We can say, “been there, done that”.

The Achilles’ heel of the Green Revolution is its heavy reliance on irrigation and inputs such as hybrid seeds, fertilizers as well as pesticides. These inputs are clearly beyond the means of smallholder farmers and would rely on heavy subsidies. But who would pay for such subsidies given the neoliberal policies of the dominant global financial intuitions?

Economic pragmatists have argued that hungry countries have no comparative advantage in agriculture and therefore have no business farming. Hungry countries should focus on grain self-sufficiency but should leverage investments in production and value addition of non-grain commodities and non-agricultural products and use such earnings to import food.

Our current food situation is an emergent product of complex interactions among many factors, which must be addressed. These include: a young and rapidly growing population; declining arable land per capita; infertile soils; lack of reliable weather and climate forecast; poor access to quality inputs (seeds, fertilizer); scarce water resources; lack of stable land tenure rights, especially for women; lack of affordable financial services, including insurance; lack of appropriate mechanization; poor market access; HIV/AIDS (according to a report by FAO one in four farm workers in the hardest hit countries like Kenya will have died of the disease by 2020), vulnerability to climate change; and, low value addition.

In my view food insecurity must be understood as a self-replicating malaise that will not be cured until Kenya’s larger political, social, economic and environmental problems are robustly addressed.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Why Rio+20 Summit Was A Success


In the run-up to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, I suggested that it would be ludicrous to expect World leaders to sign an international binding agreement to protect the planet’s life-support system. It was therefore hardly surprising that the Rio+20 did not deliver a universal, binding agreement.

The fitting outcome from Rio+20, I argued, would be a pragmatic framework for national responsibility and local action. In this regard I think Rio+20 was a success. In a 49-page redemptive document entitled the “The Future We Want”, World leaders from 193 Member States of the United Nations reaffirmed fundamental principles and renewed urgent commitments. In the words of the UN Secretary – General Ban Ki– moon, “the document provides a firm foundation for social economic and environmental well-being”.

In my view, the document provides a framework for a wide range of actions by governments and communities, including: detailing how the green economy can contribute eradicating poverty while engendering sustained economic growth, enhancing social inclusion and creating opportunities for employment; taking steps to account for natural capital and that “Net” National Product (NNP) be adjusted for the depreciation of natural capital; strengthening institutional framework for sustainable development, including effective representation and devolution of resource governance.

The Rio+20 Summit set a pragmatic action framework for sustainable cities and human settlement, which is especially relevant for Kenya. In “The Future We Want” the leaders commit to promote policies that support inclusive housing and social services; a safe and healthy living environment for all; affordable and sustainable transport and energy; promotion, protection and restoration of safe and green urban spaces; safe and clean drinking water and sanitation; improved urban planning and slum upgrading; and management of waste through the application of the 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle).

Food security and nutrition has become a pressing challenge, especially in Africa. Rio+20 affirmed the necessity to promote, enhance and support that improves food security, eradicates hunger, while conserving land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, biodiversity and ecosystems, and enhancing resilience to climate change.

Furthermore, Rio+20 recognized the critical role that access to sustainable modern energy services contributes to poverty eradication, saving lives, improving health and providing basic human needs. The World leaders reaffirmed support for implementation of policies appropriate energy mix to meet developmental needs, including renewable energy sources and other low-emission technologies.

Of special interest to Africa was the recognition by the World leaders that poverty eradication, promoting sustainable patterns of consumption and production, and protecting and managing the natural resource base are the overarching objectives of and essential prerequisites for sustainable development. Moreover, Rio+20 recognized that sustainable development could only be achieved with a broad coalition of governments, civil society and private sector.
Here is what I think are some practical steps we can take here in Kenya to operationalize the action framework outlined in “The Future We want” by World leaders at Rio+20 Summit.

1. Adopt “natural capital accounting” and assigning a value on the functions of protected forests, including their role in curbing erosion, providing clean water to cities, supporting wildlife and regulating the rain cycle to ensure enough rainfall for crops;

2. Adopt an audacious futuristic energy policy, which: specifies targets for transition to a clean, reliable, secure and competitive energy supply; promotes off-grid, distributed energy solutions for rural areas; sets a fuel economy standard of 25 kilometers per liter for all cars by 2030, including tax incentives to purchase more fuel efficient vehicles; sets a national energy efficiency target of 15-25% by 2030; reduces market entry barriers and provide high quality energy services; and, facilitates the creation a Renewable Energy Research Council to set priorities for energy research.

3. Smallholder agricultural production systems need an enabling environment to thrive: plant, soil and animal health extension services; timely and accurate climate forecast; quality inputs (seeds, animal breeds and fertilizer); reliable water supply; stable land tenure rights; access to affordable financial services, including insurance; appropriate mechanization; access stable markets; value addition through cottage processing.

5. Cities offer an excellent space for promoting sustainable consumption and production. Simple, low cost distributed innovations can deliver phenomenal reductions on urban water demand while creating new jobs in green plumbing and ecological engineering, improving environmental quality and creating exquisite habitat for urban flora and fauna. We must reduce demand for centralized portable water through water use efficiency, reuse, recycling and purification of domestic wastewater, roof catchment and the super abundant urban storm runoff.

6. In globalized and rapidly changing world, our education educational institutions, especially higher education must have a proclivity for research, innovation and entrepreneurship, which are necessary to develop human capacity, technology and employment for advancing national sustainable development objectives.

The Rio+20 Summit was a success. It is now our responsibility to operationalize the audacious action framework of the Summit.

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