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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why Monitoring Africa’s Agriculture is Imperative

Significant global financial resources are flowing to sub-Saharan Africa, where the international community has set ambitious goals for ending poverty, hunger and malnutrition among smallholder farmers through increasing agricultural productivity. In my view, yields and profits alone cannot guarantee sustainable gains in income and nutrition for smallholder farmers.

Moreover, smallholder agriculture is highly dependent on services from nature. I therefore argue for a new approach to supporting Africa’s agriculture: without concerted investments in a diagnostic and monitoring framework to track changes in ecosystem services and human wellbeing, the gains in food production are unlikely to be sustainable in the long run.

I remember a visit in June 2011 with a feisty grandmother. Ann is 75 years old and barely ekes out a living on a family farm. She happily ventured to give me a tour of her half-acre estate. We stopped at a vantage point, a little mound on the edge the farm, for a picturesque view of her field and the village beyond.

Like all her neighbors, Ann’s field was planted with corn. Grass thatched and iron-roofed homes looked like islands in a sea of pale or yellowish-green corn. In the middle of the growing season the corn was thin and with spindly stalks, barely one meter tall.

Ann narrated memories of the land through her three-quarters of a century on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. She talked about the fatigued soils and poor yields, barren soils and scarlet rivers, dusty fields and denuded hills, scarlet rivers and flush floods. She remembered her youthful years five decades ago as a fish trader, when the water was clear, fish was abundant, the hilltops were green and lush and harvests plentiful.

“There is just to many of us”, Ann quipped. “All of us scrambling for space to live, land to grow food and pasture for our livestock. We work a lot harder for much less to eat and to nothing to save for a rainy day. Maybe this land is no longer capable of supporting all of us. The large trees, the colorful birds and animals of my grandmother’s stories are no longer here. It is a very different world”.

My knowing gaze rested on a bare patch, which exposed what could be the root cause of the withered corn. The earth’s fragile skin, the soil, was gravely wounded and pale, drained of all vital minerals. Galleys scarred the landscape, evidence of sustained hemorrhaging of fertile soils.

Ann’s story is shared by hundreds of millions of farmers like across the sub-Saharan Africa. Africa’s smallholder agricultural systems have inadvertently degraded vital ecosystem services flood protection, water supply and soil nutrient cycling. Paradoxically Africa’s smallholder production systems depend on essential natural capital; the ecosystem services generated at multiple spatial scales.

The portrait that Ann paints of the situation in her community is complex and demands integrated landscape level approaches. However, much existing knowledge base and solution approaches are sectoral and rely on evidence that is assembled at the plot or farm level and within narrow disciplinary domains. As such, policy makers and landowners often must make important land use and land management decisions based on partial and incomplete understanding of landscape level interactions and feedback.

To make sound policy and decisions on sustainable land use and land management, systems-level evidence and systems-level understanding is critical. Currently there is no systems-level understanding or agreement on indicators to track systems-level change. Moreover, there is no integrated framework for long-term monitoring in place to simultaneously track changes in vital system components, including land productivity and household wellbeing.

A fundamental question underlies Africa’s socio-economic and environmental sustainability: How can smallholder farmers increase land productivity, profitability and human wellbeing outcomes without causing irreparable damage to ecosystem services?

What Africa needs to address this question is an integrated diagnostic and monitoring framework to generate data and information at appropriate spatial scales to support decision making at national policy and farm household level. Such a monitoring framework would need a minimum set of indicators relevant for assessment of interactions and feedback among land productivity, soil and plant health, biodiversity, water quality and human wellbeing.

The indicators suggested here can generate the integrated knowledge needed to support evidence-based decisions to guide investments in agricultural development while sustaining flows of vital ecosystem services. Moreover, a diagnostic and monitoring system would serve three critical purposes: provide integrated evidence-based policy relevant information; establish the framework for sustained monitoring and delivery of real time data to farmers and policy makers; and integrated and analytical framework to evaluate tradeoffs and feedback to inform anticipatory and adaptive management.

I believe that a diagnostic and monitoring capability can be harnessed to provide anticipatory and adaptive decision support framework. This will minimize environmental impacts and enhance systems-level resilience, so that food security and wellbeing of farmers like Ann and millions like her across sub-Saharan Africa can be enhanced in a sustainable manner.

The State of Africa’s Higher Education

Africa’s higher education has suffered deep stagnation over several decades. For many decades, African governments and development partners have placed more emphasis on primary and secondary education.

The Darker summit on “Education for All” in 2000 for instance, prioritized basic education and adult literacy as a key driver of social welfare. The reason for the historically low emphasis on higher education is partly because earlier studies by economists, including Milton Friedman, suggested that there was no evidence that higher education yielded social benefits over and above those accrued by the individuals.

In a review of 22 Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) and 9 interim PRSPs from African countries, only two countries explicitly planned to increase tertiary education budgets while six currents explicitly planned to cut funding. International donor agencies have abetted African governments’ neglect of higher education. For instance, international aid in support of higher education is on average US$ 600 million annually, or one quarter of all international aid to the education sector in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Persistent underinvestment in higher education in Africa is evidenced by the low enrollment rates. Gross enrollment in Africa’s higher education was just 5 %, compared to 11 % in India, 20 % in China and 70% in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, according to a UNESCO report published in 2009. The 5 % average belies large differences among countries. For instance, in 2005, gross enrollment ration in higher education was 1 % in Tanzania, 4% in Kenya, 8 % in Cote d’Ivoire, 10 % in Nigeria 15 % for South Africa and 31 % in Tunisia.

Similarly, low public investment and spending in higher education has precipitated further declines in quality and relevance of education curricular the quality of graduate and the output of scientific products. Africa’s published research papers only amount to 0.7 % of the global total . This means that Africa’s scholars are not doing enough to generate local knowledge that could provide potential homegrown solutions to Africa’s urgent social, institutional, technological and environmental challenges.

Economic growth benefit of higher education is only one dimension. An equally important but often ignored dimension is education’s contribution to enhancing capability of the state through robust governance and effective service delivery. This can only be delivered through a cadre of well-educated and skilled civil service. But decades of underinvestment in higher education have caused what some leading scholars have described as state capability traps because poorly educated personnel largely dominate state bureaucracy. A 2011 audit of revealed that, nearly fifty years after independence, public servants who have attained higher education comprise only 10 % of Kenya’s public servants. Similarly, in 1998, less than 3% of the national public administration staff of Mozambique had higher education in 2001.

In Zambia, country with a population of about 13 million people the current doctor ratio is 15,000, far lower than WHO recommended ration of 5000. This is partly explained by the fact that Zambia has a single medical school, University of Zambia that graduates about 50 physicians each year. Consequently, deaths from preventable diseases are rising and life expectancy is falling. Similarly in Ghana, according a UNDP report published in 1994, quality, quantity and supply of critical, high level skills gives cause for concern. Weak capacity is a major problem in most African countries, affecting all tiers of government and is likely to get worse (Commission for Africa 2005: 137-8). Africa’s capacity to deliver on its development goals is therefore at risk.

Besides low investment in higher education, low enrollment and low academic output, university programs in Africa’s universities are out of sync with the needs of their countries. The veritable supply – demand gap exacerbates the problem of graduate unemployment but further undermines the efficiency of public investment in tertiary education . The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA, 2005) report on Youth, Education, Skills and Employment observed that Africa’s youth face many challenges in gaining an education that equips them with the skills and knowledge needed by the labor market, leading to high rates of unemployment among university graduates.

The diminishing return on investment in basic education is now widely recognized. With this recognition comes the imperative to direct attention the hitherto neglected higher education. A critical motivation for the need to revitalize Africa’s higher education is the growing dominance of the so-called Knowledge Economy.

Without more and better higher education, developing Africa will find it increasingly difficult to benefit from the global knowledge based economy. A key component of a knowledge economy is the premium value of high intellectual capability of citizens as opposed to physical inputs or natural resources.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Carbon Markets Unlikely to Benefit Africa’s Smallholder Farmers

Climate change poses daunting challenges to Africa’s smallholder farmers. High frequency of extreme events like floods, droughts and changes in rainfall patterns converge to make food production an uncertain and risky enterprise. Adaptation to climate change is therefore a central preoccupation of farmers, scholars, policy makers and politicians.

The climate change and livelihood crisis comes at a time when significant global financial resources are flowing to Africa with an audacious goal of eliminating hunger and malnutrition through increasing agricultural productivity.

To simultaneously address the need for more finance to boost agricultural productivity and adapt Africa’s farming systems to climate change, the World Bank and others are leading proponents of soil carbon credits. The World Bank argues that the creation of a market for soil carbon credits can leverage additional private sector resource to enhance smallholder farm productivity while addressing the impacts of climate change.

The central idea is that if smallholder farmers can store carbon in the soil and if the carbon can be measured and valued, it can be traded on the international market. More recently, Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) has emerged as a crucial building block for a post-2012 climate change adaptation/mitigation policy regime. Advocates of REDD believe it presents a tremendous opportunity to simultaneously sequester carbon and reduce rural poverty, while sustaining vital ecosystem services as well as enhancing resilience to climate change.

I argue that carbon markets and the associated financial benefits for smallholder African farmers will remain elusive and intangible unless: there is an international binding agreement on CO2 emission reductions post Kyoto 2012 that guarantees a large and stable compliance market for soil carbon; and, existing voluntary soil carbon projects deliver equitable benefits and at low transaction costs.

Given the extremely weak commitments to emission reduction by industrialized countries, there is likely going to be very little international demand for carbon credits in the foreseeable future. Moreover, the two mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol – Joint Implementation and Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – do not accommodate credits generated through soil carbon sequestration. Similarly, the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) does not include trading of soil carbon credits.

Confidence in a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol after December 2012 is underwhelming. The United States, Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico and Sweden have reached an agreement to start a program to reduce emissions from soot (black carbon), methane and hydrofluorocarbons. Without compliance markets that mandate CO2 emission reductions thus creating a critical mass of buyers that allow soil carbon credits to be traded, the efforts of the World Bank, FAO and IFPRI hope voluntary markets will generate sufficient capital flows to improve agricultural productivity and household wellbeing.

The World Bank through its BioCarbon Fund is promoting the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project in western Kenya. This project is an invaluable case study on the value proposition of carbon markets for Africa’s smallholder farmers. At full implementation the project will enlist 60,000 farmers on 45,000 hectares over 20 years. It is esti¬mated the project will generate a total of 1.2 million metric tons of CO2, from which 60 percent will be discounted to account for impermanence and methodological and estimation uncer¬tainties.

Assuming the World Bank pays $4/tCO2 and a sequestration rate of 1.4 tCO2 per hectare per year, each participating farmer will earn $1.19 per year. Despite the miniscule revenue to participating farmers, the World Bank’s faith remains indomitable. The dominant view in the World Bank is that exclusion of soil carbon emission offset credits from the Kyoto Protocol compliance market denies smallholder farmers in Africa from accessing lucrative emerging carbon markets.

However, as currently structured soil carbon markets and associated benefits do not support the real needs of Africa’s smallholder farmers – enhancing resilience of smallholder agricultural systems, increasing agricultural productivity and improving household income.

Africa’s smallholder farmers will find carbon markets especially unattractive because:
1. Soil carbon sequestration requires farmers to commit to a particular land use practice, which could “lock in” farmers and undermine adaptive capacity in response to climate change or economic opportunities that favor alternative land use;
2. A majority of smallholder farms have severe fertility constraints and cannot sequester large quantities of carbon; hence carbon revenue receipts will be very low. Moreover, Soil carbon is heavily discounted to account for impermanence at a rate of 60 %, further reducing revenue receipts;

The proponents of soil carbon markets must evaluate the opportunity cost of diverting scarce resources to creating soil carbon markets for which market demand is very weak and revenue receipts for Africa’s smallholder farmers are miniscule. The needs of Africa’s smallholder farmers will be better served by channeling global resources and focus on:
1. Improving access to high quality agricultural extension services, including improved access to weather and climate information;
2. Improving access to high quality seeds and fertilizers;
3. Enhancing technology transfer for appropriate mechanization and improved irrigation techniques;
4. Improving access to financial services for rural women including agricultural risk insurance services;
5. Supporting small and medium enterprises for value addition to agricultural produce and diversification of rural livelihoods.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

How Not to Manage Urban Traffic Congestion

I once listened to the Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, recount his exasperation with Nairobi traffic. On that morning it had taken Achim Steiner over two hours to drive 10.8 kilometers, the distance between his office and Kenyatta International Conference Centre.

You would think the solution to Nairobi’s traffic congestion is simple: build new roads; widen existing roads; construct fly-overs and elevated expressways. Planners think of roads as neat and logical solutions to traffic congestion. Politicians see roads as populist legacy projects. Consultants and contractors view roads as cash vendors. For lenders, it’s shovels of money out the door. And people, both urban and rural, find roads sexy.

The unvarnished truth is that building new highways, however fancy, or widening existing roads does nothing to reduce traffic congestion. On the contrary, increasing road supply invariably increases vehicle traffic. This is paradoxical and merits repeating: expanding urban roads makes traffic congestion worse, not better.

In 1942 Robert Moses, master builder of mid 20th century New York City observed that the highways he built around New York in 1939 were somehow generating greater traffic congestion than had had existed previously. Since Robert Moses’ intuitive observation, the relationship between roads supply and traffic congestion has been has elicited robust scholarship.

A study of interstate highways and vehicle kilometers traveled in US cities showed that increased supply of highways did not ease congestion in the absence of congestion pricing. Similarly, the Southern California Association of Governments noted that expanding highway capacity would have no more than a cosmetic effect on Los Angeles traffic. The best solution, the association concluded, was to advise people to work closer to home.

In the short term, increased highway capacity makes longer commutes less irritable, and as a result, more people are willing to live farther from their workplace. As more people make similar decisions, the once pleasurable long commute gets crowded and the clamor for additional lanes starts again.

A recent study by University of California at Berkeley found that for every 10 percent increase in highway capacity, vehicle traffic increased by 9 percent within a period of four years. Trying to end traffic congestion by adding more capacity is like trying to reduce your girth by loosening your belt. In my mind, the question is not how many lanes must be built to ease congestion but how many more lanes of congestion do we want, three or eight?

Urban transportation experts have argued that the real constraint to driving is traffic congestion, not cost. There is a predominant notion that there is such a thing as latent demand for lanes. Because of latent demand, adding more lanes is futile because commuters are waiting to snap them up as soon as they are built. Some urban transportation scholars have argued that latent could be as high as 30 percent for most cities.

The Kibaki administration has embarked on highway expansion of unprecedented scale. Thika road is currently undergoing major expansion into a 50.4-kilometer eight-lane superhighway at an estimated cost of KES. 27 billion ($330 million). However, the consequence is unsettling. Almost all of the billions of shillings spent on road expansion will have accomplished only one thing, which is to increase the amount of time that you must spend in your car each day.

Effectively managing Nairobi’s congestion requires both a holistic and integrated approach, which goes beyond contemporaneous congestion and extends to the management of the urban space as complex system. Congestion mitigation actions must include a broad and comprehensive land use, urban planning, investment in public transportation and general transport master planning process.

Highway expansion must not be seen as a panacea for Nairobi’s irksome traffic congestion. If it is, then the engineers are wasting their time and the government is wasting our money on an expensive stopgap measure that will produce only temporary relief.

Currently, road access in Nairobi is unconstrained by anything but traffic congestion. How might measures besides expensive highway expansion be deployed to congestion management?

I suggest two measures. The first is parking management. Control and management of parking can be used to modify demand on an area-wide basis to manage traffic congestion. Metered parking control can be targeted on the basis of location and time.

The second is congestion pricing. Congestion pricing is a way of using the power of the market to reduce congestion. Congestion pricing would work by shifting discretionary rush hour highway private traffic to public transport or to off-peak periods. There is a consensus among economists that congestion pricing represents the single most viable and sustainable approach to reducing traffic congestion.

Eradicating traffic congestion solely through highway expansion is neither an affordable, nor feasible goal in economically dynamic city like Nairobi.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Fight Against AIDS Inspires Innovation in Male Circumcision

According to the 2010 UNAIDS Global Report on AIDS epidemic, the number of annual AIDS-related deaths worldwide is steadily declining from the peak of 2.1 million in 2004 to an estimated 1.8 in 2009.

Fundamentally, this decline reflects wider access and availability of antiretroviral (ARV) therapy. In 2011, a study funded by National Institutes of Health confirmed that treating HIV-positive people with ARV drugs reduces the risk of transmission to HIV-negative sexual partners by 96%. The effects of ARV therapy has been especially important in sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS-related deaths have declined by 20% between 2004 and 2009.

But there is a new arsenal in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Three studies have shown that circumcising adult heterosexual men reduces the chances of infection by 60%. Circumcision works because it removes the foreskin, which has many Langerhans cells. Langerhans cells pick up viruses and present them to the immune system, which are attacked by HIV.

The goal is to circumcise 20 million men in Africa 2015. However, using conventional procedures, only about 600, 000 have been circumcised. Using conventional procedures, it takes a skilled surgeon 15 minutes to circumcise one male. Moreover, Africa is desperately short of surgeons.

At this rate it is unlikely that the 2015 goal will be met. Public health experts are now seeking ways to make the make circumcision faster, cheaper and safer. Two devices that could fit this bill have been identified. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting the efforts of World Health Organization to evaluate PrePex and the Shang Ring.

From the initial safety studies, PrePex is clearly faster, less painful and is associated with less bleeding. More importantly, PrePex is easy to use and can be put in place and removed by a nurse with just three days of training. Experts believe that three-two nurse teams using PrePex could circumcise 400 men a day, compared to the 60 - 80 a surgeon does using the conventional procedure.

PrePex’s ultimate cost is still being negotiated with donor agencies and foundation but may range between $15 and $20.

See article by Donald G. McNeil Jr. in the New York Times

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Why Kenya’s Science Education Needs Reform

In 2005, I had the rare privilege speaking with nearly forty children in primary 5. These eleven-year-old boys and girls shared their career dreams with amazing clarity and conviction. They dreamed of becoming doctors, nurses, architects, pilots, engineers and professors.

But the poise and sense of purpose of one girl left me spellbound. Angela was a lot like other kids in her class except for one thing: she wanted to study medicine and find a cure for two diseases, HIV/AIDS, which left many of her friends orphaned and malaria, which cut short the lives of millions of children like her. Her belief in the power and promise of science was awe-inspiring. Angela embodied everything that a father could ever wish for in a daughter.

Angela sat her KCPE examinations in 2009 and was accepted in a provincial girl’s high school. This year she will be among hundreds of thousands students who will sit KSCE examinations.

But Angela will not be applying to join medical school to pursue the career of her childhood dreams. What became of Angela’s childhood dream to find a cure for HIV/AIDS and malaria?

The archetypal approach to science is to “learn about science”, rather than to “learn to be scientists”. Hence, high school science is arduous and excruciating. Science and math are presented as collection of fusty facts, formulae, or principles; things students must remember faithfully and regurgitate mindlessly to pass examination. But science is not about facts. Science is way of thinking, understanding and representing our world.

Moreover, there is a pervasive but grossly misguided notion that science is serious and creativity is antithetical to scientific rigor. Nothing could be more absurd. Creativity is the lifeblood of scientific innovation.

It is boredom, and not the rigor of science or math, that disengages and extinguishes students’ dreams. Angela is one of thousands of students whose dreams have been extinguished by the gust of “learning about science”.

While releasing KCSE results in 2009, the Minster for Education, Prof. Ongeri was dismayed by the deteriorating performance in math and science. Do our children have an inherent cognitive disability in science and math?

The real culprit is the curriculum and the teaching and learning of science and math. The first brood of a dysfunctional curriculum and flawed pedagogy is bad students. The second brood is bad teachers. Keep in mind that last educational institution science teachers attend before they enlist to exterminate Angela’s dream is the university.

That the university is responsible for training high school science teachers raises two questions: how effectively are undergraduate students prepared as high school science teachers?; how well are graduate students (or soon to become professors) in the sciences prepared to teach science at the university?

These questions raise a broader issue of national and strategic importance, that is, the extent to which existing approaches to pedagogy in our universities are capable of producing the caliber graduates needed to deploy STEM to address Kenya’s most urgent socio-economic and environmental challenges.

Undergraduate science courses in our universities are delivered predominantly by transfer-of-information in large lecture formats. The professor is the sage on the stage and students are merely passive receptacles of facts. Weekly cookie-cutter laboratory reports cannot cultivate the habit of discovery, train scientific writing or fostering scientific inquiry and analytical reasoning.

Reform in the teaching and learning of science must be founded on scientific teaching. The hallmarks of scientific teaching are approaches that stimulate students to construct new knowledge through active learning (dialogue and collaboration) and discovery through research. We must undo the ingrained mental models of science pedagogy in which the professor is the oracle.

Reform in the teaching and learning of science should ensure that students appreciate the power and beauty of science, are judicious consumers of science and technology products, posses the knowledge, skills and habits of mind necessary to pursue careers in science, engineering and technology.

The teaching and learning of science must become student centered. Curriculum must be driven by concepts as opposed to content or facts. Assessments must be based on measurable competences – knowledge, skills and attitudes – relevant to STEM. Greater attention must be focused on retention, transfer of knowledge and as opposed to learning by rote.

Professors will characterize these reforms as an untenable departure from convention and requiring extra resources that are unavailable. But such characterizations are as understandable as they are retrogressive.

Both public and private universities must get behind the reform movement. Effective incentives must be deployed to recognize faculty who are using new and successful methods of teaching and learning. Graduate science programs should integrate teaching and learning their programs.

Reforming science pedagogy is a vital perquisite for building creative capacity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Kenya’s Vision 2030 could be stymied by the failure of our science education.


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