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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

We need a modern soil health management and monitoring framework

Over 95 percent of smallholder farms in Kenya show severe depletion of essential soil nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Moreover, Kenya’s agricultural soils have dangerously low soil organic matter and exhibit worrying trends of acidification. This is according to a report by the National Accelerated Agricultural Input Access Programme (NAAIAP) released February 18, 2014.

The report reveals that all the farms surveyed require an average of 8 tons of manure per hectare, in addition to about 200 kilograms per hectare of different compound inorganic fertilizer. The NAAIP soil testing report is based on traditional labor-intensive soil survey methods and conventional soil laboratory techniques. 9600 soil samples were collected from 4800 farms spread over 42 out of 47 counties.

The soil testing report serves the purpose of directing public and policy focus to the magnitude of Kenya’s soil fertility crisis. However, the 464-page NAAIAP report, dense with text and tables is an unequal response to Kenya’s soil fertility and agricultural productivity crisis. The report is gravely limited in its capacity to provide a robust and reliable basis for fertilizer use recommendation at the farm level. Moreover, 9600 samples are too few as a basis for extrapolation over 42 counties, given the high spatial variability of soil properties. Relying on this report to fix our soils and boost land productivity is like using horses and bayonets to wage war in the 21st century.

Invariably, the soil sampling and analytical methods would yield unhelpful blanket recommendations. For example, it is curious that farms in the humid Trans Nzoia East sub-county and farms in the semi-arid Ijara sub-county in Wajir have the same fertilizer recommendations – 7-8 tons of manure per hectare; 250 kg per hectare of NPK (23:23:0) at planting; 125-150 kg per hectare of CAN.

We need techniques, which can be deployed at a national scale for rapid assessment, testing, generation of spatially explicit soil management recommendations and routine monitoring of soil quality. Management recommendations must be buttressed by farm level agronomic trials, over multiple seasons, to ascertain fertilizer response. The NAAIAP report does not mention any farm level trials.

Advances in infrared spectroscopy, GIS and Remote Sensing now permit rapid diagnostic assessment of soils at higher sampling intensities. These methods were developed and tested 10 years ago at the World Agroforestry Centre here in Nairobi by a team of landscape ecologists, systems agronomists, including myself.

Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency is using these techniques to establish the Ethiopian Soil Information System (EthioSIS). The final product will be interactive high resolution (0.1 - 1 ha) grid maps of key soil properties such as pH, texture, mineralogy, organic matter, nutrient content, erosion and other soil degradation prevalence estimates across all of Ethiopia. This system will enable Ethiopia to provide spatially explicit, evidence-based and targeted recommendations for: fertilizer applications, and water management practices.

The hundreds of thousands of archived topsoil held by Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, including the 9600 samples analyzed for NAAIP as well as samples held by universities could be a great starting point for building reflectance spectral libraries for rapid characterization of soil quality at the farm level. Working with farmers and using the Land Degradation Assessment Framework (LDSF), I would recommend additional soil samples from 75 percent of all farms.  

A large national spectral library of soils can be used to set up distributed soil testing and farm advisory centres at the sub-county or ward level. All it would take is an infrared spectrometer, an electric socket and a technician. With such as set up one can establish a farm level soil report card, where farmers, with basic training in sample collection and pre-processing, could turn in soils from their field for testing. The report would contain critical soil quality parameters such as organic carbon, nitrogen, soil acidity, soil bulk density, phosphorous, potassium and other essential elements.

Moreover, the farm level soil report card could also be used to monitor landscape level processes, facilitating identification of areas at risk of soil degradation and designing locally appropriate recommendation domains for integrated management of land health, beyond fertilizer application.

Civilizations have fallen because they failed to manage their soils. We have an opportunity to harness the capability of infrared spectroscopy, remote sensing, spatial statistics, the cellphone and Ushahidi’s crowd sourcing applications to change the way soil information is collected analyzed and used to guide soil management decisions at the farm and landscape level.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Anti poaching efforts not sufficient to save endangered wildlife

Last week global leaders, led by Prince Charles, gathered in London and pledged to end the immoral slaughter of wildlife. Illegal trade in tiger body parts, rhino horns and elephant tusks underwrite criminal trade worth $19 billion dollars annually.

At the London summit Japan and China, two nations with the largest illegal and legal markets, for ivory and rhino horn agreed to ensure that poaching and trafficking are treated as serious crimes, similar trafficking humans, drugs and weapons. The summit also delivered an crucial milestone by bringing African countries to a convergence on the question of ivory trade: four key African elephant range states ­– Botswana, Chad, Gabon, Ethiopia and Tanzania – agreed to extend a moratorium on ivory sales as well as measures to put ivory stocks beyond economic use.

Tanzania, Botswana and other southern African countries previously argued that they had healthy elephant populations, which no longer meet the criteria for being listed as requiring the highest protection. Botswana threatened to pull out of CITES in 2010, and remove elephants from the list of species under protection.  At the 16th Conference of Parties of the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) held in 2013, Tanzania submitted a proposal seeking to downlist its elephants from the highest protection category so it could sell more than 100 tonnes of ivory to China and Japan.
Tanzania, Botswana and other southern African countries have always argued that their position on ivory trade meets the critical goal of sustainable conservation and sustainable community development for the benefit of the elephants.  But conservationists believe that any form of trade in ivory, rhino horn or tiger parts would ratchet up poaching and illegal trade.
The conservation community believes animal trafficking is reaching unprecedented levels and species such as rhinos, elephants and tigers are under threat of extinction. Britain's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, described the London summit as a turning point in saving endangered wildlife species and in the fight to defeat ruthless criminal gangs, which run the illegal trade.
But, in my view, to blame the precipitous decline of elephant populations to poaching is absurd. It is dishonest and detracts from the complex and urgent challenges, which face conservation. Do not get me wrong. Poaching presents a real threat to wildlife conservation and must be eradicated. But the decline of habitat quality and the unprecedented rate of habitat fragmentation constitute a significant threat to the viability and persistence of wildlife.
Today less than 35,000 wild lions remain in the wild. Recent analyses have shown that the African lion has lost circa 75 percent of its original habitat. Long-term data for 69 large mammal species from 78 protected areas in Africa revealed a 59 percent decline in large mammal population between 1970 and 2005. The declines have been linked to habitat degradation and fragmentation due to land use change in adjacent pastoral ranches. Studies suggest that in semi-arid areas elephants need a minimum reserve size of 1000 square miles to attain 99 percent probability of population persistence for 1000 years.

Climate change combined with habitat fragmentation and degradation is a bigger threat to elephants, rhinos and tigers than poaching. Dr. Richard Leakey shares this view. Spending Ksh.160 million pledged by the Canadian government to combat poaching is like piling all our eggs in the same basket. The impact of climate change, in combination with habitat fragmentation will exacerbate the decline wildlife, wiping out elephants and rhinos right after we save them from the poachers. We should spend such resources to create dynamic systems of protected areas to address the real and urgent threats posed by climate change, rangeland degradation and habitat fragmentation.

In the face of climate change we must direct financial and human resources to move conservation to a dynamic landscape scale, away from the fragmented park or reserve scale. Central to the landscape scale approach is working with landowners to purchase or lease land to create corridors connecting isolated protected areas, thus building integrated networks of ecologically viable habitats. Integration is key to harnessing ecological dynamics among multiple protected areas.

Anti poaching campaigns are laudable but an obsessive focus on preservation of charismatic species could, inadvertently, orchestrate mass extinction of biodiversity. We must take a holistic view of biodiversity and ecosystems conservation. An integrated biodiversity and ecosystems approach will enable seasonal migration and dispersal, conferring resilience to wildlife and their habitat under a changing climate. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Asian Style Green Revolution Not for Africa

African economies are firing. Thanks to rapid growth and investment in the continent’s banking, telecommunication and extractive sectors. The growing ranks of a nascent consumer class are also driving cheap imports and retail. But Africa’s agricultural sector is comatose. African workers are hungry and their children suffer chronic malnutrition.

Even before the last world food crisis, one in three people and more than 30 percent of Africa’s children were malnourished. It is estimated that the number of hungry grew from 175 million in 1992 to 239 million in 2012.  Undernutrition is directly or indirectly responsible for 3.5 million child deaths every year, and malnutrition is the cause of least 35 percent of the disease burden in children under 5 years old.

Africa has the lowest levels of land and labor productivity in the world. Africa’s agricultural output is about 50 percent of the world average. Agricultural productivity per capita has not kept pace with population growth. More than 80 percent of output growth since 1980 has come from the expansion of cropped areas, rather than from improved land productivity on existing agricultural land. Moreover, climate change could exacerbate the decline of Africa’s agricultural sector.

FAO estimates that Africa’s food import bill increased to $39.6 billion in 2012, a 30 percent increase from 2011. Without a 40 percent growth in domestic production, Africa is likely to spend about $150 billion on food imports by 2030. Compared to Asia and Latin America, Africa has seen a sharp decline in its share of agricultural export markets. The value of agricultural exports from Thailand, which has less than 10 per cent of Africa’s population, is now greater than the volume of exports from all of Sub-Saharan Africa.

A doubling of Africa’s average cereal yield to 2 tons per hectare would produce an extra 100 million tons of cereals per year. Such a bump in yield would offset Africa’s overburdening cereal imports estimated at 66 million tons in 2010. Poor soils, dependence on rainfall, dilapidated infrastructure, weak markets, insufficient access to technology, advisory and financial services constrain the growth of Africa’s agricultural sector.

The plight of Africa’s agriculture has moved the international community to act to save a wretched continent. Although the heart of the international community is often in the right place, their head seldom is. This is understandable because the scale and urgency of Africa’s hunger problem invariably demands action, not deliberate reflection and search for appropriate solutions.

Does Africa need an Asian style Green Revolution?

Motivated by the power and example of the Asian Green Revolution the global development community is absolutely confident that the Africa’s hunger could be solved with hybrid seed, fertilizer and pesticides alone. But we know that the Green Revolution is economically and ecologically unsustainable.

The one-size-fits-all simple technological package that utilizes high yielding variety seeds with a high response to big doses of subsidized inorganic fertilizers and chemical pesticides will not work for Africa’s complex mosaic of smallholder crop, livestock, and tree-based systems. That is why despite the huge investment by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) failed to promote a Green Revolution in Africa.

Africa’s context is complex and defies the simple solutions of the Asian Green Revolution. Africa’s irrigation potential is low, soils are highly variable and inherently nutrient poor. Moreover, Africa’s infrastructure challenge is huge. Africa has the lowest number of kilometers of road and railway per hectare of agricultural land in the world. Advances in biotechnology must be applied to improve fish, livestock as well as a large variety of vegetables, multipurpose trees, tuber crops, legumes and traditional cereals like sorghum and millet. Rice or wheat or maize alone won’t do.

Undoubtedly, Africa’s agriculture can learn from the Asian Green Revolution. Unfortunately, the new excitement around an African Green Revolution is not based lessons from the failures of its predecessor. The most important lesson must come through understanding local agro-ecosystems, their potential and constraints. Africa’s farming context faces multiple crises of natural resource degradation, climate change and globalization.

Ecologically sound, biotechnology driven, climate smart and a farmer centred approach is needed to revamp agriculture and deliver food security for African households. An agro-ecological approach, which taps local knowledge of biodiversity and ecosystem services, promotes farmer experimentation, and innovation for adaptive solutions, may be more sustainable than an Asian style Green Revolution underwritten by experts, whether “new” or “doubly green”. 

Learning Crisis in East Africa Demands Urgent Action

At the World Education Forum held in Dakar, Senegal in 2000, the global community committed to achieving education for all (EFA) goals for every citizen and for every society. The Dakar Framework for Action re-affirmed that education must be geared to tapping talent and potential and supporting children to improve their lives and transform their societies.

Progress in global education remains anaemic, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The latest UNESCO EFA Global Monitoring Report – Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all – published January 29 2014 reveals that one third of primary school age children are not learning basic reading and math skills in an education crisis that costs governments US$129 billion annually. In 2011 Uwezo, a civil society group that monitors educational achievement showed that across East Africa, 2 out 3 pupils in Standard 3 failed Standard 2 literacy and numeracy test.

Over the last few years, there has been boisterous talk about Africa’s economic renaissance. All the five countries of the East African Community (EAC) have produced audacious vision statements, often buttressed by ambitious political manifestos. But these, in my view, will amount to naught; another lost opportunity if over half of Africa’s children are not learning basic skills in reading and math. It will be another lost opportunity if teachers are absent from the classroom nearly 50 percent of the time. It will be another missed opportunity if teachers lack mastery of their subjects. Africa rising will be a myth as long as Tanzania cannot train and recruit the additional 91,400 primary school teachers it needs. Africa rising will not be a reality when over 1 million children of school age are out of school in Kenya.

The Anatomy of the Learning Crisis
Sixty percent of the candidates who sat Tanzania’s Certificate of Secondary Education Examination (CSEE) failed. This magnitude of failure touched off fierce public debate and blame in Tanzania. Some analysts attributed this high failure rate to the sudden switch to English as the medium of instruction in secondary school. The expectation that children leaving public primary schools should enter secondary school and take lessons for all subjects in English language is both callous and ludicrous. English fluency is equally poor among secondary school teachers and officials of the National Examinations Council of Tanzania (NECTA). NECTA issues examinations riddled with poorly constructed English sentences. Poorly prepared students taking poor quality examination is the perfect storm. But Tanzania’s foremost education activist, Rajesh Rajani, thinks that a high failure rate among in Tanzanian schools is solely attributable to a broken education system.

It is estimated that in 2010, 42 percent of East Africa’s 24 million children under five years of age were stunted. A recent study reported by Save the Children in the report, Food for Thought: Tackling child malnutrition to unlock potential and boost prosperity, shows that compared with normal children, stunted children: score 7 percent lower on math tests; are 19 percent less likely to be able to read a simple sentence at age 8, and 12 percent less likely able to write a simple sentence; and, are 13 percent less likely to be able to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school. Uganda’s feminist and social justice advocate, Jacqueline Asiimwe argues that nutrition is often ignored in conversations on about what ails education. Circa 33 percent of Uganda’s children below the age of five are stunted. The Cost of Hunger in Uganda, a report published in 2013 by World Food Program and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, revealed that 7 percent of all school repetitions were associated with stunting and that stunted children are more likely to drop out of school and have 1.2 years less in education compared.

In 2009, African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) carried out a classroom observation study focusing on math in 72 schools in six districts in Kenya. The students’ mean score in standardized primary 6 level math was 47 percent. The mean score for teachers was 60.5 percent, with the lowest teacher scoring 17 percent and highest 94 percent. Clearly, no teachers in the sample had mastery of primary 6 level math. Similarly, data from Uganda’s National Assessment of Progress in Education (NAPE) reveals that teachers enter the profession with knowledge and skills that are too low to be effective in the classroom. In 2011, a test similar to primary 6 test for students was applied to a sample of primary 3 and primary 6 teachers in Uganda. In Literacy, 17 percent of teachers were not able to write words correctly, and 54 percent were unable to write a composition. Only 54 percent of the teachers examined were rated proficient in reading sentences, and 38 percent in reading a full story at the level of primary 6.

A randomized evaluation in rural Kenya revealed that providing textbooks written in English language did not raise average test scores, especially among weaker students in primary school. The finding that the textbooks provided did not change learning outcomes is hardly surprising. It is also consistent with UWEZO findings, which show that a majority of children, especially in rural schools cannot effectively read and comprehend the English textbooks. Moreover, high rates of teacher and pupil absenteeism cause a majority of rural children to fall behind the official curriculum.

These rather clear patterns of inequality in learning outcomes raise a larger question. Is it possible for a centralized, uniform education system to serve diverse national populations? This question is especially pertinent given the vast heterogeneity in the social, economic and livelihood outcomes, generated by modest but unequal economic growth in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. More importantly, the legacy of colonialism and the political economy of post-independence created structural conditions in which the current educational systems invariably favor the most advantaged children.

I find it troubling that secondary school is still considered an elite institution in the 21st century. In the 21st century knowledge economy, a high school education must be a birthright of every East African child. Not a privilege of the well to do in society. The cutthroat competition for elite public schools has a fundamentally corrupting influence in the quality and integrity of education in the EAC region. The scramble for few places in good high schools is a major diver of the exam-centric nature of national education systems. We are more concerned about the ability of our children to tick the correct bubble in the multiple choices questions than their ability to think. This obsession with grades explains why the Tanzanian public blamed the new grading system, Fixed Grade Ranges (FGR) when 60 percent of the students who sat O-level exams in 2012 failed. Whether our children are learning is of secondary concern.

The education systems of the EAC member states are more similar than different. They share one distinctive characteristic – a crisis of learning. Our schools fail too many children: 50 percent of the children who sat the 2013 Kenya Certificate of Primary Examinations scored below average; 49 percent of the children who sat Tanzania’s Primary School Leaving Examination in 2013 scored below average; and, 46.5 percent of Uganda’s children who Primary Leaving Examination in 2013 scored below division two. If you believe that education is the currency of the knowledge economy then we are disenfranchising 50 percent of all our children. This is a holocaust, an unprecedented slaughter of human capital.

Re-imagining Education for the Child
The education systems in the EAC region are faithful to the logic of their colonial purpose – to produce unthinking, uncritical and subservient minions for the colonial overloads. The system was not created to encourage children to engage in the kind critical thinking, creativity and complex reasoning that a knowledge economy demands, and which is a pre-requisite to realizing the bold dreams of national vision statements. We must re-design our education systems to deliver the hopes and aspirations articulated in our vision.

But whenever we try re-imagining or reforming our education system, I am reminded of the American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887). In the first stanza of his poem, “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, Saxe writes:

“It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined, 

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind), 

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind”.

Constrained by limited perspectives and contingent on what they touched, the blind men characterized the elephant variously and erroneously as: a wall; spear; snake; tree; fan; rope. But as Saxe writes in the last stanza of the poem:

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!”

John Godfrey Saxe’s poem is a brilliant analogy of the hubris of the expert. Armed, often, with limited understanding, we rush to conclusions and argue extensively in defense of our expert opinions. Like the blind men in Saxe’s poem, as policymakers or educators or economists or donors we have been exceedingly stiff and strong about what we perceive to be the problem with our education system.

I have listened with bemusement as different experts diagnose what ails our education system. With the silver bullet mindset the experts often cite factors such as curriculum or teacher quality or access or physical infrastructure or school management or class size or language of instruction or textbooks or technology or finance or assessment. What is needed is an all of the above solution, which sets out to re-build the school system in all of its essential dimensions, and delivers learning for our children.

The curriculum is at the heart of the leaning crisis. We must re-imagine curriculum in the image of the child­. It must be a curriculum that liberates the child to paly, experiment, question, collaborate, co-create imagine and reason. The curriculum must prepare the child for an unknown future and careers that do not yet exist; hence not encumbered by content, but liberated and inspired by a flaming desire to create, innovate and solve problems. It must be a curriculum that dethrones the teacher as the “all-knowing” oracle and installs the child as self-directed learner. 


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