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Monday, August 31, 2015

Africa can leverage big data to drive equitable prosperity

Every time you use your mobile phone, every time you make a purchase with your Visa or MasterCard, and every time your drive beneath a street camera, data is created. However, to imagine that Africa is awash with data and information would be simplistic and fallacious.

Huge data challenges persist in our part of the world. For example we don’t know how many children are stunted or suffer from chronic malnutrition. We don’t have accurate information on the number of children enrolled in school or out of school. We don’t really know how many young people are unemployed. We don’t know what skills our economy needs. We don’t have data on the number of Kenyans who don’t have access to water and sanitation. We don’t know how many people are killed on our perilous roads every year. We don’t know how many tons of maize our farmers produce annually.

Africa’s conversation on big data and the information revolution is characterized by both promise and anxiety. The dialogue is characterized by promise because the ubiquity of modern technology such as cellphones permits novel ways for problem diagnosis and application best-fit solutions. The dialogue is characterized by anxiety because while the world is on the cusp of a veritable data and information revolution, Kenya and Africa at large exist in what can be characterized as a pre-dawn mist.

At the heart of the pre-dawn mist is the fact most of the data we hold are best guess estimates, which are often unreliable. Moreover, even this unreliable data is often out of date, and riddled with huge spatial and temporal gaps. This makes it difficult to apply any analytical tools to examine the data for patterns and insights that could support policy or investments or provide new insights to drive sustainable development.

Despite the pre-dawn mist, the opportunity for Africa to leverage the ubiquity of technology to bridge data gaps, harness big data and advances in modern computing and data analytics are phenomenal. Big data is commonly understood to encompass high volume, high variety and high velocity knowledge and decision-support assets.

Africa’s big data opportunity has been enabled by the proliferation of media usage, especially cellphones and the explosion of Internet connected devices and systems. We have also witnessed, thanks to broadband Internet, an unprecedented eruption of unstructured data in the form through photos, videos and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Government agencies hold or have access to an ever-increasing wealth of data including spatial and location data. Moreover, private sector, especially mobile telephone service providers like Safaricom and Airtel also hold huge amounts of data about its customers.

The power of big data and data analytics and its application in decision-making really lies in the capacity to predict, model and detect phenomenon. Hence, incorporation of big data and data analytics in intelligent systems could vastly improve delivery of public services in domains ranging from education, wildlife conservation, public health, road safety, agriculture, climate change adaptation, counter terrorism, tax collection, and utilization of public revenue. Furthermore, Big data and data analytics through open data access have the potential to dramatically enhance democracy, accountability and promote inclusive and equitable development. 

In my view, the potential of big data to drive Africa’s prosperity will only be realized if we answer the following questions. First, how can novel technologies and the everyday innovations in how the world is documented and monitored be applied to bridge critical gaps in data? Second, how can the under-resourced national statistics departments in a majority of African countries be supported to collect, manage, analyze and share data? Third, how do we bring data from mobile devices and social media platforms into public use without infringing personal freedoms or violating individual privacy? Last but not least, how can data be standardized, shared across organizations (public and private), mashed-up and integrated to support policy analysis, investment, public accountability and enhance service delivery?

Africa’s development in the 21st century and beyond must be based on evidence ­­­­– reliable integrated data and knowledge on Africa’s complex challenges and opportunities, not on expatriate conjecture and whim or dodgy government statistics. 

Moreover, Africa must address the data deficit challenge and, build the necessary capacity for sophisticated big data analytics that enables prediction, modeling and pattern detection, which is critical if big data is to drive enduring and equitable prosperity.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Time to start to end addiction to fossil fuels

Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen characterized the current epoch as the Anthropocene. Our kind possesses the power to transform our planet on par with volcanoes, earthquakes and glaciers.
Our unprecedented success and capacity to dominate the planet, relative to other creatures, has been made possible through centuries of cleaver manipulation of knowledge, energy and technology. We harnessed fossil fuels to power the industrial revolution, the agrarian revolution and more recently, the information revolution.  
Take the newspaper or the electronic device you have in front of you now. It is a testament of how our lives and economies are dependent on energy­ – the heavy machinery that logged trees or excavated mineral ore and shipped them to factories that turned trees into paper and mineral ore into electronic devices, the trucks that distribute the newspaper and the electricity that power your devices.
Nearly 80 percent of the energy that powers our economies and enables hundreds of millions of activities that make our lives possible ­– from entertainment to waging war to saving lives – is generated from fossil fuels.
However, the enormous creature comforts of the modern civilization and the breathtaking economic progress we have enjoyed have not been without consequences. By burning fossil fuels, we have released huge volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. About 150 years ago the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were circa 270 parts per million. Today, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are estimated at over 400 parts per million.
High levels of carbon dioxide, along with other gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are associated with a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect. Essentially these gases create a blanket thus absorbing and preventing long wave radiation from the earth’s surface from escaping into the upper layers of the atmosphere. The net effect is the earth’s atmospheric temperature rises and it becomes a sort of hothouse.
The hothouse effect is called global warming. Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have warned that average global temperatures could increase between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celcius by the year 2100. This may seem to far into the future to worry about. The temperature rises might seem too trivial, but the consequences will be catastrophic for all lifeforms on the planet.
Data from NASA, which dates back to 1880 and confirmed by Japan Metrological Agency suggests that July 2015 was the hotest month in atleast 4,000 years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also predicts that a strong El Nino id building up, one that could outscale the intensity of the record 1997/98 event, which visted devasting havoc on our economy infrastructure, health and livelihoods.
Science shows that there is an unequivocal link between carbon dioxide emissions from utilization of fossil fuels and dangerous global warming. But skeptics exist, including US presidential hopeful Donald Trump or Nobel Laureate Ivar Giaever who believes that global warming is a non problem, which will take care of itself if left alone.
There are also strong advocates for why we need to cut back on carbon pollution. Pope Francis in his 2015 Encyclical warned that addiction to fossil fuels and compulsive materialism was pushing the planet to a perilous breaking point. According to the Pope, humanity faces ruin without a revolution in our hearts and minds. According to US President Barak Obama, climate change is not some future threat to our children or grandchildren, it is a reality we are experiencing today. Hence the time to act is now. Obama argues that carbon dioxide, like chemical wastes such as mercury, arsenc and sulphur must be regulated.
This November, the world will converge in Paris at the 21st Conference of Parties of the  United Nations Framework Convetion on Climate Change. I am not holding my breath for a global deal. But I think we all have a moral obligation as citizens of the world to act responsibly and preserve the planet for future generations. COP 21 must be about what individual nations and communities can do curb carbon pollution. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, we must undergo a radical revolution of values.
We must shift from a society hypnotized by big business and profits built on profilgate consumption of carbon to a people-centered society. Now is the time to begin to end our dangerous addiction to fossil fuels and put our economies on solid path of responsible growth powered by renewable clean energy.

Monday, August 17, 2015

It is time scrap KCPE

Our education system is beholden to high stakes standardized national examinations, which demands unthinking regurgitation and diminishes critical thinking and analytical reasoning.

A majority of the students who excel in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya certificate of Secondary Education (KSCE) are skillful at what to think, not how to think. This is consistent with the dominant colonial logic of producing the ideal African minion, subservient to settler authority. Africans were to do as told, not to think.

Our education system does best what it is designed to do; produce huge numbers of unsophisticated literate citizens. However, what continues to baffle me is that the colonial desire to produce an unthinking, subservient underclass was not any different from what the African elite, the heirs to the colonists, imagined of the post-colonial society. Successive governments have demanded unquestioning allegiance, total dependence on the benevolence of the state and mindless convergence around a flawed vision of society as authored by the political class. This explains why this rather problematic way we educate our children has been very durable.

I have argued in this column many times that the high stakes national exams is based on a curriculum and approach of pedagogy that demands nothing of the capacity of our children to think or imagine or play or reason or create or innovate. From the first day they show up in school thinking is outlawed; our children are taught to accept everything, without question, on the authority of the teacher and the content of the curriculum.
Our schools have become grade factories. Tyrannized by parents and school head teachers who demand high mean grades, teachers have little time to stimulate and engage the boundless capacity of children to play, wonder and co-create knowledge.

The high stakes standardized national examinations have also served another purpose; a basis for allocating scarce resources of secondary and tertiary education. It is shameful that a majority of the best-resourced schools are the so-called national schools that were built by the colonial administration. It is unconscionable that over half a century after independence, our children still do not have equitable access to high quality secondary schools.

I am heartened that the debate on whether to abolish or keep high stakes national examinations is back on the table. In my view we must abolish KCPE over the next 2 -5 years, and with it, the colonial relic of elite national schools. We must level the playing field in education, ramp up investments in education and empower counties to manage education resources. The national government and the county governments must work out a model of conditional transfer of education grants, based on enrollment, retention, completion and student achievement. Moreover, we must define minimum standards for our schools – physical facilities, teacher-student ratio, and learning materials­ – that define a school anywhere in the republic of Kenya.

We teach our children too much stuff at the expense of developing critical capacity in key areas of knowledge, skills and attitudes. It is time to pare down the primary school curriculum and scrap KCPE. We must define a small set of core competences in reading, writing, math, teamwork, critical thinking and analytical reasoning, against which teachers, parents and students are held accountable to. Transition from primary to high school should be based on progressive, multiple and dynamic assessments on achievement on the core competences done at the school level, by students and teachers, and not a national examining body.

In a competitive globalized knowledge economy, a high school education must be the birthright of every Kenyan child. Every child must be guaranteed the inalienable right to high quality education in any school, public or private. We must define basic education as 12 years of school, from grade 1 to grade 12, in addition to pre-school years. Transition to high school must not be based on meaningless high stakes exams. Such a system only serves to exacerbate inequality and undermines shared economic progress.

Half a century of an education system that stifles thinking is enough. It is time to end the exam-centric system of education, which undervalues critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and knowledge application, but privileges mindless regurgitation of undigested facts.

Kenya needs not unthinking technicians and minions. To be relevant and competitive in the 21st century, Kenya needs to nurture a new generation of thoughtful, creative and innovative knowledge workers.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Reason and free debate are the life-blood of innovation and democracy

US President Barack Obama characterized Kenya as a country on the move. This is evidenced by unprecedented expansion of the middle class and the associated consumer culture that it begets; malls, fancy neighborhoods and traffic gridlock.

However, there are two other ways to characterize our society. We can be silent, dreadfully and ominously silent. We can also be noisy, annoyingly bellicose, irreverent and arbitrary. Kenyans are capable of deafening silence and hollow loudness on critical national issues. It is possible that the path of logic, reason and free debate in the public square is narrow path and not many of us find it.

In The Republic Plato writes, “A ship's crew which does not understand that the art of navigation demands knowledge of the stars will stigmatize a properly qualified pilot as a star-gazing idiot, and will prevent him from navigating”. These words, written circa 380 BC, ring so true in our society. In my view, we are in the era of a dominant national culture, which scorns logic, reason and free debate and it manifests as deafening silence and or thoughtless loudness.

The public square is comatose. Both TV and radio talk shows trawl this land for the least enlightened, most provincial talking heads. The universe of Twitter and Facebook is dense with narrow tribal zealots and ethnic lynch mobs. A majority of so-called columnists in mainstream print media are revolting in their partisanship. Columnists who write about politics and policy abhor objective, reasoned commentary. The National Assembly; Senate and Parliament offer little inspiration and only reaffirm what is a full-blown assault on reason, logic and evidence in decision-making and governance.

It is no wonder that consequential public policy choices such as what technology is appropriate in our classrooms, the new law on public benefit organizations, priority infrastructure investments and models for countering violent extremism have elicited little enlightened public debate and logical or reasoned reflection. The economic growth and development narrative now seems to subjugate and undermine the legitimacy honest, logical and thoughtful questioning of public policy decisions. We have become hypnotized by the doctrine of “Maendeleo chap, chap” or development now.

Our exam-centric education system might explain what in my view is a dominant culture of abhorrence of reason and intolerance for debate and evidence. Our school system, from primary school to postgraduate level inculcates blind obedience and unquestioning subservience to the authority of the teacher or professor. And I do not encourage disobedience by student to the professor or the teacher. What I mean here is the inability of students to engage with the subject matter, formulate and argue their own points of view.

What is lacking in our school system is a tradition of critical thinking and analytical reasoning. Our children, and later as adults, do not have the capacity to evaluate arguments and evidence. As young adults, and later as leaders, they take offence at honest and fair challenge to their views and believe disagreement is a sign of bad faith and plainly disrespectful. This might explain why we are such a violent society. This might explain why for instance the disputed outcome of the 2007 elections sparked an orgy of shameful ethnic cleansing.

We have become a rather parochial society, where single-minded men and women of one inclination or another are the undisputed dominant voice. Ordinary citizens, the so-called intellectuals and the political class talk at each other, rather than with each other. I believe like Karl Popper that truth or evidence is not manifest, but extremely elusive. Hence society need above all things, open-mindedness, imagination, and a constant willingness to debate and reason together. Moreover, a commitment to vibrant and varied culture of free thought and open thoughtful public debate is critical to civility, enterprise, innovation and democracy. We must guard against the culture of anti-intellectualism and demand nothing but fidelity to reason and evidence from intellectuals who occupy the public square.

As the Bible says in the book of Isaiah, “come now let us reason together”, all Kenyans; young and old, men and women, rich and poor, gay and straight, Christian or Muslim or Hindu, all 42 tribes.

Now is the time to deploy the power of collective thought and reason to confront our most urgent challenges, including deep and worsening ethnic division, a ponderous constitution, unbridled corruption, unemployment, mediocre public education, poverty and rising inequality.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Africa’s economic growth must translate into employment for youth

That  Africa is on the rise, as measured by GDP, is irrefutable. However, despited nearly two decades of solid GDP growth, Africa’s economoies are creating too few jobs.

Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania are among Africa’s fastest growing economies, which have been least successful in converting impressive GDP growth into employment. A recent survey shows that unemployment among young people aged between 18-35 is over 50 percent.

The International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Global Employment Trends ,which was published in 2014 provides a basis for re-examining the Africa rising narrative. The ILO report shows that at 77.4 percent, Africa has the highest rate of vulnerable employment. Typically these include unpaid family workers; farmers and petty traders.

The kind of growth that has been witnessed in Africa in the past two decades is often associated with fundamental structural transformation. This typically includes rising productivity per capita, attributed to a transition from agriculture to manufacturing.  Africa’s growth story and structural transformation has defied this classical path.

Manufacturing as a share of GDP has declined in Africa’s fastest growing economies and the proportion of workers in manufacturing is woefully low. The fact is that Africa has de-industrialized. This is dramitacially different from the Asia growth story where millions of workers have moved from agricultre owing to rapid the expansion of the manufactureing sector.

What is happening here in Kenya? A large number of Kenyans are either moving out of rural areas or depend on off-farm work for their livelihoods. The rate of urbanization is unprecedented. Cities, medium and small towns and market centres are bursting at the seams. This trend is unstoppable.

Kenya’s productivity transformation is characterized by low skilled workers migrating to urban spaces and getting trapped in low-productivity jobs. Millions of Kenyans, especially youth, are moving into low productivity and low paying jobs in the service sector as motorbike taxi riders, petty traders, security guards, unskilled construction workers, touts, food vendors, domestic servants (e.g., maids, cooks, drivers), hawkers etc.

The situation is not any different in Burundi or Rwanda or Uganda or Tanzania. These new urban workers are often just marginally more productive than smallholder subsistence farmers.  What we see is a vicious low productivity, low wage-employment trap.

Morever, the average share of manufacturing as in GDP in most African countries is about 10 percent, unchanged from the 1970s. The out put per worker in the manufacturing sector in more countries with more sophisticated manufacturing sector such as South Africa and Egypt is estimated to be six times larger than for an agricultural worker.

The median age in the East African Community is estimated as 19 years. About 65 oercent of the population is below the age of 25. This is especially worrying given that the population of Burundi, Uganda and Tanzainia will more than double by 2100. Impressive GDP growth without well-paying jobs for a majority of Africa’s youthful population must worry politicians and policymakers to death. Kenya and the  rest of Africa needs economic transformation, and it is needed urgently.

The solutions that will be needed are both long-term and complex in nature. We must begin to undermine the factors that pre-ordain African children to fail. A majority of African children fail before they are born because their mothers lack nutritious diets during pregnancy. African children fail because  they are chronically malnourished in the first 1000 days of their lives. This leads invariably to staunting.

A majority of African children fail because when they show up in school they are both too hungry and cognitively impaired to learn. Even when they are ready to learn public schools are under-resourced. Moreover, African children fail because the school has been turned into a grade factory and fails to enagage their eager and creative minds.

A majority of African children fail because we have not invested in skill building, preparing school leavers at all levels for the world of work. We have failed to invest in vocational education. Moreover, employers think more than 50 percent of graduates from our universities are not employable.  

A majority of African youth are trapped in low productivity and low paying jobs because policy makers lack the imagination to stimulate the manufacturing sector through innovative policy and financial incentives that integrate infrastructure, agriculture and services.

Unattended, unemployment and low productivity could torpedo the Africa rising story. Time is not on our side.


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