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Thursday, December 28, 2017

The future of urban food is fragile

Our common future is urban. About 40 percent of Africans live in urban spaces. This proportion is set to soar to 50 percent by 2035. Expanding at an estimated rate of 4.2 percent, the rate of urbanization now outstrips Kenya’s annual population growth by about 62 percent.

By 2050, 1.3 billion of Africa’s estimated 2.4 billion people will be urban. Urban areas could be Africa’s growth engine and driver of prosperity. It is estimated that Africa’s cities account for over 55 percent of gross domestic product. Hence, Africa’s battle for sustainable and equitable prosperity will be won or lost in cities.

But African cities are already facing significant challenges with regard to provision of decent basic services such as housing, health, education, water and sanitation. The unprecedented rural-to-urban migration over the last two decades has touched off a vigorous proliferation of slums in most African cities.

In 2015, the World cautioned that Kampala could become a mega slum in just 10 yeas unless appropriate action was taken to improve planning and the quality of infrastructure and commercial investment. Moreover, an estimated 61 percent of Nairobi’s population lives in informal, unplanned settlements.

While squalid living, characterized by poor housing, inadequate water and sanitation services, insecurity, rising inequality remain critical and growing challenges, there is another looming crisis that stalks Africa’s unprecedented urban growth. It is the food crisis.

A study by the Africa Population Health Research Centre revealed that up to 50% of urban households faced severe food insecurity. Similarly a study on the prevalence and depth of hunger in Nairobi conducted in 2011 by Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development showed that 44% of households in Nairobi were under nourished with 20% being ultra-hungry.

A new study by the East Africa Institute of the Aga Khan University shows that Nairobi households spend a whooping 28 percent of their income on basic, staple food – maize, wheat products, milk, cooking oil and vegetables. The proportion of spending on food is higher than what households spend on housing, education and healthcare combined.

The study also reveals that Nairobi’s food supply system is in the hands of self-organized, informal actors who control all of the 18 major wet food markets. These informal actors perceive the County’s market and trade officials as extortionist, motivated by corruption and rent seeking. The markets are temporary, squalid and insanitary, lacking water and sanitation, garbage is seldom collected and they lack decent drainage.

The study estimates Nairobi’s average food sourcing distance at 149 km. With the exception of vegetables and fruits sold in upmarket grocery stores like Zucchini and Fresh and Field Fresh Vegetable, the food sources are not traceable.

Climate change, land fragmentation, rural-to-urban migration, urban sprawl will accelerate the decline in agricultural productivity, and exacerbate the urban food crisis. Just like we grapple with the challenges of housing, public transit, water and sanitation, we must direct our planning and investment energies to ensure equitable access to safe, nutritious and affordable food, from resilient sources.

We must invest more in research and innovation

On September 30th, this past Saturday, I attended the inaugural Annual Early-Career Health Researchers’ Symposium. The Faculty of Health Sciences of Aga Khan University organized the Symposium. 

Sixteen great research papers were presented and I was one of the judges. The topics ranged from nurses knowledge and practices on catheter associated urinary tract infections to female sexual dysfunction and fertility to improving facility-based quality of care during childbirth through clinical mentorship to drug discovery. The quality of research and the youthful exuberance of the researchers were impressive.

After an exhausting and inspiring day, I thought about of good research. I thought about the power of good research to drive the advancement of quality of life, as well spur socio-economic development. Think about what a dense research ecosystem, teeming with research active faculty, students and industry, working in collaboration could do for this country and the continent.

I am talking about research across multiple disciplines, and bringing together collaborators from university, research institutions and industry. And, working from diverse fields as literature and the arts; music and dance; pharmacogenomics; politics, law and government; journalism; plant genetics, agriculture, nutrition and urbanization; biodiversity environment, economics, anthropology and culture; geography, history and engineering

Our problems are man made and must be solved by world-class, research-led innovation. But the scale of our problems outstrips by far the output of relevant research on the continent. Africa produces just 1% of global research. In the grand scheme of things, this is pretty depressing.

However, according to the World Bank there is hope. Africa’s research output has doubled in the last decade. Most of Africa’s research focuses on agriculture, and health sciences. But sorely missing from the tally is research in the physical sciences, technology and engineering. This should worry institutions like the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation as well as the Vision 2030 Delivery Secretariat. 

While scientific productivity is on the surge we still have a long way to go. A ranking by Google Scholar Citations reveals that the top 100 scientists from Kenya’s institutions, together, have 77,635 citations, a measure the importance and quality of their research. To put this into perspective, the late US social scientist and Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon has over 307,000 citations.

Our research output is not great. All of us together, public and private academic and research institutions must step up investment and productivity in research. This will require public sector leadership in identifying key questions and priorities for research and innovation.

Such investment must include funding for graduate and postgraduate researchers. To achieve excellence in life sciences, technology and engineering, we must mobilize both public and private resources to build world-class research infrastructure, especially laboratories, science and technology parks. As exemplified through the Early-Career Health Researchers’ Symposium, we must invest in nurturing a new generation of research leaders.

Moreover, we must meet our development challenges by supporting innovation and the transformation through research excellence. This will also create new jobs, innovative businesses for millions.

Is free day secondary education another experiment with our children?

The government has allocated Sh. 25 billion to fund a signature campaign pledge; free day secondary education starting January 2018. This is perhaps the strongest demonstration by the government that a high school education must become a birthright to every Kenyan child.

Ordinarily, this would be absolutely laudable, eliciting universal praise across the land. But the wider society and education professionals have not received the announcement with celebration or praise. Many are disappointed that the policy minders both in the Ministries of Education and Finance have allowed themselves to be wagged by politicians. They have failed to demonstrate professional grit buttressed by evidence.

The evidence shows that the introduction of free primary education has been associated with over enrollment and a disastrous teacher pupil ratio. Some public schools are hovels; lacking walls, desks, toilets and water. Moreover standards in numeracy and literacy in public schools have collapsed. Studies show that only 3 out 10 children in standard 3 can read and add at the level required in standard 2.

While enrollment rates in standard one have shot up in some counties, both retention and completion have been atrocious with just about 70 percent of every standard one cohort completing standard 8. This is disconcerting and complicates the path to 100 percent transition to secondary school for every standard one cohort.

What have we learned in the course of implementing free primary education? Can we make free day secondary education work? Keep in mind that day secondary schools are where the children who barely made it in KCPE go. Also keep in mind that these children come from poor families who mostly are rural farmers/pastoralist or employed in the informal sector in small towns and cities across the country.

We also must not forget that a majority these students barely made it in KCPE. Admission into public secondary schools is merit based and most public day secondary schools are at the bottom of the barrel. Ideally such students need great teachers, excellent facilities, and literally all the support they can get to succeed in high school.

Will the noble intentions of free day secondary education falter and fail under the weight of poor sloppy implementation? Have we learned any lessons from free primary education that continues to hemorrhage hard precious and scarce public funds? Is this another round of Russian roulette with the future of Kenya’s less privileged children?

I suggest that our experience with government-funded education has not been great. In fact it has failed. I would suggest that we try something different this time. How about conditional grant transfers to public schools to incentivize teaching excellence, retention and completion rates?

Are we committed to preparing our children for a brutally competitive knowledge-based economy? Not any quality of education will do. We must invest in teacher training; pay teachers well and hold them accountable. We must invest school infrastructure and eliminate the boarding school bias and ensure that 100 percent transition is buttressed by measureable competence at every transition grade.

Who asks a more beautiful question?

A poll conducted by Harvard Business Review up to 80 percent of 200 clients revealed that interactions with their children comprised of questions. However, only 15-25 percent of adult interactions comprised of questions.

This is hardly surprising. We are rewarded for finding answers, not for asking questions. Think about your early days in school. The answer is king. Questions are invite scorn. At the work place, asking questions could get one into trouble with colleagues or even the boss.

Does society abhor questions? The great American poet E.E. Cummings wrote;  “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question”. At the heart of human progress is an indomitable, insatiable quest to know. The arc of questioning stretches from the primordial simple desire to know the what, to the more complex plane of why and how.

Questions are essentially the tools we deploy to build tunnels into the minefields of hitherto unknown truths or construct the scaffolding to scale the heights of new knowledge. Questions are searchlights that refine our vision, and clarify where else we need to go.

Asking questions is fading fast as way of relating to our world. The industrial age and the structures of familial, corporate, religious and state authority have generally not encouraged questions. Mass education; from primary to tertiary level is built upon rote learning and unquestioning acceptance of facts delivered through a prescribed syllabus.

Sadly the primary purpose of education is not to produce skeptical, questioning and thinking citizens. The high purpose of education in the neoliberal world order is to produce workers, people with skills. The school is a veritable skill factory.

Capacity to think and ask questions is now a place of high privilege, which most citizens cannot of the culture and attitude of asking questions is occurring at a period in human history that demands that we deal with change and find novel ways of understanding and acting in the world.

The scale and speed of change demand that we learn and unlearn fast. Navigating complexity change and uncertainty while responding new opportunities through creativity and innovation is not going to be possible if we stay on the path of passive, compliant and unquestioning engagement with a dynamic world.

The uncertain future must be confronted and conquered through bold questions and audacious experiments. Our socialization and especially how we educate our children; from kindergarten to graduate school must reinstate the question as the core engine of learning. Learning must be a search or pursuit through questions.

Education must be a search or pursuit through powered by questions. Education must put a premium on how precisely learners can express their ignorance. Education must be quest to define through questions that which we know not. Education and ultimately our adaptive fitness as a species will depend on the ingenuity of questions.

Our quest for nationhood will be better served by voters who ask politicians questions so they are less likely to fall prey of demagogues and despicable ethnic zealots.

We owe ourselves a pollution free planet

In the age we live in, now called the Anthropocene, mankind’s impact on our fragile planet has been as consequential as natural catastrophes – volcanoes, hurricanes and even Tsunamis. We are now the most virulent biological agent on the universe.

For far too long we have been led to believe that economic growth and prosperity are only attainable through rapacious harvesting and plunder of the planet’s resources. We have fouled the air and damaged our soils. Our forests have been decimated. Our oceans are trawled relentlessly for food and treasure. Thanks to our energy systems, the planet is warming up inexorably. 

It might seem like we have a suicide pact as a species. We are all hurtling down the path of irreversible disaster. Committed action to forestall dangerous global warning is not forthcoming. Somehow we are convinced that reigning in our fossil fuel and carbon addiction will leave us poorer. Nothing could be more delusional. Somehow we believe killing ourselves into prosperity is cool.

Here is why. According to the World Health Organization 23 percent of all deaths – estimated at 12.6 million people in 2012 – are due to environmental causes. Children in low and middle-income countries bear the biggest burden of environment-related morbidity and mortality. This is certainly not a great outcome in the pursuit of growth and prosperity.

The report  “Towards a pollution free planet” submitted the Executive Director of UNEP at the just concluded United Nations Environment Assembly is depressing. According to the report, 4.3 million people die annually owing to indoor air pollution. About 3 billion people, that include all Kenyans, do not have access to controlled waste disposal facilities. Lower respiratory infections owing to household or ambient air pollution causes 52 million years of life lost or lived with disability annually.

What is most disconcerting is that many of the harmful effects of chemical pollutants are not fully known; these include the hormonal disruptors and neurological impacts related to human development as well as the effects on biodiversity and ecosystem level processes.

Deforestation and poor land use management, as well domestic and industrial waste is killing inland lakes and rivers in Africa. For instance, Lake Victoria is eutrophic, fertile and chocking with invasive plant species. As consequence of dramatic changes in water quality and the introduction of the Nile Perch, the lake’s native fish species are at risk of extinction. 

The United Nations Environment Assembly, which just ended here in Nairobi, passed 13 non-binding resolutions. Among these were protect water-based ecosystems from pollution, remove lead poisoning from paint and batteries, prevent and reduce air pollution, and address marine litter and microplatics.

According to a recent report by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission combating pollution makes business sense. Business opportunities arising from reducing waste, recovery and recycling of materials could be worth $12trillion globally.

A cleaner and healthier planet is good for the business bottom-line, for people and for the planet. We must find the courage to act now and save ourselves.


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