Ecologically Nothing Ever Really Dies

EcoLogically Nothing Ever Really Dies, Only transformed from one useful form to another...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Adapting to climate change in southern Africa, in policy brief

Here is a brief I have written on why we need to adapt our food crop farming systems to climate change in southern Africa.

The main points are:

1. It is clear that crops in southern Africa will be negatively affected by climate change
2. The impacts will be more severe as with time. Yields are predicted to decline by 18% in the 2050s and 30% by 2100.
3. Adaptation is vital if we are to protect food crop production and preserve/promote food security in the region.

Suggested policy measures include:

1. Policy makers should engage more with climate scientists, social and economic knowledge.
2. Policies should increase the resilience and reduce the vulnerability of crop production systems and exploit opportunities that may arise from climate change.

The brief can be accessed here:

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

No band aid solutions for food insecurity in Africa.

Africa is still the poster child of hunger and malnutrition on the planet. In fact, Africa is still the poster child of a lot of ills of the world actually. Here is a thought experiment. Humour me. Close your eyes and think of Africa. Allow random images of the continent to cross your mind uninterrupted. Go on, stop reading for 10 seconds and do it. Done? Now give yourself a high-five if those images didnt include a starving child (most likely with a distended stomach, and a couple of flies buzzing around). Another high-five if you didn't see disease and death (HIV and Ebola, if you have a flair for the dramatic). Yet another if those images didn't include war and rape. These are the images that are flighted to represent Africa all around. Unfortunate as it is, thats how it is.

Recently, I have been following a debate on the Band Aid song by a guy called Bob Geldof. He is supposed to have been famous at some time in recent history. I confess I only got to know about him through this controversy. Any way, this here guy wrote a song as part of his anti-poverty efforts in Africa called “do they know its Christmas” back in 1984 and got some popular musicians of that time to sing it to raise money. A remake of it has been done recently in response to the Ebola situation in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. It has some catchy albeit ridiculous lyrics that echo those unfortunate images of Africa. See video below and keep an ear out for these lyrics;

There's a world outside your window,
And it's a world of dread and fear,
Where the only water flowing,
Is the bitter sting of tears,
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom,
Well tonight were reaching out and touching you,
And bring peace to Africa,
Where nothing ever grows,
No rain nor rivers flow,

I have no interest in the lyrics myself, they do not surprise me. I suppose they serve the intends of a song writer's dramatic effect by following the widely held African gloom and doom narrative. Anyway, enough people have challenged Geldof and his ever changing “band of aid” over this. My trigger comes not from the lyrics (although i am certainly not a fan) but rather from a compulsive need to understand the food security challenges in Africa that lead to such songs being written.

Africa has the majority (27%) of the world's undernourished 800 million people because the food systems on the continent are failing to sustain adequate food (quantity and quality) for all on the continent. How did we get here? Here is one of the multitude of reasons why. Lets start with the 1980s, the time period that Geldof and his merry band of “salvation” sang their song. This was a time when the continent was indeed hit by a number of droughts (maybe thats where they were getting the illusion of “nothing ever grows”). In the 1980s, a shift in food systems and agricultural policies occurred. This shift was towards liberal food systems anchored on international trade with restrictions on protectionism. The shift was a response to a reactive ideology on food security brought about by the world food crisis of the early 70s. After the world food conference of 1974, food security was premised on stabilising world food supply and prices and not necessarily on local food self sufficiency. The results of these ideological changes were policies that supported a system of global trade and control of food systems. Food shifted from primarily a source of nutrition as it should be, to a commodity of trade foremost.

If African countries were to be competitive under this new regime of global policy, they needed support. This made sense at the time because we had a continent that either had newly minted countries or countries still fighting wars of liberation from colonisation. As such these countries were not stable enough to be globally competitive, had poor infrastructure and a weak hold on the exploitation of their natural resource base. In comes aid. Yes Mr. Geldof, aid (something you should know a lot about...insert sad poverty song here...). The aid was conditional on commitments to Structural Adjustment Programmmes (SAPs) that demanded that African countries liberalise their agricultural system among other economic activities. This exposed a weakly anchored continent to well established European and American agriculture and economies. From this time, large scale private owned production systems became the drivers of agricultural contribution to food and economic growth through export and agro- industry centered agriculture. Although this ensured an increase in private capital into the food sector, expansion of food choices available to consumers, boosting global food supply, it disenfranchised the poor in Africa by marginalising small scale family farmers. During this period (1980-2000), growth per capita of food production in Africa only grew by 2%, compared to 11% post 2000 and the import-export ratio of agricultural in Africa rose to 1.38 compared to 0.34 in 1961.

So Mr. Geldof, before you write another sad African “salvation” song, you need to realise that aid is not the answer to a lasting solution to Africa's food insecurity challenge. Aid, especially your kind of reactive aid offers only a “band aid” temporary reprieve. Structural Adjustments are part of the problem and structural transformation will form part of the solution. Certainly not the structural changes suggested in the 1980s when you wrote and asked your  friends to sing about dry rivers and stinging tears. Try songs about getting a fair deal for African produce on the international market. Better yet, songs about the rights of Africans to socially and culturally appropriate foods. While you are at it, write songs about the rights to protect local African farmers from the dumping of heavily subsidised foreign agricultural produce. Craft hooks around responsible investments and putting a stop to widespread corporate land grabs on the continent. If this sounds boring and lacking a dramatic “dread and fear” angle, thats because it is. But this is partly what Africa needs, not sad or alarmist kumbaya lyrics on pull-at-your-heart-strings backdrop music.

Most importantly, Africa doesn't really need a “savour band”. A shift is occurring. There is widespread understanding of the harm of aid and its accompanying conditionalities. There is a solid appreciation of the harm of neo-liberal policies on agriculture and food security on the African continent. From the early 2000s, agriculture and food systems in Africa have begun to change to ideas that support the right of local populations to determine the kinds of food they farm and consume, superceeding global food demand pressures. Focus is shifting towards household and individual entitlements, something that was largely ignored by the trade and agro-industry centred neo-liberal trade ideas. A shift towards the implementation of this self sufficiency ideology, is underway, something that was planned for but difficult to achieve during the pre-1980 period. African agriculture requires investments that do not undermine these rights and ideas, appropriate technology transfers and innovations, a wholesome science led structural transformation. If we must sing (I do hope we dont have to), and we are sure that the songs that have been sung so far arent working (given we are singing the exact same song 30 years in, albeit for a different cause), why not change to a new tune. A tune that will rally support for lasting food security and sovereignty solutions in Africa, not "band aid" responses.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Feeding a growing population in Africa: Playing Devils’ advocate

25 years of sustained research and the IPCC continues to state with ever increasing confidence that climate change is here and here to stay. The worry now (if at all you are worried) is not on whether climate change is occurring but rather on how to mitigate and/or adapt. If you live in a low income country in sub Saharan Africa and you like to eat, this climate change thing could certainly be of interest to you. Yields of food crops of all kinds (maize, sorghum, soya, groundnuts, wheat etc.) are expected to decline by up to 30 % as a result of climate change, as early as the 2030s in some placesjust in case you had it in mind to entertain “but I may just be dead and long gone by then” ideas. As for the urban folk, before you decide this isn’t your concern at all, bear in mind that you may end up having to part with a larger chunk of your ever shrinking (what with increasing fuel prices and all) pay checks as food prices rise sharply, driven by shortages. 

 Populations in low income countries in SSA are expected to double in the 21st century. Land for producing food is not going to increase (even if it could, that would be ill advised, given that land clearance for agriculture contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs)). Degraded soils are not expected to improve. In short, food producers in the poorest region of the world are expected to feed doubling populations with the same increasingly shrinking and degraded lands under uncertain future climates. That’s quite an ask.

As if the task wasn’t hard enough, it is the most vulnerable food producers from which these regions look to provide future food supplies, small holder farmers. Small holder farmers provide food and livelihoods to a large proportion of Africa’s population, 70% of the population These farmers have performed this task with varying degrees of success with limited technologies and poor infrastructure, under poor service provision and harsh policy environments. On average, crop yields in Africa have been stagnant for decades (see figure for maize yields below). Clearly the prospects for future food supply with the added challenge of a changing climate could easily be percieved as unpromising.
In 1960, maize yields in Africa and Asia were the same. Over the years, with adoption of improved technologies (fertiliser, varieties, cultivation methods etc), maize yields in Asia have increased to 4.5 tons/ha while yields in Africa have on average remained constant.

The cynical among us would probably be thinking “oh well it seems this agriculture thing is quite hopeless, why not engage in some other forms of livelihood activities apart from agriculture?” As it turns out, gross domestic product (GDP) growth from agriculture is almost 3 times more effective in reducing poverty than growth from any other sectors of the economy. Furthermore, agriculture contributes up to 30 % to GDP in many countries in Africa, such that neglect of the agricultural sector could have significant negative impacts on economies in Africa and by extension will increase food insecurity and poverty levels. Sadly, or not (depends who is saying) we are stuck with agriculture if we entertain any hopes of lifting large populations in Africa out of poverty. How do you go about lifting large proportions of a population out of poverty via agriculture with unfriendly future prospects?

Green revolution? The green revolution through scientific breakthroughs and improved access to vital inputs greatly improved agricultural production in Asia. It didn’t pick up in Africa then (1960s) and five decades later its still pretty much a non-event on the continent, baring islands of success. Some would say that boat has long since sailed and Africa is standing on the dock unsuccessfully trying to call it back due social, political and economic constraints. World Food Prize winner Gebisa Ejeta writing in “African Green Revolution Needn’t Be a Mirage” figures it is still achievable. Ray of light?

Production system overhaul? Some suggest some sort of an overhaul of the current food production system or at least the use of “radical methods” such as molecular techniques, saline water farming systems etc. as a solution to improving agricultural production. Researchers and development organisations are already struggling to get African farmers to adopt “simple and cheap” well tested strategies (Conservation Agriculture anyone?). Maybe, let’s start there before we get ahead of ourselves with the out-of-the-box ideas? Some wise guy once said, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Could modernising and scaling up already existing “simple” local innovations do the job better?

Investment and Commercialisation? Regularly it has been suggested that if we could make small holder farmers move from semi-subsistence to the more profitable commercial production systems, a large chunk of the ills of a small holder dependent food system will be cured. How do you go on to invest in a production system that is so prone to climate variability and change among other challenges? Do I hear irrigation and insurance systems? Well, all is well and good with small holder irrigation and insurance until you realise that for a future we are uncertain about, large inflexible investments may not be prudent especially when you consider that small holder farmers seldom own collateral or the land that they draw their livelihood from. There is also the volatile global food market and cheap higher quality heavily subsidised European agricultural product to consider as well. If you were a money man, would you be making this sort of investment? 

After all is said and done, small holder productivity is not the end and all of African future food supply woes. We still have post production hick ups to deal with (post harvest storage, transportation, markets, policy etc.), conflict (war and instability), corporate land grabs, corruption, diseases…I could go on and on. Whatever direction the continent ends up taking to promote food security, what is quite apparent so far is that if you live in sub Saharan Africa, a great part of your future food depends on a production system that has historically not performed too well, is the most prone to environmental (climate change and variability), social, political and economic pressure and the least capable to cope and adapt. Some prospects eh? Cynicism aside...there are a multitude of examples that demonstrate the potential and ability of the continent to meet its food security needs in the present and the future, talk Malawi and Ethiopia. How can these shining examples be used to shine light for a better more promising future for food on the continent?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Climate change threatens future crop yields in southern Africa

I have come across a lot of studies dedicated to understanding how climate change can affect crops and food security. What has always caught my eye is the varied results that come from these studies. The suggested impacts vary significantly from one region, country, district and community to the other in such a way that it is difficult to say for sure what the impacts would be. How much are crop yields going to be affected? Where is the highest impacts going to be? what crops are most at risk etc. These are questions that these different studies couldn't satisfy me on. Yet, these studies remain the most solid and authoritative works on climate change, agriculture and food security and therefore the go-to for policy makers, development agencies and governments etc for insight into possible avenues for action to adapt to climate change. What appeared to be a lack of coherence and consistence in these different studies would surely discourage action, i thought. If one study said maize yields would decline significantly yet another says maize yields could increase, that to me simply screamed "We aren't sure what we are talking about, so maybe you [farmer, policy guy, development agency etc.] should just wait and see." These end users of scientific research would be forgiven for thinking "These guys [scientists] need to make up their minds" and sitting on their hands.

Uncertainty about how the impacts of climate change on agriculture and food security will unfold is daily bread for scientists. They spend entire careers advancing our understanding of what we dont know about these impacts as a way of being more sure about what we know. However, this may not be of interest to end users who may simply view this as a sign that the science is not yet solid enough to encourage action. This as i found out in a recent study is not the case. There is a strong enough message coming from climate change impact studies on crop production to warrant action. 

I carried out a review study with collegues Olivier Crespo and Sepo Hachigonta which was published in the Global and Planetary Change Journal and summarised in a policy brief. The study focused on southern Africa, my home region. Multiple reports have alluded to the fact that this is one of the most vulnerable agricultural regions regions in the world owing to low adaptation capacity, low incomes, high dependence on natural resources and climate dependent agriculture. We sought to investigate this assertion by reviewing multiple studies carried out over the region and drawing an overall picture of what the studies said about the impacts of climate change on crop production in the region.

Map of southern Africa
The message was quite clear. Climate change threatens crop yields in the region. Most important food crops in the region where studied including maize, sorghum, groundnuts, millet, beans and wheat. The most studies crop being maize, the staple crop of the region. The study clearly showed that maize yields would likely decline by up to 18 % by the end of the 21st century. Given the importance of maize in southern Africa, this suggests that food security in the region is under threat from climate change and therefore action towards adaptation is warranted. This is especially so for smallholder farmers that are the most vulnerable to climate induced crop failures. The study also showed that the severity of climate change impacts on crop yields are likely to increase as we move further into the 21st century. climate change impact on crop yields for the early 21st century (up to 2039) was uncertain, on average showing no change in crop yields. Further into the mid century (2050s), crop yields were projected to decline by up to 18 % and even further decline by up to 30 % towards the end of the 21st century. 

While uncertainty remains and is clearly highlighted in the study, a consistent message was obtained when studies were viewed as a whole, which suggests crop yields in the region will likely suffer from a changing climate and therefore there is need for adaptive action in southern Africa, especially for vulnerable farming groups like rain dependent smallholder farmers. What remains unclear however is the impact of climate change on crops at the at the local level. The region is too big to make generalisation and therefore further research for particular locations and crops is necessary especially if we are to target smallholder farmers for adaptation. Given this backdrop, a wait and see attitude is not defensible.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Empowering smallholder farmers in Africa out of Poverty

I came across this Video on Youtube recently. It pretty much sums up my thoughts on loosening the clutch of poverty in rural smallholder farming communities in Africa. I like how roger thurow, author of the book The last hunger season considers the term "hungry farmers" an oxymoron. A hungry subsistence farmer, what could be more absurd? Most importanly i respect the approach to his message. It is a more people based approach, contrary to the usual data and global statistics approach which isnt supported by impactful action. This obssession with stats mostly allows the few success stories to fall through the gaps and remain undocumented or just simply lumped up with the broader perspective. Farmers who are turning their lives around amidst significant challenges through scalable approaches and can be used as beacons of what may be and possibly adopted by other are usually broad brushed under "severely food insecure and undernourished communities." A lot of it as Roger puts it comes from a lack of respect for the ability and potential of smallholder farmers in the region to feed themselves, their communities and the continent as a whole. He even goes as far as encouraging investors to view smallholder farmers as worthy customers who arent "too poor, too remote, too insignificant" from whom good business could be made. The one acre fund was able to recongise that it is not handouts they need but the opportunity to prove their ability by mutually beneficial investment.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Doing away with the unfortunate African development narrative

I was reading recently about how globally poverty has been on the decline. It got me thinking...really! While this could be true once you bunch all corners of the world together, it couldn’t be more inaccurate the moment you unbundle poverty regionally.  50 years ago, the percentage of people that were living in poverty would have been more that for today. This could simply be because china and a lot of other highly populated Asian countries were in that bracket. The rapid growth of their economies in the recent past would have levelled those figures off, reducing the proportion of the world's population living below the poverty line ($1 a day). In Sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers of people living and being born into poverty have in fact been on the rise. The region has become less and less able to feed its people. The green revolution failed to take off, partly due to slow technology transfer and assimilation, poor human and institutional capacity development and perhaps a region not ready for a science-based development. Clearly the people of this region have a way of sustaining their livelihoods which is rooted in a particular tradition which is hard to uproot. In my mind, improving the lives of people in the region does not lie in disengaging this deep seated way of doing things but rather working with them and improving them where possible.  Yet the common narrative has always been that such ways are backward and counter-productive. Lets look at it differently for a minute.

Our measures of development have commonly been economic. The higher a country or region's income, the more developed it is. I have always shied away from this narrative because I think its inadequate. Sub-saharan Africa may be economically behind a lot of other regions, but it is developed in another sense. Take social safety nets for example (off the top of my head of course). In many parts of the region, there are strong social structures that allow a more equitable sharing of resources and wealth (since we are so in love with this narrative) than most other “developed'' regions. This social capital (there I go again) can be used positively to ease a region out of poverty. In a small village somewhere in Africa, a chief is responsible for collecting grain from well-to-do members of the society for redistribution to the less privileged in that community, the elderly, widows and orphans. Further to that, the extended family of these less privileged consider it their responsibility to take care of their poor. If this isn’t development, what is?  The African labour force is in my mind a very productive force. it is frequently presented as dwindling as a result of HIV/AIDS. Im thinking, these economically active people plough back most of their resources and earnings into their extended families and communities and less on hard drugs or exotic holidays (im being cynical of course...the point remains). Shouldn’t this be considered an asset to be taped into for developmental purposes? That same sense of responsibility and communal-ism has been known to prop-up failing economies through remittances from the diaspora. Imagine how much more could be done with the same mind-set on stable economies. If I had my way, the description of sub-Saharan Africa as “less developed” would be abandoned for the truer description, “low-income”. 

Maybe development initiatives for Africa should first focus on local solutions to local problems. These can be shown up for an assimilation of more “progressive” approaches as known in the common narrative. If local farmers are happy to share the few cattle they have for labour to allow each other to produce food for themselves and the extended community, how much more could be done with better technologies and the same mind-set. I say faster and far reaching development. Cutting out an over-reliance on external funds and aid to allow for the growth and spread of these most basic tenets of a strong social structure will allow an even more useful contribution of whatever external resources the continent has access to. No amount of external resources and support without local initiative and citizen inspired transformative involvement will suffice. It all starts with realising that there is value in the way the African system commonly operates and therefore trying to work with it to achieve the mostly adored “economic” standard of development. I talk of agriculture and poverty almost intricately because in the sub-Saharan African context, economies are strongly tied to an agriculture that is climate depended. The looming threat of climate change seems to suggest in my mind that the foundations of development in Africa need to be dug deep. In this sense, digging deep could mean simply entrenching further the positive constructs of the African system and using them as a basis for tackling a new challenge. In this could be the way for an African upward surge out of poverty into development, economic or otherwise. Not forgetting of course the plethora of challenges the continent is and has experienced that would hinder such progress. Today is a good day, I’m not interested in exploring the gloomy side of things.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Stop sweating the small stuff. Give climate change uncertainty a hug

I recently moved to a new place for a 6 month research fellowship. There is always that nervous pang you get whenever you are planning to go to a new place. Its more a mix of excitement and fear. Am i going to be comfortable there? Is it going to be anything like home? Even something as small as finding a new barber to do your hair just the way you like it can be quite a trip. We love our comfort zone and the uncertainty of the unknown is always unnerving. Yet, you move anyway and in no time you are enjoying the experience of discovering this new space and what it holds. More often than not, once you are over this initial hurdle of doubt, you realise that the adjustment is not as bad as you had initially imagined it.

This kind of reminds me of the challenge of inaction on the climate change issue. Most of the hurdles to concerted action and investment towards climate change mitigation and adaptation focuses on the uncertainty of the future. This is reasonable of course...i should know, given my own issues with location change. But uncertainty is a part of everyday life isnt it? We deal with it all the time. It hardly ever stops us from making the decisions that are needed and moving forward...unless you are a paranoid schizophrenic of course. Then you bury your head under the covers and whine about how difficult life is while entertaining "they are out to get me" theories swirling around in your head.

In my mind, we have hardly ever had as much information about the decisions we have to take in our lives as we do now on climate change. You would think that by now we would have already "moved," especially with  a scientific consensus! Maybe we just dont realise just how difficult such a thing as scientific consensus is. If you have ever followed debates at scientific conferences or the trail of comments in peer reviewed journals,  you would know that scientists are always at loggerheads. They hardly agree on cause and effect or solutions, if they do, they are in disagreement on methods.  Its more like these guys... see video.


Anyway, now scientists are in agreement (at least most of them...) and still a caution first approach prevails. Researchers Markowitz and Sharrif at the University of Oregon in Nature Climate Change, and in their post on the moral case of climate change think its partly because "Uncertainty breeds wishful thinking."..."Uncertainty about future outcomes generally increases self-oriented behaviour and optimistic thinking... uncertainty also promotes optimistic biases." In short, climate change uncertainty as reported by scientists is usually interpreted as "that doesnt look too bad" or "which is it? Those people (scientists) should make up their minds," thereby leading to inaction. We need to get over this hurdle one way or the other and act. Markowitz and Sharriff suggest packaging scientific evidence in a way that triggers moral concern. I bet even if scientists were convinced to go that way, it will be quite some time before they agree on how to do it.

Shouldnt we just embrace uncertainty and stop sweating the "small stuff"? Stop worrying weather #seewhatididthere? you will find a barber at your new place to do your hair right or not, especially if a group of knowledgable beauty experts agree that there will be enough barbers to choose from and that it is "highly likely" you will find one that suits you.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Addressing Climate change related food security challenges in Rural Africa

I came across this short documentary on youtube about climate change and how it affects smallholder rural farming communities in Zimbabwe. The documentary was done by Development Reality Institute. It looks at how local communites view climate change, what indegeneous knowledge they use to predict weather and to cope with it etc. In short it brings together what i feel are some of the important entry points to dealing with climate change related food security challenges at the smallholder scale in rural Africa.There are quite a number of interesting issues brought up especially where science meets indegenous knowledge. What i enjoy most is the positivity with which rural communities are progressing under multiple challenges, and how clearly they articulate challenges, needs and expectations regarding climate change and food security. We should listen more.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Egonomics of poverty: "Silly" reasons for hunger and poverty in Africa

courtesy of
Munyaradzi Mufambisi says “If we already know the basic parameters of what needs to be done, why have we allowed hundreds of millions to go hungry in a world that produces more food for every woman, man and child? Bluntly stated, the problem is not so much lack of food as a lack of political will. There is indeed enough food in the world to sustain every person. The problem of hunger is not one of supply but of an economic system based on inequality and a gross concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.” 
How I like quoting my friends like world renounced commentators. I pulled this off Munyaradzi’s Facebook profile. In case you are wondering, He is a friend and an economics/finance guy…hence the wealth and economics slant of that argument. More importantly, he is an “ordinary” guy with the concerns of any man (mine at least). This old Facebook post came to mind recently and got me thinking, could there be other reasons for a world going hungry despite producing enough or having the potential to produce enough food for all? I confess, my mind trod as far away as possible from the economics and finance argument of it all. Since I know only enough of that to hold up a conversation with a Taxi rank marshal from Gumbonzvanda (don’t ask). This is what came to mind:
There is a saying by my people, “kufa nenyota makumbo ari mumvura”. Loosely translated, “Dying of thirst while we stand in water.” I thought, there must be at least some things that we are doing to fuel this vicious cycle of hunger and starvation amid plenty (we here referring to Africans/Zimbabweans). Without worrying much about the Global economics, politics, wealth sharing and food distribution argument. What is our part in this?
Could it be a case of the man thinks the water in which he stands is too dirty to drink and so he may die from diarrhoea (which is quite ironic because if he doesn’t drink the water, he is sure to die anyway). Could it be that he doesn’t have a cup and so is too proud to cup his own hands to drink the water. Has the man been given too much of a taste of "Le good life” to make him too proud to go back to the basics in order to save his own life?
Yellow maize popped into my head. Zimbabweans call it “Kenya.” I think because it came from Kenya…I can’t be sure. It is a type of maize that any self respecting Zimbabwean would never grind to make our beloved Sadza (a thick porridge…there is more to it really but for progress’ sake, let us just call it that) come what may. It is maize like any other maize, but the colour is associated with extreme poverty, especially severe famine. The last time I saw a meal made from yellow maize was in 1993. This was around the time Zimbabwe experienced the worst drought of my generation. It is as if Zimbabweans signed a contract with the wind that stated “as of this year, we will never make Sadza from yellow maize again, its too demeaning” and as long as the wind blows, that contract stands! A Zimbabwean will only have his Sadza white or no Sadza at all. We wouldn’t be caught dead eating a meal made with yellow maize. We would rather starve. Such attitudes and beliefs though seemingly petty and trivial to an outsider can easily make or break a well meaning programme to relieve people from the clutches of hunger. Even if all the maize in the world were redistributed, we wouldn’t touch it as long as it was any other colour but white. Our egos won’t allow it.
Another idea popped into my head. How about improved farming technologies? They have worked wonders all over the world (case in point being Asia), why not Africa? Of course there is a whole political, socio-economic argument there, but im shying away from those. I am sticking with the seemingly silly arguments today! It got me thinking, improved technologies have failed in Africa (of course not entirely) not from a lack of trying. In a ridiculously large number of cases, farmers just simply won’t adopt them. Again, there are a lot of political and economic reasons to that too. However if you have as a researcher or development person ever encountered indigenous farmers that simply tell you “this is how we have done things for as long as we can remember and we are not going to change” then you probably know what I am talking about. All scientific reason and evidence will not move such people even if efforts are for their own good. Tradition and history can easily throw spanners in well meaning works to alleviate hunger and poverty. There is a lot that can be learnt from indigenous people (a whole lot) but if locals also continue to resist foreign interventions, simply because our egos won’t let us part with tradition, then progress towards “food for all” will be severely retarded.
How I would love to hear other “seemingly silly” arguments about why there is so much hunger and poverty in the world. Where else on the continent or the world does the “yellow maize” or “we have been doing this for years” mindset persist?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Space has been conquered. What about child hunger?

A picture of a starving child being stalked by a vulture made headline news all over the world in the early 90s. I couldn't have been old enough to know how to cross a busy street let alone solve simple maths problems like 5 minus 8, probably responding with “it cant,” along with a puzzled facial expression. The picture showed a starving Sudanese girl who had just collapsed on her way to a United Nations feeding station. she could hardly move or make a sound. She was that hungry. She had lost control of the use of her limbs and voice, her brain most likely shutting down and her spirit completely broken. She could have been just as old as I was then, and yet, she wasn't grappling with simple childish things like math and street crossing problems. Rather, life and death at the hands of starvation.
Pulitzer prize winning photo by Kevin Carter showing a starving Sudanese child being stalked by a patient vulture.
I have only recently come across this picture through the Bang Bang club a partial dramatisation of this event and the life of the photographer Kevin carter who took the picture. What a sad sight. And yet despite almost 2 decades having gone by since the picture was taken, UNICEF reports that 17000 children die daily from hunger and related illnesses (1 child every 5 seconds!), this picture still holds meaning to this day.

While it is hard to look at the picture without trying to moralise, that debate has since run its course but the timeless message in the picture remains. To me the message is simply, something isn't right. If we can allow little kids to starve to death or even go through life without enough to eat, something just isn't right. In this age of amazing developments, where we have come from smoke signals to video chatting, hunting and gathering to genetically modified food, how can we still be unable to feed every one on the planet? Let alone helpless children. " We" were able to put a man on the moon over 4 decades ago but to this day "we" cant put 3 meals a day in every child's plate. That cant be right.


Is it not the role of every member of society and the whole world to ensure that children are protected and assisted to reach their greatest potential? Well, it should be. Clearly we are not doing what we should be. Could this be because we simply do not care? Have we gotten so carried away in our own luxuries to appreciate the suffering of other people? Yes, challenges exit in the world and particularly Africa which make efforts to feed all people very difficult. Amid all the wars, civil unrest, and political instabilities the starvation of children and young people is still inexcusable. We shouldn’t expect to overcome most social ills on this continent if the young members of our society are hungry. A hungry child cannot learn or do anything productive and is prone to violence. What more, their master becomes whoever offers them food. Imagine what other social ills can come from that.

By saying “feed the hungry”, the world does not ask for a man to be landed on another planet, far from it. Simply that the world cares enough to take the necessary steps to make food available to all people on earth especially the vulnerable and helpless children. It is not easy, thats a given. But genuine concerted efforts to that end are a good start.

If we think always with our minds and never with our hearts, we will lose our humanity.


I came across this anti-hunger campaigns which i think is quite catchy. The I billion hungry movement: I am MAD as hell! Sounds very convincing when you listen to Jeremy Irons say it on this video.