Could Africa feed the world?

Paul Raven @ 29-07-2011

Those of you of a similar age to myself will almost certainly remember a song about feeding the world; part of the world that needed feeding at the time was sub-Saharan Africa, and sadly that is still the case in some locations (as well as in places on other continents). But is it possible that Africa could feed not only itself but the rest of the world as well? Kanayo Nwanze, the president of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, seems to think it can:

Nwanze drew a sharp contrast between Gansu province, in northwest China, and parts of Africa that cannot feed itself. He said like many parts of the world, Gansu suffers from frequent drought, limited water for irrigation and severe soil erosion. Yet despite the weather and the harsh environment, the farmers in the Gansu programme area are feeding themselves and increasing their incomes.

“I met one farmer whose income had risen from only $2 (£1.20) a day in 2006 to $35 a day last year,” he exclaimed.

So when asked why this could be done in China but not Africa, Nwanze said the vital difference was government policy.

“What I saw in Gansu was the result of government policy to invest in rural areas and to reduce the gap between the rural and the urban and stem migration,” he said in a telephone interview. “It has a very harsh environment, it has only 300 millimetres of rain annually, compared to parts of the Sahel which gets 400-600 millimetres, but the government has invested in roads and electricity. We found a community willing to transform their lives by harvesting rainwater, using biogas, terracing mountain slopes. There are crops for livestock, they are growing vegetables, wheat and maize, and generating income that allows them to build resilience.”

While Somalia is a worst-case scenario, Nwanze continues, in Ethiopia and Djibouti there has been a lack of long-term investment that makes them vulnerable to climate change. “It is not enough to wait for crisis to turn to disaster to act. The rains will fail again, but governments have not invested in the ability of populations to resist drought.”

Nwanze argues that Africa is facing the fallout of decades of neglecting agriculture, a fault that lies with African governments and aid donors.

Mismanagement and climate change to blame, rather than some fundamental property of the continent itself? A Chinese province used as an exemplar of rural land development? Unthinkable! These are backward nations, desperately in need of the guiding hand of corporate capitalism and parliamentary democracy! </sarcasm>

I rather like imagining a future where Africa becomes an arable breadbasket with an economic boom based on mobile and wireless technologies. After all, it’s not looking any less likely than the so-called First World pulling its collective finger out of the arse of the investment banking sector, now is it?


The future of money is mobile

Paul Raven @ 14-07-2011

Yet another post where I pretty much point you in the direction of a long-form piece elsewhere and say “go read”*; Wired UK is running an article on the imminent boom in mobile technologies in Africa.

Africa seems to be leapfrogging over the cable-infrastructure phase of internet adoption and going straight to the handset-centric model… and given the continent’s economy has continued to grow while the rest of the “developed” world has languished in recession, it’s not daft to imagine that the big developments in handset-as-platform will be happening there first. And given the causes of that afore-mentioned recession, peer-to-peer banking systems backed with a useable commodity (in this case airtime) are something we should surely be keeping a close eye on…

The devices have supplanted not just the country’s fixed-line telephony industry, but also the manner in which money is spent. Companies led by Vodafone’s mobile-payments giant M-PESA have filled the vacuum left by the moribund local banks in a country in which, according to the World Bank, around half the population live under the $1.25 (77p)-per-day poverty line. One such company is PesaPal, a web-and mobile-payment platform set up by Agosta Liko, 35, that integrates with Kenya’s main mobile-payment services.

M-PESA (M for mobile; “pesa” is Swahili for money) emerged from a joint project between the UK’s Department for International Development and local operator Safaricom. Its model was to use the existing network of mobile-credit sellers that had sprung up in petrol stations, general stores and bars across the country. People were already exchanging airtime as a way of transferring money. M-PESA formalised the value exchange, turning thousands of sales agents into micro bank branches and millions of mobile phones into wire-transfer services. Users can store up to 50,000 shillings (£350) in their account, with Safaricom taking a transaction fee of between 30 and 150 shillings whenever a user sends money. In 2010 there were 9.5 million M-PESA accounts, compared to 8 million traditional bank accounts in Kenya.

On a similar note, the Stateside version of Wired reports that PayPal are making their own move into the mobile payments sphere with an Android app that will let you transfer money by tapping two enabled phones together. Exactly what use that will be in countries where person to person transactions have become rare and inherently suspect, I have no idea – perhaps that situation will be reversed somewhat by these developments? – but it’s a sufficiently striking bit of symbolism that I want to buy something off some random phone-toting stranger right now, just so I can try it out.

[ * Oh, you want excuses? Well, I have a fuzzy head from what I suspect will be a festival-season plague caught from one or another of my friends who went to Sonisphere. And, um, I may be reading a lot of stuff about EVE, which is pretty fascinating down-the-rabbithole stuff. So, yeah. There you go. ]


The global recession that isn’t

Paul Raven @ 14-12-2010

You can’t turn a page or click a tab here in the UK without reading about the ongoing woes of the global recession, and I rather suspect the situation is similar for Stateside readers.

Thing is, the global recession isn’t quite so global as it looks from our standpoint in the “developed” West; via Tobias Buckell, here’s a piece at Foreign Policy that paints the nations of Africa as a golden investment opportunity – a far cry from the war-scarred deserts and shanty-towns of popular perception.

Africa, in fact, is now one of the world’s fastest-growing economic regions. Between 2000 and 2008, the continent’s collective GDP grew at 4.9 percent per year — twice as fast as in the preceding two decades. By 2008, that put Africa’s economic output at $1.6 trillion, roughly on par with Russia and Brazil. Africa was one of only two regions — Asia being the other — where GDP rose during 2009’s global recession. And revenues from natural resources, the old foundation of Africa’s economy, directly accounted for just 24 percent of growth during the last decade; the rest came from other booming sectors, such as finance, retail, agriculture, and telecommunications. Not every country in Africa is resource rich, yet GDP growth accelerated almost everywhere.

Toby goes on to do some back-of-the-envelope maths:

The world population is estimated to be 6.7 Billion.

Asia and India, both currently in growth patterns, represent 60% of the world’s population. Africa represents 15%. So 75% of the world is actually right now currently growing.

However most of Western Europe, parts of North America, and parts of South America are not. So it’s a global lack of growth for 25% of the world’s population.

There’s no denying that things are looking pretty grim economically for us Euros and Yanks, and that our problems are having a knock-on effect elsewhere. But rather than a global recession, perhaps what we’re seeing is simply a globe that doesn’t spin around us as the pivot point any more. Cold comfort for the myopic, I suppose, but I’m kind of relieved; we’ve had our time in the sun, but the sun hasn’t stopped shining just yet.


Africa to join the space race?

Paul Raven @ 06-09-2010

Well, maybe not just yet, but the African Union has approved a feasibility study to examine the possibility of putting together an African Space Agency.

(I always smile when I see that some group or another has “approved a feasibility study”; it always makes me wonder whether they did an earlier feasibility study to determine whether the newly-approved feasibility study was feasible or not.)


Interesting stuff happens at the edges: cyberpunk’s African rebirth

Paul Raven @ 17-05-2010

Jonathan Dotse of Ghana has managed to make a modest splash in the sf blogowhatsit, and deservedly so – he’s stated with admirable clarity that the “lawless frontier” aspects of cyberpunk fiction which now seem tired or implausible to readers in the jaded Western world are becoming more pertinent than ever on the African continent.

… here in Africa, development has been dangerously asymmetrical. By the time any product hits our soil it’s already fully-developed and ready to be abused by the imagination. Technology designed for vastly different societies invariably trickles down to our streets, re-sprayed, re-labeled, and hacked to fit whatever market will take it. Regulation? You can forget about regulation.

[…]

It’s no surprise then that lawlessness is the rule on our end of the networks, ‘do what thou wilt’ the full extent of cyber-regulation. This will remain the case as long as Africa continues to wear hand-me-down systems; until she acquires her own truly tailor-made networks. With the huge logistical frameworks that need to be implemented, spanning vast swathes of geographical terrain, political regimes, and language barriers, a cyberpunk future for Africa seems all but inevitable.

This reminds me somewhat of Iain Banks’ comments about his well-known Culture universe – that the interesting* things happen at the edges of stable societies. There’s been a certain degree of navel-gazing in sf criticism circles which has seen people momentarily pondering whether sf has lost its ability to talk meaningfully about the future; Dotse’s post would suggest that the tropes of cyberpunk are still a useful lens on the world that he experiences. So perhaps the problem isn’t with sf as a mode of discourse, but with the state of the Anglophone Western world that is its dominant consumer and producer: maybe things have just gotten too safe for us to say much that hasn’t been said before about our own experience of life.

That may not last, of course – Bruce Sterling’s favela chic/gothic hi-tech dichotomy is being borne out in headlines all across Europe and the US, and I expect we’ll see new fiction that grapples with those ideas (and many others) in the years to come. But for now, the so-called “global south” is inheriting the rush of social and technological flux that turned the more developed nations upside down during the late eighties and nineties, and we can expect that writers there will take up and retrofit the tools of cyberpunk in order to shape their own futures, fictional and factual alike. In fact, I think we should be actively looking for them to do so; it would do us good to be reminded that, for all our angst about our own uncertain futures, the daily experiences of millions of other people highlight just how stable and comfortable we really are. As we adjust to a global economy where adaptive reuse, thrift, hacking and making-do become skillsets that we need to reacquire, we can probably learn a lot from nations where they’ve been necessities for decades. We’ve let our sense of entitlement deafen us for far too long; it’s time to listen to the voices from the edges, and beyond them.

And if Dotse can write stories as well as he can grandstand, he’ll be a name to watch. So if you decide to try your hand at short stories, Jonathan, we’d love to see them when we re-open to submissions later in the year… 🙂

[ * For clarity – ‘interesting’ here refers to the sorts of things that make for interesting fiction stories, rather than a more general form of interest. ]


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