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?


Drowning in data

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2010

Maybe we’ll have flooded our culture-lungs with angry YouTube comments and pharmaceutical spamblogs before the rising sea-levels get a chance to touch our toes… [via MetaFilter]

According to one estimate, mankind created 150 exabytes (billion gigabytes) of data in 2005. This year, it will create 1,200 exabytes. Merely keeping up with this flood, and storing the bits that might be useful, is difficult enough. Analysing it, to spot patterns and extract useful information, is harder still.

Actually, I don’t see this deluge of data as a bad thing, but I’m very interested in how we’re going to store, manage and curate it.


Manage your library with Google Book Search

Paul Raven @ 05-09-2007

A big stack of booksLooks like LibraryThing and Shelfari just got served – Google Book Search now allows you to tag titles that you own and assemble an online catalog of your precious book collection. I liked the look of LibraryThing, but the idea of having to pay to catalog more than a few hundred titles was a deal breaker for me. Yet another business model trounced by the ubiquitous giants of search …

On the subject of libraries, the place where I work has a lot of old manuscripts which are, tricky to read – at least for anyone unaccustomed to 19th Century copperplate handwriting. So if the technical types who’ve developed the new ‘Blurred Shape Model’ optical character recognition system need someone to beta test it, we’d be more than happy to help. [Image by GeneralWesc]