Friday, August 21, 2009

A glorious victory

Only a pub quiz, it's true, but with thanks to three students of Notre-Dame University (pronounced Noder-Dayme) and a PWC consultant working for the Uganda Revenue Authority, our bizarrely-named team "She Kisses Giraffes" triumphed last night in the Bubbles O'Leary quiz. The quiz was punctuated by great excitement and cheering as Moses Kipsiro, Uganda's leading track athlete, won his 5000m heat at the World Athletic Championships.

Our prize: as usual, to set the next quiz on 3 September.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ggaba Market

Just round the corner from my home is Ggaba Market. The market is right on the shores of Lake Victoria. It's a hive of activity from daybreak to dusk: every morning, fishermen arrive with their catches of tilapia, nile perch and mukene (a sort of freshwater whitebait). At the same time, fresh produce is ferried across the lake every morning: piles of mangoes, potatoes, pineapples, tomatoes, beans, water melons and a surprisingly wide variety of other fruits and vegetables. For anyone brought up on European or North American supermarket fare, the produce looks sub-standard, imperfect, but it is wonderfully wholesome, tasty and fresh.

Charcoal and firewood is delivered in overloaded Fuso and Canter trucks, along with fresh matooke (cooking bananas), luridly green. Old Corolla estate cars arrive, crammed with live "traditional" chickens and larger off-layer hens ready for the slaughter. And all around, ungainly marabou storks stand, stiff-legged, ready to flap and walk their way to any easy pickings.

From early, other traders set up small braziers and charcoal stoves to prepare fast food, Kampala-style. Fried fish, samosas, fresh beans, steamed matooke and the much-loved breakfast "Rolex" - a calory-packed chapati filled with fried egg and vegetables, rolled up pancake style for easy consumption.

I really enjoy my occasional visits to the market: quite apart from the unalloyed pleasure of buying fresh produce, it provides a valuable insight into real economic and business life. Yesterday I bought onions, pineapple, passion fruit, leeks, parsley, potatoes and spinach. But the drought in Uganda is pushing prices, especially of leaf vegetables and pineapples, high. Fish, too, has increased in price, with a knock-on effect on other meats. Lake fishing, like so many other activities, is poorly regulated, with the inevitable consequence of over-fishing. Uganda's fish export industry - once a source of valuable foreign exchange - is dying and catches are diminishing, and it is yet to be replaced by fish-farming on a significant scale.

In the midst of daily trading, it is hard for market stallholders to think about the long term: years of experience and intense competition ensures that only the best traders - who price competitively and estimate demand accurately - can earn a living, but there is a lot of anxiety about the future. Prices are increasing and money supply is not: these are worrying times at Ggaba Market.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bubbles O'Leary

Why is that almost every African capital city has at least one Irish theme pub? McGinty's, O'Hagan's, Finn McCool's, O'Tooles, the list is almost endless. A friend of mine suggested that their popularity has something to do with the widespread (but mythical) belief in many African countries that drinking Guinness increases sexual potency, but I think it has more to do with the famed Irish entrepreneurial and intrepid spirit.

Kampala is no exception to the rule. O'Leary's (fondly if inexplicably nicknamed Bubbles) has become the main watering hole for Kampala's expatriate community, plus, from time to time, a sprinkling of Kampala glitterati.

I frequent O'Leary's for the quiz night, held every second Thursday. The main prize for thiis rowdy event is to set the following quiz, but an alcoholic prize is also awarded to the winners of each round. Where two or more teams are tied in each round, a "Drink-off" is staged and the round awarded to the team whose representative is able to finish a 500 ml glass of beer first. Needless to say, the combination of cheap drinks, rowdy atmosphere, lack of enforcement of alcohol limits for drivers and a relatively young set of cash-rich expatriates ensures that the pub does excellent business well into the small hours.

Sadly, our quiz team disintegrated earlier this year, so we ploughed a lone furrow last night and did, at least, have the satisfaction of winning the "Dictators" theme round and, with it, six tots of Sambucca. Needless to say, the effort and effect of consuming the Sambucca resulted in a steady decline on the quiz leaderboard.....

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Last Africans

This painting hangs on my sitting room wall. The image does not do it justice. It is beautiful: an untitled impressionistic oil painting of a nomadic group of people in Northern Kenya. I bought it about 14 years ago at a small exhibition in Nairobi entitled "The Last Africans".

My main memory of the Last Africans exhibition is a brief and impromptu introductory speech delivered by my friend and and former colleague, Matthias Schmale. Matthias was a compelling speaker, not least due to his sincerity, and he took this occasion to speak eloquently about his sadness that the era of the pastoralist and nomadic life practiced across most of the African continent was coming to an end: that the traditions and modus vivendi of the Turkana, the Karamajong, the Rendille, the Samburu and, most iconic of all African pastoralists, the Maasai, were dwindling into scattered tourist exhibits amid the farms, settlements and towns created through population growth, the march of technology and urban development. His lament was not romantic: it was for the impoverishment to us all brought about by the reduction of cultural diversity.

My reading matter over the past week has been a collection of papers selected by Nigel Halford of the Rothamsted Institute in UK, entitled Plant Biotechnology. For a non-scientist, much of this book has been extremely difficult to understand, but I was keen to try to improve my understanding of transgenics/genetic modification and its impact. Included in the anthology is a short paper published by researchers from the University of Cape Town on the potential for inserting a "water-efficiency" gene into maize, the staple crop for most of East and Southern Africa. The authors are in no doubt that this would be a positive move, as it would allow the cultivation of maize to spread into areas hitherto too dry for farming.

In this connection, recent press publications in Kenya have reported that considerable applied research in WEMA (Water Efficient Maize for Africa) is underway - with the potential to open up new low rainfall areas in Kenya for the cultivation of maize. Kenya needs it: the Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, recently forecast a shortfall of about 1 million tonnes (30% of Kenya's annual consumption requirements) due to patchy rainfall. This is nothing new: 8 years out of 10 Kenya struggles to grow enough maize for its burgeoning population - mainly due to reliance on rainfall for water requirements, depleted soils, and the widespread use of poor quality planting material.

Advances in agricultural technology over the last 100 years have supported massive population growth. Through effective selection and breeding programmes, plant breeders have produced ever more productive crop varieties. The Haber-Bosch process for utilising atmospheric nitrogen has provided the necessary source of nutrition for these varieties. And now, transgenic technologies offer the potential to accelerate conventional plant breeding through the production of uber-crops capable of resistance to herbicides, drought, soil salinity and who knows what sort of adverse conditions. But these advances carry a cost. One wonders what the consequences of WEMA's introduction will be for Kenya's pastoralists and biodiversity as the area under cultivation of maize expands.

Clinging on in ever more marginal areas, the pastoralist way of life appears to be an inevitable casualty of the modern world. As Einstein, in his wonderful 1949 essay entitled "Why Socialism" observed "The time—which, looking back, seems so idyllic—is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kenya Organics

For people interested in the organic movement in Kenya, here's a link to the Green Dreams blog. It's a very interesting read.

The author, Su Kahumbu (pictured), also heads up AAC's investee, Food Network East Africa, which trades under the Green Dreams brand in Nairobi. Unfortunately, Kenya's organic certification body is not internationally recognised, which means that Green Dreams would need an internationally approved (very expensive) certifier to accredit its produce before it can gain access to high value export organic markets. Just another example of market barriers to African exporters.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The pursuit of happiness

For a change, I watched a good film on DSTV last week. Normally, there's nothing but rubbish, so it came as a pleasing and welcome surprise to see a heart-warming tale of a salesman taking care of his 5-year-old while grappling with a host of day-to-day challenges - The Pursuit of Happyness.
The film's title reminded me of the following quote: Well-being and happiness never appeared to me as an absolute aim. I am even inclined to compare such moral aims to the ambitions of a pig. (Albert Einstein)

A thought-provoking statement from a man whose contribution to theoretical physics and, indirectly, to the creation of the atomic bomb, assures his position as one of the world's greatest scientists.

The pursuit of happiness is the overwhelming objective of modern life. To confess to unhappiness is often met with derision or, worse, moral condemnation. And yet there is a contradiction: increasing numbers of people report themselves unhappy - and happiness seems to have little correlation with material wealth (at least after basic needs of food, water and housing are fulfilled). A few years ago, in the BBC's global poll, Nigerians (to most people's surprise) reported themselves the happiest nationality on the planet, despite all the manifest difficulties and challenges of living in a developing country. For anyone living in Uganda, the main surprise was that it was Nigeria - not Uganda - which boasted the highest happiness quotient. Certainly, I am yet to live anywhere with so much joie de vivre.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Einstein provides an explanation for the malaise of unhappiness afflicting society, contained in his marvellously crafted essay in the first edition of the Monthly Review in May 1949, entitled "Why Socialism?" (which can be read in full online at I have reproduced an extract, below, which serves to demonstrate his wisdom, foresight and continuing relevance to modern times.

If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural attitude of man should be changed in order to make human life as satisfying as possible, we should constantly be conscious of the fact that there are certain conditions which we are unable to modify. ............... ...... Furthermore, technological and demographic developments of the last few centuries have created conditions which are here to stay. In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly-centralized productive apparatus are absolutely necessary. The time—which, looking back, seems so idyllic—is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption.

I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

A brilliant analysis! How did we let it happen?