Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Vervet and the Big Blues

Sometimes, it's easy to forget, amid the turmoil of day-to-day working life, just how lovely our working environment is.

The AAC/Kilimo Trust office building is located high on Mbuya hill, Kampala, in a substantial and mature garden. It is cool, and removed from the bustle, noise and dust of the city. It is also endowed with a wonderful array of plant and animal life, including a substantial family troupe of Vervet monkeys (a bold member pictured, waiting for a chance to purloin any lunchtime left-overs). These monkeys are a mixed blessing: while they are a welcome reminder of nature's tenacity and adaptability to urban life, they also have the potential to cause significant damage. On two occasions I have found Vervets foraging in my car - on the second occasion the intruder successfully escaped with an apple -, and once there was a brief stand-off in my office over the sugar bowl before he fled, empty-handed, through the open window.

The real stars, though, are the birds. This morning, I was lucky enough to see a pair of crowned cranes over-flying the compound. Residents include two pairs of hornbills, numerous touracos, barbets, sunbirds and at least one pair of owls. And there are countless visitors, among which are my favourites, a pair of spectacular Big Blue Touracos,which occasionally crash through the treetops with their characteristically loud calls.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Battle of the Sexes

Next week, KADS will be staging its annual dinner theatre production at Open House Restaurant on Buganda Road. There's still an awful lot to do to get ready: programme, lights, some props and furniture and costumes - but somehow or other we will get there. And it will be very good!

The two main plays are by Chekhov: excellent, witty, 30-minute comedies belying his undeserved reputation for serious and formless drama. Both casts are extremely capable and highly motivated to do justice to the wonderful language and characterisation.

Where else could you go out and spend $15 for an evening's quality entertainment and a good Indian dinner?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Food for thought

I have just attended a conference in Bamako, Mali, sponsored by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (specifically, AGRA's Program for Africa's Seed Systems). The conference brought together a vast number of crop scientists, plant breeders, soil specialists, seed producers and a few financiers like me in order to exchange information, build networks and devise solutions for the improvement of agricultural performance in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yesterday evening, a lengthy round table discussion took place on the thorny and perennial problem of how best to get quality seed into the hands - and fields - of smallholder farmers. The debate threw out lots of interesting points. I noted the following:

1. Plant breeders need to focus on research into use, develop links and relationships with seed companies, and increase the availability of breeder seed.
2. Large-scale seed production by competent and experienced growers was a serious constraint in most sub-Saharan African countries.
3. Greater product diversity - crops, varieties, seed pack size, etc - was essential for two reasons: first. the excessive focus on hybrid maize cultivation was threatening soil health and was unsustainable in the medium to long term; second, many farmers demand smaller seed packs.
4. Opportunities for seed companies are enormous. Global and domestic demand for food is increasing and, despite the difficulties in managing and financing business growth, new technologies and improvements in markets will stimulate increased demand for quality seed.
5. Cross-border certification and approval of new seed varieties is important. Governments also need to strengthen regulatory frameworks governing the seed industry in order to drive up quality and reduce the risk of counterfeit seed products in the marketplace.
6. The seed industry must focus on quality and look to increase the price of seed. Only by doing so will seed companies achieve profitability and sustainability - and generate income for reinvestment in growth, research and development.
This final point lies close to my heart. It is almost invariably the case that price competition - while good for the consumer in the short run - is the quickest way to create stagnation in an industry. The economics of seed purchase for the African farmer remain favourable with prices two, three or four times above current price levels. If short term price subsidies are required in order to stimulate increased demand for quality seed =- then that is fine - as long as these subsidies are paid to seed companies and the resulting profits ploughed back into expansion and growth.
Industries grow when they are profitable and their participants compete on product quality.

Despite an element of inconvenience, I also think it was very good to hold this conference in Bamako. Far too many conferences take place in Nairobi, Johannesburg and Cape Town, (where, admittedly, airport, conference and hospitality infrastructures are much better), but it is entirely a positive thing to use facilities available in other countries. And I for one have enjoyed my short walk from the Hotel Salam to the CICB (conference venue), through a shady plant nursery with a wonderful collection of tropical trees, shrubs and succulents, with a view of the river Niger across the main road.