Monday, April 26, 2010


Bia Yangu, Nchi Yangu My Beer, My Country

Beer is big business across Africa. Kenya is no exception. And Tusker is a jumbo-sized brand. There are other brands in the market, but Tusker has a status all of its own. It is, quite simply, synonymous with beer. Its advertising speaks to the nation. Baada ya kazi ("after work"). Ni wakati wa Tusker ("it's time for a Tusker"). The brand design of a black elephant on a yellow background is simple, effective and has withstood the test of time. In fact, Tusker was first brewed in 1922 by the founder of East African Breweries, George Hurst, whose death in a hunting accident at the tusks of an elephant provided the inspiration for the brand.

Kenya Breweries has managed its virtual monopoly of the Kenyan beer market well. It has created other brands to appeal to market segments whose social aspirations require brand differentiation. Whitecap and Pilsner compete with Tusker for the middle class market, and the interloper, Tusker Malt, sold in a 300ml green bottle, was designed to appeal to professional women, but the original Tusker, sold in a half-litre brown bottle reigns supreme.

Truth be told, the beer itself is almost indistinguishable from most other commercial lagers. Mainstream beers are, after all, brewed using a standard recipe of malted barley, hops and water, with the additional of yeast, additional starches and sugars to accelerate the fermentation process, and a few additives to stabilise the bottled product. But the effectiveness of the branding creates the distinctiveness of the product.

In the mid 1990s, I spent the best part of three months managing a Coopers & Lybrand consulting project with Kenya Breweries for the design and implementation of a standard costing accounting system. Every day I drove across Nairobi to the Thika Road, past the decaying sports complex at Kasarani, to the home of Kenya Breweries at Ruaraka. It was a great assignment: not only was it professionally interesting and challenging, but it also offered an excellent daily lunch in the Executive Restaurant on the third floor of the main office building, infinitely superior to the normal daily fare available in the diners outside Coopers' offices on Kimathi Street in downtown Nairobi.

African breweries have unexpected challenges, not least of which is the supply of barley. Barley is very much a temperate crop, but does grow well under tropical conditions at medium and high altitude. Kenya Breweries had a separate barley-growing operation in the Rift Valley town of Nakuru, which provided farmers with barley seed and agricultural extension services. On harvest. the barley was delivered to its malting plant in Nairobi's industrial area, and, from there, the malted barley was trucked to its three breweries in Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa for brewing and bottling this iconic beer.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Farming is a way of life for the majority in Africa. Well over 50% of Africa's population relies on farming for food and household income, if not exclusively then to a large extent. That's at least 500 million people. Pastoralists still ranch their cattle and herd their goats across great swathes of arid and semi-arid lands, but the inexorable growth in population puts ever more pressure on land resources.

But African farming, with the exception of a few large scale farms dotted across the continent, bear little relation to the kind of intensive farming practiced in much of the world. African farms are, typically, small - perhaps less than one acre of land, rainfed, cropped intensively, with a mix of cereals, root crops, legumes and vegetables, primarily for home consumption. Most farmers still use farm-saved seed – and achieve crop yields of 10-30% of full potential. Poor quality seed is not the only factor driving low crop yields: unpredictable rainfall, soil nutrient depletion, permacropping leading to increases in pathogens and pests all play their part. Outputs are low, often barely sufficient to feed the family, let alone generating income. Living on the land, eking out a living - it is a hard and ultimately unsustainable way of life.

Seed is the fundamental, the sine qua non of agriculture. We can but speculate, but in the dawn of human civilsation, Mesopotamians, Egyptian and Chinese farmers must have saved seed from their best plants. This seed was preserved, with great care, during the dry season for planting at the onset of the rains. Farming techniques were gradually improved in ancient times, into the middle ages, through crop rotation systems, basic irrigation techniques, the application of animal fertilisers, but progress was slow until two essential scientific discoveries were made. First, the microscope opened human eyes to the small world, a world which gradually revealed the infinitessimal building blocks of life. And second, Mendel's work in 19th century Germany laid the foundations for modern plant science: an understanding of germplasm, of genetic instructions, and of the potential for crop improvement. Now, little more than 100 years after the development of hybrid seed varieties, a new, post-modern, plant science of genetic transformation with possibilities beyond our comprehension is upon us.

How far we have come in our control over nature!

And yet, while the pace of development of plant science accelerates, vast areas of Africa remain in the pre-microscope and pre-Mendelian world, saving seed and relying on the natural environment for food production. Improving seed - the planting material available to farmers - is the first step in breaking the vicious circle of rural poverty. As the manager of an investment fund dedicated to expanding seed production, I am fortunate enough to be able to meet people who have the vision , the dedication, the tenacity, the determination and attention to detail to breed, produce and distribute improved seed to African farmers.

Seed is, of course, just one element of agricultural production, and the provision of improved seed will not itself transform African agriculture. It does however have the potential to begin a gradual shift from the fragmentation of land into ever smaller and less viable holdings towards the development of commercial farming. This will be a generational change, in which people migrate from the land to the city. It will require a co-ordinated plan for industrialization and urban development, and it will not happen overnight.

Seed has always been transformational. Ever since Cain's murder of Abel, the long victory of the farmer over the pastoralist has shaped human history. Africa will be no exception.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


For a brief period, I was privileged to be the Chairman of one of the Commonweath Development Corporation's most pioneering investments: Compagnie Heveicole de Cavally, a rubber plantation and factory located in Cote d'Ivoire close to the Liberian border. It was a day's drive from Abidjan, the road passing through the town of Guiglo (notable only for a bloody clash between UN peacekeepers and Ivorian protestors in 2005), west to the village of Zagne and the final bumpy 70 km to Cavally.

I only visited the plantation three times, but each drive provided stark reminders of the casual looting of Africa's natural resources - in the shape of numerous trucks bearing huge logs, felled from natural forest, to the port for export. On one memorable occasion, we passed a truck bearing only one massive log, representing perhaps 500 years of growth. Three logs was the normal cargo.

At that time, Cavally as a business was struggling. Despite the fact that West Africa is one of the best places in the world to grow rubber, international rubber prices were low and the plantation was still immature. However, salvation was at hand. Not long thereafter, the price of oil began to rise on the international market and at the same time the price of synthetic rubber (an oil derivative) also began a steep climb. This in turn increased the demand for natural rubber by industrial users, and at one point resulted in a fourfold increase in rubber prices. This was wonderful news for Cavally and its investor - as the supply of natural rubber is now almost exclusively from plantations of the tree Hevea Brasiliensis and these trees, like any other, take a considerable amount of time to grow to maturity and full yield potential.

Like most commodities, rubber had seen price booms in the past. The most famous boom occurred not long after the Belfast resident John Dunlop created (and patented) the pneumatic rubber bicycle tyre in 1888. This simple invention drove a massive increase in the global demand for natural rubber -at that time the synthetic alternative had not been developed - for the production of bicycle and, not long afterwards, motor car tyres. It also drove one of the greatest tragedies of imperial rule in Africa: the rape and pillage of the so-called Congo Free State by King Leopold of Belgium and his accomplices. This hideous history is fully told in Adam Hochschild's compelling book King Leopold's Ghost.

Rubber is made from solidified sap. The best source is the Brazilian rubber tree, Hevea Brasiliensis, and this is now almost the exclusive global source of natural rubber. But rubber can also be obtained from other sources - and a particularly rich source was from the Landolphia vines which grow wild in the rain forests of equatorial Africa. As industrial demand increased and rubber prices skyrocketed, Leopold's administration employed all methods at its disposal to extract as much wild rubber as possible. For the rapacious imperialist Leopold, wild rubber was a Godsend: it required no costs other than labour and transport from the interior to the coast.

To extract the rubber, instead of tapping the vines, conscripted Congolese villagers would slash them (slaughter-tapping) and dry the sap by coating their bodies with the rubber latex. When the latex hardened, it would be pulled off the skin, painfully, in a process akin to depillation by waxing. The killing of the vines made it even harder to locate sources of rubber as time went on, but the administration was relentless in raising the quotas, the spectacular profits from which financed Leopold's building programmes in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe, creating the "whited sepulchre" of Marlow's recollections in Conrad's classic novel Heart of Darkness. Certainly very little, if any, was reinvested in the Congo.

As the rubber boom continued, the administration became ever more brutal in its methods. Villages who failed to meet the rubber collection quotas had their women and children rounded up and held hostage while the men were sent into the rain forest to obtain rubber as the price for their freedom. It goes without saying that the women were regularly raped by their guards: a ghastly state-sponsored human rights abuse that echoes in the sexual violence which persists to this day throughout the Congo. Some villagers were required to pay for shortfalls in quotas with their lives, their deaths accounted for by severed hands, where each hand would prove a kill. Sometimes the hands were collected by the soldiers of the Leopold's private army, the Force Publique, sometimes by the villages themselves. There were even small wars where villages attacked neighboring villages to gather hands, since their rubber quotas were too unrealistic to fill.

Was this Imperialism at its worst? Certainly on its scale and duration. Hochschild quotes Mark Twain's assertion that the rape of the Congo directly led to the deaths of five to eight million Congolese over the 20 year period from 1890 - 1910, all for the want of rubber. Today we would call it by its real name: genocide, but no trials await the long-departed Leopold.

The rubber industry has changed now, for the better. But there also remain other, subtler, forms of impoverishment at work. Rubber tapping is a lonely business, often carried out by migrant male workers compelled to seek the meagre wages on offer in order to support their families far away. Their lament is told by Jeremy Seabrook in the excellent book Victims of Development: Resistance and Alternatives, in his vignette of the migrant Malaysian rubber tapper, "alone among his 600 identical trees".


The African Black Duck

Yesterday, I attended mass at the Catholic church in Ggaba. As usual, the church was packed for the English service: the reverent and joyous congregation numbered at least 500, spilling beyond the airy interior.

I took advantage of a slight delay in starting the mass to read the Catholic weekly newsletter, which has been serialising Archbishop Cyprian's 2010 Easter address. This week's instalment dwelt on the importance of truth in everthing we do, using the Bible's simple message that "the truth will set you free".

In Archbishop Cyprian's words, levelled at politicians, traders, doctors, journalists, perjurers, and others who deceive and mislead the Ugandan populace, "People await.. the truth, but information is given to the public. False accusations are made, but the truth is never revealed. ....... As long as the truth never comes out, we shall never be free from rumour, false accusations and counter accusations". He might have gone on to add that cheating, fakery and the associated failure by the regulatory authorities to enforce proper standards has a corrosive impact on wider ethical standards.

And this situation is by no means confined to Uganda: across sub-Saharan Africa, society is filled with fraud, theft and corruption. The fertile breeding ground of poverty and desperation creates an environment in which these vile charlatans multiply, promoting and peddling their false and unproven goods and services for personal profit in a largely unregulated marketplace, where short term commercialism holds sway over professionalism.

Most loathsome of all are self-styled Christian Pastors who enrich themselves by fleecing their followers through schemes akin to the Middle Ages practice of selling of indulgences for personal profit; and traditional healers, who dream up ever more hideous practices to offer the ignorant and superstitious. In recent years, these have included the burying of human body parts in the foundations of new buildings (supposedly to bring these buildings strength and permanence), and the sacrifice of albinos as a form of medicine. However, on a less-horrifying, but more widespread scale, the absence of well-resourced national bureaux of standards with the powers to take robust and immediate action against retailers and producers offering sub-standard goods for sale to the public leads to widespread product counterfeiting, with all the dangers this presents to the general public. Adulterated cement and fuel and date-expired medicine and foods abound, largely unchecked.

There is a better English word to describe the charlatans responsible for these crimes. The word is "quack", and Africa is full of them. The dictionary defines quack as a person who pretends to have skill, knowledge or qualifications which he does not possess. I had always assumed that its derivation was directly related to the noise a duck makes - hence the picture above - but in fact it comes from the archaic Dutch word quacksalver, meaning "a boaster who applies a salve".

I used to think that there was something comical about the description "quack". Now I know better.