Sunday, May 30, 2010


"The people also have the right to colonnades..." Lenin's Minister of Culture and most gentle of Bolsheviks, Anatoli Lunarcharsky.

Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the first President of independent Cote d'Ivoire, doubtless would have agreed. How else to explain one of the modern wonders of the world?

On approaching the small city of Yamoussoukro , some 250 km north of Abidjan, there is no indication that anything remarkable lies in wait, until the great dome of the Basilica appears on the horizon. At first, I assumed that the Basilica lay on our side of Yamoussoukro, but to my astonishment, after another 10 minutes' drive, the city itself came into view, between us and the Basilica, revealing the astonishing size and dimensions of the largest church in the world.

Houphouët-Boigny was originally chief of Yamoussoukro in the 1930s, when it was no more than a village. After qualifying as a doctor, he became a union leader, and was then, in common with some other future West African leaders, elected to the French Parliament and held several ministerial positions in De Gaulle's government. He also played a leading role in Africa's decolonisation.

In the 1960s and 70s, the Côte d'Ivoire economy did well under his leadership. The country's success became known as the "Ivorian miracle" and was due to a combination of sound planning, competent administration, a strong relationship with France and considerable investment in the Ivorian coffee, cocoa and rubber industries. However, the economy worsened dramatically in the 1980s, principally due to falls in international commodity prices alongside a simultaneous rise in oil prices. This decline coincided with Houphouët-Boigny adopting an increasingly autocratic and capricious leadership style, best exemplified by his decision first to relocate the Ivorian capital from Abidjan to his hometown of Yamoussoukro and his decision to go ahead with the construction of the church (to give it its proper name the Basilica of our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro) at the estimated and eye-watering cost of US$ 300 million.

The French have an expression for this: folie de grandeur. Houphouët-Boigny would have approved of the expression, if not its application. In a developing country, struggling under a mountain of foreign debt, with huge infrastructural and social needs, the Basilica can hardly be described as an effective and utilitarian investment.

It’s easy to be holier-than-thou. Of course the money could have been used on other projects of greater social value. But it’s worth remembering Lunarcharsky’s words, and reflecting that very few of the world’s great architectural monuments could have been justified on economic and social grounds. After all, Africans, too, have the right to colonnades.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


This lovely flower is the African Geranium (Pelargonium Graveolens). It grows wild in Southern Africa, but over recent years a few enterprising farmers have started cultivating it - not for its flowers but for the sweet-smelling and valuable "essential" oil contained, in tiny quantities, in its petals, leaves and stems.

It has a close cousin, Pelargonium Sidoides, known in the Zulu language as Umckaloabo. The Zulus have long known that the Sidoides root steeped in hot water creates an infusion which alleviates cold and cough symptoms. Now, Sidoides is also cultivated and its extracts added to herbal and pharmaceutical preparations manufactured and marketed around the world as cold cures. Indeed, one popular brand in the USA is called Umcka, directly from the Zulu word.

From time to time, I am invited to attend agriculture-related conferences. One of the more memorable of these was the 2007 East African Fine Coffee Association annual event in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia has the oldest coffee-drinking culture in the world. Legend has it that a nameless Amhara farmer found his goats eating the berries of a burnt coffee tree and, on trying them, discovered their bitter, smoky and delicious properties...... and the global love affair with coffee took root.

In between sampling excellent Rwandese, Kenyan and Ethiopian coffee, EAFCA conference participants pondered the future of African coffee. A common theme at events like these is the question of how African farmers can increase their share of the value ultimately realised from their products. Discussions usually start with a statement like "at Starbucks in London, Grade A Ethiopian coffee retails at a price of US $10 per pound. The farmer only receives $1 per pound. We need to add value to African production and capture more of the value...." It's hard to argue against this, of course, but the experts present rarely talk about the massive investment in brand development, marketing and distribution that Starbucks - and others - have made which enables them to achieve these premiums. Recently a new retail brand, Good African Coffee, has been launched in Uganda to provide some regional competition to the Java and Dormans coffee shop brands in Kenya. Perhaps one day, one of these will become an African superbrand and go global...... but the challenge is immense.

A few years ago, I was given a bottle of Xeryus Rouge aftershave. It has an interesting and complex (but for me an oversweet) scent. According to the internet, its ingredients include an exciting and eclectic selections of essential oils and plant extracts: tarragon, kumquat, cactus flesh, cedar, sandalwood, red pepper and, intriguingly, African geranium. Droplets of precious African Geranium oil, blended with other essential oils and solvents, packaged in elegantly shaped bottles, labelled and encased with handsome materials, all part of expert Givenchy branding, and its tiny interface with labourers in southern Africa.

From the African Geranium to Umcka and Xeryus Rouge, globalisation at work.

Friday, May 21, 2010


About 20% of the world's total landmass is in Africa. It's a big place. Most of it is wilderness. Whether it is arid or semi-arid land, jungle, swamp, mountains, woodland or savannah, it is probably unsuitable for agriculture and can only support very low human population densities.

These wild places are often turned into national parks, beloved by tourists and offering some measure of protection to Africa’s priceless biodiversity. From Mana Pools on the banks of the Zambezi river in Zimbabwe, to the vast Ruaha and Selous reserves in Southern Tanzania,from the unparalleled Tanzanian Serengeti and its Kenyan continuation of the Maasai Mara to the virgin rainforests of Gabon, well-heeled tourists marvel at Africa’s big game and birdlife from the comfort of their 4WD vehicles and luxurious lodges. Tourist income helps protect and sustain these wildlife refuges, but beyond the boundaries of the parks, the surrounding wilderness is home to dwindling numbers of African pastoralists and their flocks

This wilderness is now starting to attract the attention of foreign investors with deep pockets and a long term view on food prices. The argument goes something like this:-

The world's population is set to grow by as much as 25% over the next 30 years. That means, ceteris paribus, a corresponding increase in global food demand. Most land suitable for agriculture around the world is already being worked very hard. Therefore, to meet the increase in food demand, more agricultural land is needed and/or crop yields must increase substantially. So -

Q. Where in the world is there land available for agriculture? A. Africa.

Q. Where in the world can crop yields be significantly increased? A. Africa

Based on this argument, a new scramble for Africa is slowly gathering pace. Sovereign governments from the Middle East and Asia are buying leases from their African counterparts on huge tracts of land with apparent agricultural potential, in competition with a battalion of newly-formed private capital investment funds from Europe and North America.

I'm not sure that the investors have got this quite right, for a variety of factors. First, most of the land which is suitable for large-scale agriculture is probably already being intensively cultivated by smallholders. Second, there is very little land of any description which is actually empty. It is almost certainly being ranched by pastoralists, with their traditional, if undocumented, land rights. Third, large scale agriculture requires large-scale management, with a blend of agronomic, engineering, financial and administrative skills and experience, which are in very short supply in the “bundu”. And fourth, where are the markets for the production? Africa still has a rapid population growth rate and it is by no means certain that export markets will be accessible by the owners due to food security concerns.

My hope and belief is that the African wilderness will resist the bulldozers and chainsaws and remain, if not unscathed, largely intact. The world would be greatly impoverished without it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Two of Africa's most iconic natural features were named by the British in honour of Queen Victoria: the great lake, source of the White Nile, shared by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, and the spectacular waterfall on the Zambezi river (pictured), separating Zambia and Zimbabwe.

It seems odd that, while many colonial names have been rightly changed over the years, the two Victorias remain as a reminder of Africa's colonial history. I can only assume that it is because these two natural wonders of the world are shared by more than one country that they have not been renamed.

It was during Queen Victoria's long reign that the scramble for Africa took place. The full story of this shameful landgrab is told in Thomas Pakenham's eponymous history, which chronicles (predominantly from the colonial viewpoint) the rush to lay claim to Africa's wealth and partition the continent among the European powers. Occasionally an African voice is heard - for example Pakenham quotes the Ndebele King Lobengula's letter to Queen Victoria asking her to restrain in Cecil Rhodes British South African company's adventurers, presumably in the mistaken belief that she had the power to do so - but in general the source material is European in origin.

Over my years spent in Africa, I have become increasingly aware of the true history of the English. Behind the diffident, courteous, cricket-playing and self-deprecating facade lurks a barely concealed brutality that the whole world - except the English - recognizes. The gross abuse of human rights began with King Richard's massacre of the citizens of Acre in the third crusade, and was followed, among others, with the decimation of native Americans and Australians, the institutionalisation of the slave trade in West Africa and the Caribbean, the horrific, centuries-long, subjugation of the Irish, organised drug trafficking in China, and the looting of priceless historical and cultural artefacts around the globe....... Instead, the English are educated in the myths of Merrie England and fair play when in truth we are a land of villains, vandals and vagabonds.

Lobengula described his experience of dealing with the English using the simple but effective allegory of the Chameleon and the Fly. "Did you ever see a chameleon catch a fly? The chameleon gets behind the fly and stays motionless for some time. Then, he advances very slowly and gently, first putting forward one leg and then the other. At last, when well within reach of the fly, he darts out his tongue and the fly disappears. England is the chameleon and I am that fly."

On a lighter note, a further unfortunate English legacy to Africa is the absurd habit of wearing collars and ties on the equator. These clothes, appropriate for the English climate, have no business in the tropics, yet they have been enthusiastically adopted by the Nairobi, Kampala and, even, the Dar es Salaam elites. The English influence is weaker in West Africa, where men alternate between suits and ties and resplendent African robes. When I discussed this with my besuited Kenyan colleague, Ndung'u Gathinji. a few years ago, he replied "Yes, they were saved by the mosquito". Queen Victoria might not, in her own oft-quoted words, have been amused, but I was.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Umbrellas improve the quality of life in Africa. As this photograph of some Rwandese women shows, umbrellas are used to protect against both tropical sun and rain: the shelter they provide from the elements is essential.

The pictures tells another story, too. Whether umbrellas are used as parapluies or parasols, it is good to see that unsold and unwanted golf umbrellas find a useful home in the poorer countries of the world.

In fact, umbrellas are more often than not used as parasols. Their utility in tropical rain storms, frequently accompanied by high winds, is limited. The sheer intensity of the rain, thundering down in huge drops, makes it difficult to avoid being soaked even with the protection of an umbrella, courtesy of the splash factor as heavy raindrops explode on impact with the ground.

Water management is a challenge across most of the African continent. In most of East & Southern Africa, long dry spells are punctuated with monsoon rains, occasionally with catastrophic consequences. Most recently, heavy rain across East Africa has caused fatal landslides in both Kenya and Uganda, in locations where deforestation and cultivation on steep hillsides has weakened soil structures.

African farmers frequently bemoan poor rainfall, yet in fact most parts of East Africa have significantly higher annual rainfall levels than most of Europe. Poor water storage and utilisation, rather than absolute rainfall, is the real problem, though high ambient temperatures, altitude and low humidity also mean that water evaporation rates are much quicker. This fact was brought home to me during my spell with Tanwat (Tanganyika Wattle Company) in Njombe, SW Tanzania, where the establishment of a 600 hectare tea estate (Kibena Tea) relied on irrigation to achieve high volumes of green leaf. The water source for Kibena Tea was the Lihogosa wetland in the centre of the estate, dammed at one end to prevent rainwater from draining away too rapidly. The design was simple and, based on annual rainfall expectations, ought to have provided sufficient water for dry season irrigation, but the theory suffered from two errors in assumptions.

First, the designers had made the understandable but naive assumption that the Lihogosa annual rainfall would be the same as at the Tanwat Head Office. a few kilometres down the road. In fact, it turned out to be about 10% lower. Second, the wetland's water level fell by about 60 cm due to evaporation during the dry season, meaning that substantially less water than anticipated was available.

Tanwat's managers and advisors considered numerous solutions - some serious, some in jest - to deal with this intractable problem. Boreholes, improved irrigation technologies, raising the height of the dam.... and one, unforgettable, suggestion of covering the swamp with ping-pong balls to slow down evaporation. We didn't think of it at the time, but maybe a giant umbrella would have done the trick!