Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Property is theft!"

“La propriété, c'est le vol!” stated the anarchist French philosopher Proudhon (pictured above in fellow-revolutionary Gustave Courbet's portrait) in 1840. I first heard this as a callow 17 year-old, and found it bewildering. How could property ownership be equated with theft? To anyone brought up in a capitalist society, it seemed preposterous.

Here’s a link to a well-written and subtle analysis by Oxfam stalwart and land rights expert Robin Palmer, supporting Oxfam’s reputation for policy leadership, with the provocative title “Would Cecil Rhodes have signed a code of conduct [in relation to large scale land acquisition]?
Palmer draws on his experience of the scramble for Cambodia, reviews the literature available on land acquisition, biofuel production, etc and reaches uncomfortable conclusions in this excellent paper. In particular, while no-one would deny the critical importance of increasing agricultural productivity in Africa, the risks to the rural poor from the latest scramble (echoing Leopold in Congo and Rhodes in Zimbabwe) from dispossession, dislocation and displacement are huge. In these circumstances, Proudhon's radical statement makes a great deal of sense. The whole idea of fencing off great swathes of land may have contributed to economic growth, but it certainly raises complex ethical questions over the right of individuals to own, in perpetuity, pieces of the planet. Furthermore, anyone with knowledge of recent events in Zimbabwe understands the political timebomb that the inequitable distribution of land can trigger.

These concerns will, of course, be far from the minds of the current wave of private equity fund managers criss-crossing the continent in search of arable land, with their investment horizon of no more than seven or eight years and for whom investments in African agriculture are little more than a play on undervalued land assets. Palmer concludes that Cecil Rhodes would have been more than willing to sign a code of conduct, but would have abandoned it at the first obstacle. It is hard to escape the conclusion that present investors will adopt a similar strategy.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Climb every mountain

Earlier this year, the Kampala Amateur Dramatic Society staged the world's favourite musical, The Sound of Music. I am not a fan of the unashamedly sentimental and heavily embellished story of the von Trapp escape from Austria and, as a result, my mind frequently wandered during much of the production; even, I am sorry to say, during the spirited rendition of Maria's mission to "Climb every mountain".

This song made me think, a little bizarrely, about entrepreneurship and the huge challenges presented by establishing and managing a successful business. As an investor in early stage businesses, I am only too aware of the disheartening statistic quoted by venture capitalists that only 3 out of 10 new businesses survive beyond their first two years, and that only a small fraction of those grow into even moderately successful enterprises. And yet, brave people keep doing it.

Why is successful entrepreneurship so difficult? It demands a very rare combination of personal qualities: a marriage of vision, imagination and creativity with the cold-hearted pragmatism required in order to manage a business effectively. It requires tenacity, determination, stubbornness and, most elusive of all, luck.

Having said that, I do believe that entrepreneurs can do very well in Africa, despite the manifold difficulties of launching successful businesses. African economies are growing rapidly and, except in a few hotspots like Nairobi and Lagos, they tend not to be as crowded or competitive as in many wealthier economies. Furthermore, Africa is, on the whole, a low cost environment with an under-utilised labour force and massive natural resources. There are, of course, a variety of challenges, principal among which is the need to manage the internal factors of a business effectively. Otherwise, no matter how good an idea it is, the business will fail. But there is also help available, from the numerous donor-backed small enterprise support programmes that are a feature of most African capital cities - and indeed also from the increasing number of venture capital funds in search of good quality investing opportunities.

"Climb every mountain" should be the entrepreneur's anthem. It represents the triumph of hope over experience, of optimism over pessimism. Entrepreneurs are the change-makers, and we should celebrate their achievements. As Lord Darlington (in Lady Windermere's Fan) said "we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars". I doubt if Oscar Wilde had entrepreneurs in mind when he wrote Darlington's part, but it is nevertheless a wonderfully simple expression of what it means to be a human being - a stubborn refusal to accept our own insignificance and the status quo.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


This is the Rwanda Genocide Museum in Kigali. Residents and visitors alike are reminded of the Rwandese catastrophe in 1994.

In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond provides a history of the many forces which lead societies to decline and fall. One chapter is devoted to Rwanda, which he analyses in the context of Thomas Malthus's bleak 200-year old theory: human population growth is exponential, whereas agricultural production growth is linear, and therefore population will expand until it consumes all available food unless it is halted by one or more of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Malthus's theory has aroused considerable debate and emotion for many years. It has been rejected by many academics on the basis of what has actually happened. The global population has, after all, grown by a factor of 10 since the beginning of the 19th century without absolute disaster. This achievement owes a great deal to scientific and technological advancement: without the Haber-Bosch process to convert atmospheric nitrogen into fertiliser, without the development of high yielding hybrid crops, and without the invention of the instruments of deforestation humankind would have run out of food long ago. And we may yet stave off failure in the food supply for some time to come: we are after all yet to possess the technologies to exploit even a fraction of the world's marine resources. We have also managed to change reproductive behaviour. Voluntarily, through the adoption of contraception, and, in some less-than-liberal countries, through compulsory legislation limiting the number of children per family. Indeed, so effective a tool has contraception proved to be that economic threats from an ageing population - for example in Japan and many European countries - are becoming a matter of great concern.

However, Malthus may still be correct, if not on a global scale, but at the level of particular economies. There is certainly reason to believe that the failures of the Mayan and Khmer civilisations were driven by population growth leading to environmental destruction, and, in Collapse, Diamond argues that the Rwandese genocide was in part driven by the same factors. "Friends who visited Rwanda in 1984 sensed an ecological disaster in the making. The whole country looked like a garden..... Steep hills were being farmed right up to their crests. Even the most elementary measures that could have minimised soil erosion, such as terracing, plowing along contours and providing fallow cover of vegetation..... were not being practiced." (Certainly, when I visited Rwanda in 2002, it seemed as if every square metre of available land was being cultivated, right up to the edge of the mountain top forests that are home to Rwanda's precious population of mountain gorillas). The median farm size had shrunk to less than quarter of an acre. Under these circumstances, increasing numbers of Rwandese were unable to feed themselves and their families. Family tensions and disputes over inheritance became more widespread. Diamond concludes his Rwanda discussion by asserting that population increase was a contributory factor to the 1994 genocide

In the broader African context, this is interesting. The population of the continent as a whole has exploded over the past 40 years. Food production has increased , despite inefficient farming techniques, as a result of the widespread adoption of new crops (especially those originating from the Americas). Maternal and child mortality rates have drastically improved. Conflict has - despite external news coverage - significantly decreased. This creates extraordinary statistics. For example, more than 50% of the population of Niger and Uganda is aged 16 and under. Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and many other African countries have demographic profiles which are not dissimilar. An opportunity - economists like to call it a demographic dividend - but also a threat of social unrest from a relatively poorly educated, unskilled, but rapidly increasing labour force. Could other countries in Africa be at threat of a Rwandese disaster?

In this context, the current trend for large-scale investors - both public and private - in acquiring massive landholdings is relevant. Considerable publicity has recently been given to "land-grabbing" in Africa. There is an entire website devoted to the topic ( The World Bank has published a report into land acquisition in Africa. The conversion of agricultural land from food to biofuel production comes in for special attention. Rightly so - in the context of weak governance, low levels of transparency, traditional land rights and a rapidly increasing population - large-scale land acquisition presents a considerable long term social and economic risk. Let us hope that the countries most at risk will sign up for and implement the World Bank's recommendations of how to manage the process.

Friday, September 10, 2010

In praise of millet

When I was a child growing up in suburban England, I thought millet was birdseed. I would see it in budgerigar cages at the local pet shop. I loved birds and longed to keep a budgie of my own, but because my mother didn't like caged birds, I was never allowed to have one. I was also very interested in wild birds and used, with more success, to pester my parents to buy something called Swoop, a mixture of seeds formulated specially to attract wild birds to gardens. Swoop mostly consisted of millet, niger, maize and sunflower seed chips. Regular visitors to our bird table were the workaday sparrows, starlings, robins, blue tits and blackbirds of Southern England, but occasionally exciting newcomers dropped in - bullfinches, nuthatches, mistle thrushes, redwings, goldfinches, and many others.

Millet is one of the few widely-consumed staple crops indigenous to Africa. Maize, potatoes and cassava are all imported from the Americas; bananas, rice and wheat originate from Asia and the Middle East, but millet, along with sorghum and yam, is an original African staple. I first consumed millet in the form of toh, a brown, sticky, slightly sour porridge, in the baking heat and dust of Ouahigouya in northern Burkina Faso many years ago. In Burkina - and across much of the Sahel - millet is an important crop. It is ground and cooked into breads or porridge, or, as I also discovered, it is fermented and made into a sour and cloudy beer.

Once harvested, millet keeps extremely well and is seldom attacked by pests. Its long storage capacity makes millet essential to food security strategies for poorer farming communities in Africa, especially across the Sahel. Plus, it is a remarkably resilient crop. In the words of ICRISAT, quoted in Securing the Harvest: "We are talking about a crop...... that grows where not even weeds can survive; a crop that has been improved by farmers for thousands of years; a crop that produces nourishment from the poorest soils in the driest regions in the hottest climates". Not only does it grow in the most marginal land, and keep well, but millet is nutritionally superior to maize and rice. It has a higher protein and oil content than most grains (especially important in Africa where oil crops in semi-arid ecosystems are scarce).

These features make it all the stranger that millet is one of the so-called "orphan" crops in sub-Saharan Africa. At least until recently, little attention has been placed by research organisations in Africa in developing hybrid millet varieties to increase crop yields, despite the enormous success of hybrid millet crops in India. This oversight is, however, being remedied. The photo above, taken from the Gates Foundation website, shows a field of improved millet in Western Kenya. The importance of millet was briefly discussed at the recent African Green Revolution Forum, whereupon my neighbour leaned towards me and asked "Tom, what exactly do you do with millet?" My response was quick as a flash. "You mill it", I said. It was hard to resist the pun.

It would be unwise, of course, to over-praise millet. Even in improved hybrid varieties, its yields are lower than most other staples. Drought-tolerance and hardiness has its price. While in field, it is also prone to attacks by many pests. The Quelea bird, in particular, is attracted to millet fields and its flocks can decimate crops in the space of a few hours. Hardly surprising, given my first acquaintance with millet. Birdseed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The African Green Revolution - Accra

I had the privilege of participating in the African Green Revolution Forum in Accra last week. It was enormously uplifting to attend this event - some 800 delegates gathered together to develop plans and share ideas on how to revitalize African agriculture.

Along with all the pomp and ceremony that accompanies events like this, the content of the Forum was deeply thought-provoking, in particular the emphasis on the need for both public and private sector investment to unlock Africa's agricultural potential. Anyone with an interest in investing in the sector is well-advised to visit the Forum's website for extensive coverage of the discussions and agreed actions.

Needless to say, given my own particular professional interests, support to the seed sector figured highly on my agenda at the Forum. It was gratifying to hear about the numerous initiatives underway to support seed research, development and commercialization, though much more needs to be done at a policy level to accelerate the release of new seed varieties. In particular, I would like to see national research organisations - and individual plant breeders - able to secure financial rewards from varieties successfully launched into the market. Well-structured incentives to breeders and researchers would almost certainly increase the flow of new and improved varieties to farmers - and numerous models exist from North American and European research institutions. Having said that, robust systems for the registration, protection and enforcement of Intellectual Property rights are also required (and are absent in many African countries).

On a lighter note, I certainly can't complain about the hotel accommodation in Accra. Having initially been disappointed to have been booked by the organisers to stay at the Holiday Inn close to Kotoka airport - rather than having an ocean view at the Labadi Beach Hotel - my disappointment was assuaged on discovering on arrival at the Holiday Inn that my room had been upgraded, to the extraordinary dimensions of the Presidential Suite, no less!