Thursday, August 25, 2011

No Exit

Kampala Amateur Dramatics Society's next production will be the great French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's Huis Clos, usually translated in English to No Exit. It will be staged on the first two weekends in November as a dinner theatre production, and offers Kampala audiences something very different to KADS's usual fare.

The plot is simple: three condemned souls are incarcerated in a room in which the essentials of any sort of civilised life are absent - no bathroom, no privacy, no books, no mirrors. Their punishment is to torture each other by picking over each other's lives in an eternal present from which there is no escape. The play's most famous quote is "L'enfer, c'est les autres" (Hell is other people) but my own favourite is Garcin's observation that [the three lost souls] "are chasing after each other, round and round, in a vicious circle, like horses on a merry-go-round."

A friend observed yesterday that Sartre's hell is very close to his own idea of hell: a place in which God/Jesus is absent. It's hard to disagree: there is no God and no love in the room - and the natural world is completely closed off - but it also makes me think of the hell of the Big Brother house, where repulsive contestants voluntarily subject themselves to a complete lack of privacy in exchange for the possibility of winning a large cash prize, and, ghouls that we are, we revel in their torments for the vicarious pleasure of not being there with them.

No Exit certainly promises to provide some food for thought (please excuse the pun) for its dining audience in November. It will make challenging and thought-provoking theatre, itself all too absent in KADS' normal round of frothy comedies, feelgood musicals and traditional pantomime.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cassava Disease

About this time last year, the Economist featured an article about the spread of new varieties of stem rust, a fungal disease which can cause significant crop losses in wheat. The variety of stem rust causing most anxiety among agricultural scientists is rather unimaginatively called UG99, having been first observed by Ugandan researcher William Wagoire in 1999.

Stem rust (pictured) is not a new disease: the late great Norman Borlaug's work initially focused on breeding stem rust-resistant wheat varieties, when he made the serendipitous discovery of the gene Sr31 that not only increased tolerance to stem rust, but also substantially increased yields (and was one of the most important contributors to the Green Revolution in the 1960s).

It's not clear yet how widespread Ug99 will become, or how it can be controlled, and so it presents a considerable threat to the world's most important food crop (alongside rice).

Given the importance of agriculture, it used to surprise me how seldom news stories like this appear. On reflection, though, perhaps it isn't really so surprising. I recently read, for the first time, Amartya Sen's long essay Poverty and Famine, in which the renowned economist argued that famine was caused not by the non-availability of food, but rather by inefficient food distribution mechanisms and a lack of money. Experience bears this out - when was the last time anyone heard of a serious food shortage in a wealthy country with decent roads and other infrastructure? As a result of this - and the separation of modern urban life from the soil - the overwhelming majority have no experience or understanding of agriculture. A constant food supply is taken for granted, so why on earth would agriculture be in any way newsworthy?

This week, however, I was surprised to hear a similar story on BBC World Sevice on another critical staple crop, cassava. As many as a billion people depend on cassava's starchy roots as a staple food, and yet it is hardly known outside the tropics (except in the long-deceased tapioca pudding of my youth). It is particularly important in West Africa, and also in parts of East & Central Africa.

Cassava is an excellent food security crop, as it can survive in drought conditions. In areas of Uganda, it is treated as a "food bank" - when supplies of fresh matooke bananas or other staples run low, cassava roots provide a reserve source of carbohydrates. In other parts of the world, cassava is also used for industrial starch production, for animal feeds and, more recently, as a feeder crop for ethanol production.

TheBBC report highlighted a report just published by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture. The report warns of the dangers presented by cassava's four most damaging pests and diseases: cassava mosaic disease (pictured), green mite, brown streak disease and whitefly. The report urges the establishment of early warning systems for disease outbreaks, so that they can be contained quickly and effectively before spreading to other regions. Cassava, like bananas and potatoes, is propagated using plant cuttings rather than conventional seed. This means that infected plants can move rapidly from region to region, increasing the risk of disease transmission.

It's not the exciting political news that keeps us glued to CNN and Al-Jazeera newsfeeds. But, for the billions that make up the so-called bottom of the pyramid, it's a lot more important.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Malawi shandy

A Malawi shandy is simple and delicious: a mixture of soda water, lemonade, ginger beer and angostura bitters, served with plenty of ice cubes in the largest available glass to hand. Nothing better on a hot Southern African day (except possibly a cold beer). Sadly, I missed out on a Malawi shandy during my most recent visit, but apart from that, my visit to the "warm heart of Africa" did not disappoint.

It was good to see considerable progress at both of our Malawi investee seed companies, Seed Tech and Funwe Farm. Production volumes on the increase and belief in and commitment to the future. As with all East & Southern African countries, agriculture is the modus vivendi for the majority. The Malawi government introduced a highly successful Agricutural Inputs Susbidy Programme about four years ago: a well-managed subsidy scheme that has led to considerable growth in the distribution of quality certified seeds and fertiliser throughout the country, created an opportunity for seed companies to develop and, if reports are accurate, led to an increase in farm yields of between 50% and 100%.

And yet the future of this successful programme may be in jeopardy, because Malawi is running out of money. An undignified spat with the British government earlier this year led to the mutual expulsion of high commissioners, followed by a suspension by the British of budgetary support to the Malawi government, in turn followed by the reduction and suspension of other bilateral aid programmes to the country. Malawi is heavily dependent on aid inflows, among other things because of its considerable trade imbalance, and the suspension of aid has resulted in a shortage of foreign exchange - most clearly visible in queues at petrol stations and the informal rationing of fuel. Under these circumstances, will Malawi be able to cntinue to afford its agricultural subsidy programme? Let's hope so: it would be a tragedy if the gains in productivity over the past five years were lost in a political squabble.

As a fringe benefit, my visit to Malawi also enabled me to spend three nights at the Norman Carr Cottage in Monkey Bay. The London Review of Breakfasts blog post on the Norman Carr Cottage in 2006, together with its two comments, speak volumes for this most idyllic lodging, which serves to demonstrate that hotel facilities are unimportant in comparison to hospitality, location and simple good food. My advice is simple: go there if you possibly can, relax in a hammock under the giant sycamore fig tree beside the lake, order a Malawi shandy, and thank God you are alive.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Uganda's burning

It's been a pretty awful month so far. It started with an appalling fire at Owino market (Kampala's largest and busiest) in the early hours of the morning, and ever since then, the newspapers have been full of gloomy news.

Among other things, East Africa has now been identified as a major drug transit point, for both international and local distribution. This comes as little surprise to any of us who see large amounts of conspicuous consumption by young people wth no apparent profession, (legitimate) business or family wealth. It certainly doesn't look like hard-earned money. What did, however, come as a surprise to me was the assertion in the newspapers that the maximum penalty for offenders who pleads guilty to the possession or trafficking of narcotics is a fine of one million Ugandan shillings (about $350 at current exchange rates).

The economy continues to struggle. Despite reasonable rates of economic growth, the effects of increasing fuel prices and a 20% fall in the exchange rate since the beginning of the year has resulted in high inflation rates without (as yet) any benefits from economic growth trickling down to the "man in the Kampala taxi". Poor harvests in the first half of 2011 combined with food shortages within the East African region as a whole have also pushed food prices much higher.

Teachers are demanding significant salary increases and threatening strike action. On the one hand, it's hard not to feel sympathy for teachers. How families can survive on income of less than 1 million Ugandan shillings (remember - the maximum fine for narcotics possession) per month I do not know, but at the same time Uganda's tax base is so low that it's impossible to see how the Government can afford an increase in teachers' salaries, not to mention the knock-on effect on other public sector workers of a salary increase to teachers. And, as a separate issue, while the quantity of education service delivery in Uganda has increased dramatically in recent years under the Universal Primary Education (UPE) initiative, the quality of education provided through UPE is generally acknowledged to be very poor. Makerere University lecturers are also threatening strike action for similar (and even less justified) reasons.

And now the "giveaway" of Mabira Forest, which seemed to have been shelved following public discontent in 2007, is back on the agenda, apparently in order to increase the amount of sugar cane under cultivation. It seems desperately sad tha,t in a country where so much land with arable potental lies idle, one of its few remaining natural forests is under threat of being cleared for sugar cane cultivation.

Even at a domestic level, this has been a particularly bad month. While Owino was burning, our refrigerator caught fire on Sunday morning. We awoke to the acrid smell of smoke, and the terrifying experience of flames and smoke in one's own home. Fortunately, I managed to remember most of the things one is supposed to do in a fire (apart, that is, from calling Kampala's underfunded fire brigade) - evacuate the house, switch off the elecricity, smother the flames, and so on, though I did forget to cover my nose and mouth and as a result inhaled an unpleasant amount of smoke. It goes without saying that we now have a fire extinguisher, a fire blanket and two smoke alarms installed.

I feel for the market traders at Owino, though. It's hard to make an honest living in Kampala at the best of times. And it's certainly not the best of times in Uganda.