Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Seed Tribe

Earlier this week, I attended a workshop to discuss the future financing of Africa's seed industry, convened by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and held at one of Nairobi's swankiest hotels, Tribe, located next to the Village Market in Gigiri. While Tribe is an extremely stylish venue, no question, it fails the gestalt test in that its constituent parts make up much more than its whole. Everything is beautiful - yet together it somehow lacks a coherent theme. The venue aside, the workshop itself was outstanding.

Some six years ago, nobody was interested in investing in Africa's seed sector, so the presence of at least six representatives from actual or potential investors was very encouraging. Increasing populations, increasing food prices and long term investment in the breeding of crop varieties specifically suited to a range of different topographies have created an environment which may break the low input/low output cycle in African agriculture.

But attractive industry fundamentals don't automatically result in attractive investment opportunities. Managing a seed business is difficult and fraught with risk. It involves the maintenance of "breeder seed" - the parental material from which hybrid seed is itself produced. It involves uninsurable agricultural risks (drought, disease, pests, etc), regardless of whether it is produced by outgrowers or on owned farm land. Especially for hybrid seed, maintaining appropriate isolation during crop flowering to avoid genetic contamination is a challenge. Once the seed crop is harvested, it needs to be transported for sorting, drying, processing and storage, with attendant logistics and processing risks. Because agriculture is seasonal, all this has to be done some 5-8 months before the seeds are actually sold to farmers, which in turn leads to a cash flow challenge during the holding period. And then, seed companies face the universal business challenge of managing their large number of small agro-dealer debtors.......

Growth, too, brings its own business challenges. An owner-manager can generally manage a small business without too much managerial support, but as his/her business grows, s/he must invest in recruiting new managers, the development of business administration systems, internal controls and the delegation of authority.

Given all these risks, it often amazes me that there are people out there who want to take up this challenge and deliver improved seed to Africa's farmers. But there are, and they are a remarkable group of astonishingly determined and unsung heroes. During the conference, Aline O'Connor Funk, consultant to AGRA and a former seed business owner-manager in the United States, shared with us the tag-line of the American Seed Association. "First, the seed". It would take a brave person to disagree.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My memory of 9/11

It's hard to believe that it's the tenth anniversary of the assault on New York and the World Trade Centre. People of my parents' generation used to say that they could always remember what they were doing on the day of JFK's assassination in 1963. I suspect 9/11 will have the same impact for my generation.

I was at home in Harare, at number 25 Brentford Road, close to Ballantyne Park. In August 2001, after a particularly gruelling travel schedule, shuttling between the UK, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Zimbabwe, I came down with a very painful and debilitating attack of shingles. Because I was struggling to recover, the CDC medical adviser, the redoubtable Dr Paul Clarke, advised me to have specialist medical review in the UK.

As chance would have it, my UK flight was scheduled for about 9 pm on the evening of 9/11, when the news broke at about 4 pm Southern African time. I was busy packing my bags for the flight. The BBC website bore the extraordinary and unthinkable breaking news that first one and then a second aircraft had crashed into the World Trade Centre. I remember switching on the TV and seeing the first footage before setting off for Harare's airport in a taxi.

The mood on arrival at the airport and in the BA departure lounge was sombre. Together with the other passengers, I watched events unfolding on CNN and Sky TV. A lot of alcohol was being consumed in silence. Later, as we boarded the BA flight to London (one of the last flights before many airlines grounded their planes), I found myself sitting next to an Algerian-born female journalist. We chatted for a while, anxiously, both slightly drunk, before lapsing into silence as the cabin lights were dimmed and the plane thundered down the runway. Oddly - perhaps because of the alcohol or because of my illness - I had the best night's sleep on a plane that I have ever had.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Real Impact

Back in the innocent days, "malnutrition" was used as another word for famine. I still remember the shock of Michael Buerk's reports from Ethiopia in 1984, when pictures of malnourished children horrified the British public and inspired Bob Geldof's extraordinary Live Aid campaign. Today, famine has returned to East Africa, threatening the survival of up to one million Somalis (maybe more) and, indirectly, the stability of the region as a whole.

Since then, the aid industry has become, for want of a better word, professionalised. There are hundreds of new organsations working alongside the UN, the International Red Cross, Oxfam, Save The Children, Care et al, all of whom have communications and PR departments vying with each other for press coverage and donor recognition for their work. Yet, despite the proliferation and professionalisation, thr four horsemen of the apocalypse still have their powers undimmed, and the survival of millions is at severe risk. To be fair, Somalia presents a unique set of challenges to the distributors of emergency food supplies. The state of anarchy that has prevailed since the late 1980s and a complete lack of basic physical and social infrastructure creates an extremely dangerous vacuum for the aid agencies to operate in.

But malnutrition is not just about the quantity of food available, but also its nutritional content. The FAO estimates that up to 80% of malnoursihed children live in countries with food surpluses. Countless people across East Africa (and elsewhere, of course) suffer from an impoverished diet, excessive in carbohydrates and frequently lacking in essential vitamins and minerals. The poor quality of diet manifests itself in numerous chronic health conditions, in particular in the high and increasing rates of diabetes in the region.

There are two general solutions to poor nutrition: one, do nothing about the diet itself, but fortify its constituents with synthetically-produced vitamins and minerals. I call this the sticking-plaster approach, doing nothing about the fundamental cause of the problem, nor addressing some of the long term adverse health consequences of poor diet. However, it seems to be the preferred solution by health ministries in the region - in Kenya, for example, it is becoming common for maize flour and even sugar manufacturers to add Vitamin A and other nutritional supplements to their products. This is a good thing, in that it does at least ensure that children (in particular) have sufficient nutrition to grow properly, but it needs to be balanced with a second solution, which addresses the root cause of the problem and provide people with the education, knowledge and practical guidance to improve their diets. To be more specific, with regard to Vitamin A deficiency, the Kenyan consumer can purchase vitamin A-fortified bags of sugar, but s/he should also eat more pumpkins and carrots.

About five years ago, l made an investment, through African Agricultural Capital, in an early stage integrated pest management (IPM) business operating in Thika, central Kenya, called Real IPM. The business began by supplying phytoseiulus persimilis (a mite which preys on rose growers' most damaging pest, the red spider mite) to the Kenyan floricultural industry, thereby enabling rose growers to use fewer synthetic pesticides with both cost and environmental benefits. Since then, Real IPM has grown into a successful biopesticides and IPM business, developing its product range, its customer base and its geographical scope.

Not content with its success alone, its founders, Louise Labuschagne and Henry Wainwright, have established a not-for-profit organisation called Real Impact ( which is pioneering the improvement of nutrition in and around the Thika area of central Kenya, working with a range of organisations (schools, hospitals, community organisations, etc) to establish "nutrition gardens" - essentially equipping these organisations with the skills and know-how to improve the diets of their beneficiaries through the cultivation of kitchen gardens with a range of vegetables, legumes and staples designed to improve the nutritional profile of a Kenyan institutional diet.

Nutrition gardens may not be a solution for Somalia, but they do offer a much more sustainable solution to malnutrition than the sticking-plaster of food additives. Knowing the tenacity and determination that has propelled the growth of Real IPM, I am sure that Real Impact will live up to its name, and, in time, transform dietary behaviour in its chosen region and beyond.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Goat racing

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending Kampala's leading social event of the year, the Royal Ascot Goat Races at the Speke Resort in Munyonyo, as a member of a syndicate with a goat in each race. In keeping with tradition, goats are named by their owners, their names being derived from (fictitious) sires and dams. One of our goats was the superbly named Hugh Grant - by California Freeway out of Devine - but alas, he failed to rise to the occasion.

The racing itself is entirely incidental to the day out. Goats aren't like greyhounds - they don't run for fun - and they are of course too small to have jockeys to urge them along. So the racecourse consists of a grassy oval, fenced inside and out, and the goats are pushed around the course by a kind of manual snowplough. Every now and again, one breaks into a trot, and, as they approach the finishing line, that is what decides the winner. Our syndicate managed one winner and one third place, which was almost enough to cover the costs of purchasing the animals. The real benefit of ownership, though, is that it confers VIP status on syndicate members, with entry to the owners' marquee with unlimited food and beer and wine on tap.

This is a Kampala society day out, to come, to see and to be seen, to drink copiously, to admire the ladies dressed up to the nines, and to forget..... And, brash though it is, it does raise a great deal of money for local charities, and in that regard at least, it probably delivers more social value than its infinitely more famous eponymous parent in the third week of June in England.