Saturday, December 31, 2011

Plus ca change

I have a book on my bookshelf entitled "Realizing the promise and potential of African agriculture". It was published in June 2004 by the Inter Academy Council, following intensive research and consultation in 2002-2003. I found it very useful when I began to develop the investment strategy for African Agricultural Capital in 2005. Well-researched, well-written and well-intentioned, it sets out a shopping list of recommendations that, taken together, will achieve the goal expressed so concisely in the title of the book itself.

Some eight years later, I wonder how many of the recommendations have been acted upon and how much change has taken place for "the man [and woman] with the hoe", which remains the best description of the average African farmer. Certainly, some progress has been made. For example, more African farmers have access to certified seed. Information and communication technologies are infinitely more accessible than they were, as a result of the rapid spread of wireless communication. Rural infrastructure has, in general, got slightly better. Import statistics, at least in East Africa, suggest that the use of fertiliser and crop protection inputs has increased.

Otherwise, however, I suspect that very few elements of the plan have been implemented. Indeed, at the risk of being cynical, I'd hazard a guess that you could repackage and republish the recommendations without anyone noticing that they were first issued eight years ago, and, perish the thought, that you could probably do the same again in 2020....... Worse still, it's already happened, more or less, in the form of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (fondly known as CAADP to its friends).

Why is it that the very well-qualified people that populate the corridors of academia and administrations around the world persist in believing that plans translate into action, when there is so much evidence to the contrary? In his provocative book, The White Man's Burden, the rogue World Banker Bill Easterly argues very strongly that "Planners", at least with regard to foreign development aid, have failed, and that the real agents of change are what he describes as the "Searchers", the people who experiment, who learn from experience what works and what doesn't. He might have described them as "Doers". Easterly is by no means alone in his critique, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain satirized planners and do-gooders more than a hundred years ago. Graham Hancock exposed the hypocrisy and waste in the aid industry in his modern classic The Lords of Poverty. Dambisa Moyo added her voice a few years ago in Dead Aid. And Michael Maren provides anger, emotion and powerful anecdotes of development failure in his well-names The Road to Hell [is paved with good intentions].

Different planners have different justifications for their continuing existence. But, apart from the honest few, who admit to doing a well-rewarded job for money, not love, their justifications are variations on the common themes of self-delusion and faux-humility: we're learning, they say ,we're learning from the past about what works and doesn't work; we're different........ A more plausible justification would be that, in some way, planning fulfils the atavistic human need of security, a belief that the future can be controlled and a desire to perpetuate this comfortable illusion from which bureaucracies derive their power and authority.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Zanzibar Queen

Freddie Mercury would have been 65 earlier this year. It's hard to imagine the most flamboyant of glam-rockers as a pensioner. He died 20 years ago from an AIDS-related illness, but his extraordinary musical talent endures. For the legion of Queen fans, YouTube provides heaven-sent music and video alike. Radio Gaga (with its video montage taken from Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis), I Want to Break Free, Under Pressure and the beautiful Love of my Life, the list goes on and on.

Like all those who are taken from us before their time - one thinks of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon and Princess Diana, among others - Freddie's image is frozen in time. Inez in Huis Clos says "One always dies too soon - or too late. And yet one's whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly underneath it, ready for the summing-up. You are your life, and nothing else." Well, Freddie certainly packed a lot into his 45 years.

Born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar in 1946 into an Indian Parsee family, he left Zanzibar at the time of the 1964 revolution (which overthrew the Sultan and his Arab/Asian government, and led to the union with Tanganyika and founding of Tanzania) and settled in the UK. His musical talent was evident from a young age as a pianist, guitarist and vocalist and, after a few flirtations with unsuccessful bands, he formed Queen in 1970 with Brian May and Roger Taylor. Queen's glory decade began with the phenomenal success of Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975 and reached a climax with their show-stopping performance at Live Aid in 1984. Freddie's ambition was for Queen to be "the Cecil B DeMille of rock n'roll" and David Mallet's Queen videos, with their use of film from the 1920s and 30s, pay homage to the glory days of cinema spectacle.

Sadly, his prodigious talent goes almost unknown in Zanzibar, apart from a sleazily-pleasant bar called Mercury's in Zanzibar town. In 2006, the Zanzibari government sanctioned a celebration of Freddie's 60th birthday, but subsequently withdrew its support of the event after an Islamic pressure group complained on the grounds that Freddie was not a true Zanzibari , that he was gay, which is not permitted under sharia law, and that"associating Mercury with Zanzibar degrades our island as a place of Islam". Freddie would have loathed this intolerance, which speaks volumes about the prevalent attitude in most African countries, regardless of the dominant religion, towards homosexuality.

The great Christian writer, CS Lewis, at the end of the chapter entitled Sexual Morality in his finest book, Mere Christianity, writes as follows: "...If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, then he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasures of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising .... and backbiting; the pleasures of power, and hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the Human self I must try to become. They are the Animal self and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But of course, it is better to be neither."

In Uganda, anti-homosexual rhetoric is particularly virulent, to the extent that parliamentarians have called for the death penalty for practicing homosexuals, and elements of the popular press have published the names and photographs of homosexual Ugandans who dare to make their status public, and have incited violence against them. Early this year, this despicable conduct almost certainly led to the shocking murder of gay rights activist David Kato in Mukono.

Maybe, in time, a more liberal and tolerant attitude towards the ways in which adults choose to indulge their sexual pleasures will develop across the African continent. And maybe Freddie Mercury's matchless talent will be honoured by more than a tourist-targeting cocktail bar in the country of his birth.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas tree

In most of East Africa, December marks the beginning of summer. By mid-December, the short rains are over, the humidity falls and the mercury rises. For anyone who's grown up above the tropic of Cancer, it feels distinctly un-Christmassy, though the occasional appearance of a sweaty-looking Santa Claus and some half-hearted piped Christmas carols in Nakumatt, Shoprite and Game serve as an unwelcome reminder of the commercial excess in most of Europe and North America.

Excess aside, however, Christmas, along with the long evenings of the Wimbledon fortnight in late June and early July, is the time of year when I feel most nostalgic for home. Prototypical bright frosty mornings, Christmas lights strung along the high street and, best of all, the annual task of decorating and admiring the Christmas tree.

The bizarre tradition of chopping down a conifer, bringing inside the house and decorating it hasn't really taken root in most African countries, though a few Harare vendors did a roaring trade in thinnings from the pine plantations in Zimbabwe's eastern highlands. Before that, when I was based in Tanzania's southern highlands, I was lucky enough to live and work on a large wattle and pine plantation, where one of the unwritten benefits of employment was the December visit to the forest to fell a Patula Pine (pictured) and bear it home in triumph.

In Kampala, however, apart from the hideous plastic efforts available in Game, there don't seem to be any Christmas trees on sale. Surely there must be a good business proposition here. Buy up a few acres of mountainside land in Eastern Uganda otherwise unsuitable for farming. Plant the land on a 2-3 year rotation with Patula Pine (or another vaguely Christmassy conifer suitable for the Ugandan environment). Chop them down when they are 2-3 years old and bring them to Kampala for sale at Garden City, Lugogo, Kabalagala and other expatriate hang-outs. Or, better still, make home deliveries on special order. Sell them at $50 each to homesick expatriates and pocket a healthy seasonal profit.......

Come to think of it, the Christmas tree is just the tip of an iceberg. A good quality turkey is very hard to find.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Conservation agriculture

In his French A-Z, included in the fascinating non-fiction miscellany that makes up Bamboo, William Boyd writes about Xavier Rolland, his neighbour in SW France. Rolland has a small farm, which he works himself and, according to Boyd is "possibly the hardest working person I have ever encountered". For those of us who occasionally witness the daily grind of rural life, this comes as little surprise.

Boyd is usually very incisive and accurate in his observations, but in the following passage about Xavier Rolland, he falls prey to a very common misconception about farmers: namely that they enjoy a loving relationship with mother nature. "He ploughs his fields to the very edge of roads. He obliterates hedgerows..... and cuts down trees..... to gain a few extra square metres..... He is close to the land, but his relationship with nature seems more like that of a tenant with a rapacious and demanding landlord. There seems no love of the countryside..." No indeed: in many ways, conventional agriculture is little more than a ceaseless battle against the forces of nature.

Last Sunday evening, I travelled to Northern Tanzania and stayed the night in a small hotel in the town of Boma N'gombe, close to Kilimanjaro. The following morning, I flew about 100km to the south in a tiny single-engine Cessna. It was a bright clear morning. For once, Kilimanjaro was fully visible, resplendent in the sunshine, with a fresh coating of snow and frost. We flew over the semi-arid scrub that makes up such a large proportion of Tanzanian and Kenyan Maasailand. There was little or no sign of agriculture, at least on any scale: indeed, the only signs of human activity were red-clad Maasai herdsmen, their flocks and their manyattas, overnight homesteads for family and flock alike. From the air, the landscape is dotted with trees, except for a few large expanses of grassland. It is a fragile environment: the sandy red soil is prone to rapid erosion, especially if the trees are cleared for cultivation. Rainfall is low and unpredictable. The large expanses of grassland are usually evidence of areas of black cotton soil, where the heavy clay content of the soil prevents drainage, making the land prone to waterlogging and, in turn, unsuitable for most trees.

African farmers have traditionally avoided farming black cotton soil. It is heavy and hard to work using hand tools. But, in comparison to the red soils which are preferred, it is nutrient-rich. In some parts of the world (Queensland and Southern Brazil, for example), commercial farmers using conservation agriculture techniques have managed to unlock the potential of these soils to great effect.

Conservation agriculture is yet to be widely adopted in Africa, perhaps because so little of the continent is commercially farmed. Often called zero-tillage farming, it has three fundamental principles: to minimise soil disturbance, thereby preventing erosion, water loss and the oxidisation of organic material; to increase organic matter in the soil, creating a living rather than an inert soil environment; and regular crop rotation, reducing the build-up of pests and pathogens in the soil.

Later that same day, I returned to Sanya Juu, a small town on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro. We invested in the development of a Hass avocado plantation there about four years ago. The young trees are already laden with fruit (as shown in the picture above). The environment there is very different. Annual rainfall is higher. Soils are fertile and deep. The altitude is higher and the ambient temperature cooler. European farmers (like Xavier Rolland) feel at home in this more temperate environment, where conventional farming methods yield excellent results.

But across Tanzania, (and elsewhere in East Africa), these areas are already farmed very intensively. To unlock Tanzania's agricultural potential, farmers will need to venture further into lower altitudes and semi-arid conditions, and will need to adopt new farming methods suitable for different soil types, in the forefront of which is conservation agriculture.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cordylobia anthropophaga

The description "Man-eater" is most often used of lions and tigers, but that's what the scientific name for this small and apparently inoffensive fly means. Anthropophagus, derived from the Greek words for eating human flesh. The culprit is not the adult fly, but its larva, which burrows into its host and feasts on its flesh before emerging from the skin to enter its pupa phase.

Variously called the Putsi fly, Tumbu fly, or Mango fly, cordylobia anthropophaga is a thoroughly nasty little creature, as attested by the rebarbative set of images that an internet search on "putsi fly" produces. And now, after almost 20 years of residency in sub-Saharan Africa, I can also personally attest to the discomfort caused by this mini-man-eater. Called Mango fly because of its affinity with mango trees, it lays its eggs on damp surfaces, including laundry hanging out to dry. A thorough ironing kills the eggs, but if, as I did, you impatiently grab an article of clothing from the washing line, you do so at your own peril. Never again!