Sunday, December 29, 2013

Can a city girl become a farm mouse?

Growing up I used to pride myself in being able to do so many household chores. Yes even farming.
Back then it was non voluntary.
My parents would find ways of coercing us to go to the shamba (farm) and more often than not I would do it so diligently so that I could get the often promised carrots.
Me and my siblings would dig, uproot weeds, plant crops and even harvest at different times of the month.
But one can pull the this tactics just for a few times and as we grew up and went to school in far of places, there was need for other farming alternatives like hiring help.
Time flew and soon I found myself working in the capital. Recently when I found myself going to my rural home for holiday, I kept wondering whether I would remember how to hold a hoe or how to till the land.
Being in the city did not make me a total blond. I still remember how a hoe looks like and the way to the Shamba is etched at the back of my memory. But there is a certain angle within in which the hoe hits the ground to make the greatest impact.
A certain way to arc your back while digging to ensure that you do not have a backache or get tired only after a short while.  While these questions bogged my mind, I began remembering the pleasant memories associated with farming while growing up.
The songs we would sing as we went to pick some kales, the games of hide and seek we would play, how we would eat the mangoes from the tree as self rewards for our hard work and even make a fire to boil or roast some maize when we were tired of chasing of the monkeys from eating the produce during harvesting season.
It created a nostalgic feeling that I want back. Not exactly being young but the sense of adventure that farming created.
In my work I have had the opportunity to share time with young farmers people like me who have gone back to till the land and living well of it.
Urban farmers and rural farmers, the old and young alike all have one thing in common the passion for farming and doing what they love.
Maybe it is this association that has rubbed off in me and sparked a new fire. Ensuring that I can do something about food security is my new goal. The journey won’t be easy but this city girl is getting transformed into the farm mouse!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

As Lucky as her name

While her agemates were out celebrating completion of college, Lucky Ndanu was facing what she terms as the worst battle of her life.
Ms Ndanu was just 22 when she noticed a lump in her right breast. She sought medical attention from a nearby clinic but the doctor said that the small swelling was a common feature of physical development in young women and that there was nothing to worry about.
That was in November 2007. Soon Ms Ndanu noticed that the lump had become more aggressive and opted to go for a mammogram.
“When the results came out I decided to go to Mater Hospital because I felt that I needed an expert opinion on the issue. They put be through a breast clinic for two months which included getting a biopsy of the lump,” Ms Ndanu said.
When she went to pick her results from the hospital, her doctor informed her that she could not do so unless she was accompanied by an adult person. Her family did not reside in Nairobi, but as luck would have it Ms Ndanu’s mother was in the city and agreed to accompany her to the hospital.
“The way I reacted to news that I had breast cancer was very different from my mother who broke down. I was at the time unable to express myself and I just smiled. I guess the fact that I was the only girl in the family hit my mother hard,” she recalled.
Chemotherapy, mastectomy radiation and hormonal therapy were among the treatments that the doctor said she had to embark on immediately. But Ms Ndanu felt that she needed time to digest the news and come to terms with the diagnosis. However, she went for counselling soon after and later embarked on treatment.
“There were times when I felt that I should not go through the treatment, that it was not worth it. At other times I felt like I should be treated in order to save my life, it took me from February to May 2008 to finally make up my mind,” she said.
The first stage of her treatment process was a mastectomy. “It was my worst experience, admitting that I had cancer was difficult. I eventually lost my right breast to the disease,” Ms Ndanu said.
Feel like a real woman
After treatment, it took Ms Ndanu about four months to recover at the family home in Machakos before she decided to go back to Nairobi and continue with her job hunt. The support group she joined helped her get a breast prosthesis which ‘‘made me feel like a real woman’’.
She landed a job at the Kenya Pharmaceutical Association in December 2008.
‘‘One of my bosses was a supporter of the breast cancer group I attended and knew about my status so I did not have any difficulty within the work environment. I stayed there for two years,” she said.
Ms Ndanu later moved to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics where she worked under contract, after which she moved to the Mlolongo weighbridge for a short period.
Even though the Diploma in Statistics graduate is currently out of work, she said that she still markets her competency to potential employers.
“My self-esteem is very high, I look for jobs like any other person. I do not use my cancer experience to seek favours, it has made me stronger and I don’t feel like it is something that anybody should pity me about,” she said.
Accept your situation
Ms Ndanu found out that she was pregnant last year. She chose to focus on a new chapter in her life rather than be obsessed with not getting a job — that of becoming a mother.
After treatment, Ms Ndanu had doubts about becoming pregnant due to the hormonal therapy which she had been put on. As the May delivery date grew closer, some of her friends and family members expressed fear over whether she would be able to breast-feed her baby.
“Most of my friends did not imagine that I could exclusively breast-feed my child, one of them even introduced me to a nutritionist just in case I needed supplements to breast milk,” she said.
Her baby girl, Abriana, was all smiles throughout the interview, seeking to suckle her mother like any normal healthy baby. At five months she weighed 7.3 kilogrammes and her mother was overjoyed.
“One of my fears after being diagnosed with breast cancer was whether I would be able to date someone or get a baby, but here I am very happy and content to have Abriana,” she said.
Her advice to young women who find themselves in a similar predicament is to accept their situation.
“Healing starts with yourself. Take it positively, accept your situation and everybody around you will learn to accept it also,” she said. Mr Philip Odiyo, a psycho-oncologist at the Faraja Cancer Support Trust, echoed Ms Ndanu’s positive outlook.
“It is important for the healing process that those diagnosed with cancer should resume normalcy,” he said.
He advised breast cancer patients undergoing treatment to get back to work as soon as possible.
“Patients who keep away from social engagements during treatment are more likely to get depressed and worry about recurrence of cancer. Going back to work provides a good distraction and sets the stage for healing to begin,” he said.
Mr Odiyo said that every stage of treatment has a psychological component. For instance, when a person is diagnosed with cancer; fear of the disease, treatment cost and the reaction of family members occupy their minds even as they come to terms with the grim diagnosis.
“As much as having cancer is not synonymous with a death sentence, some patients still think of it with the same gravity and throughout the treatment they think of the risks associated with treatment,” he explained.
The psychologist who specialises in counselling of cancer patients said image and interpersonal relation issues take precedence among younger women, they also ponder over the possibility of bearing children.
After treatment many cancer patients are overwhelmed by lifestyle changes that they need to make, the process changes their perspective of life. There is a mental shift of what is really important to them.
“Research has shown that social activities help in the holistic healing process and cancer survivors need to engage in them fully as well as use their experience to make it a positive thing,” he said.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Clean toilets: A basic right that is still denied

For the first time, the world celebrated the toilet day on November 19—a day that might draw sniggers and a few bowel jokes, but is about saving lives, particularly of children.
For some people the picture of a dirty latrine with flies buzzing around comes to mind when the word toilet is mentioned. Others think of the comfort and privacy of having to handle their business. Yet many still see it as a luxury relieving them in anywhere and in whatever container they can find.
An estimated 2,000 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhoeal diseases globally, and of these some 1,800 deaths are linked to water, sanitation and hygiene. Ironically, the world observes the sanitation access a day before celebrating their children.
According to the United Nations 2.5 billion people in the world do not have access to a toilet, meaning one in every three people do not go to a toilet. More than one billion people are also said to practise open defecation. Of these 949 million live in rural areas.
The number of people relieving themselves in the open has decreased by 271 million globally since 1990 even though three in every 20 people still use forests, fields or water bodies.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage of the people practising open defecation has been decreasing in the last to decades. Forty-five per cent of the population use shared or rudimentary sanitation facilities while 25 per cent are said to be defecating in public.
Sadly, the decreasing percentage does not reflect the actual numbers that continue to grow with population. Since 1990 33 million people more have taken to open defecation according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef joint monitoring programme, meaning that sanitation demand in the region is growing faster than the supporting infrastructure.
Another 1.8 billion people lack access to improved sanitation around the world and use shared facilities like public toilets or community latrines. Over 60 per cent of the people using these facilities live in urban areas, stressing the dire need among the rural population.
In sub-Saharan Africa, over 90 per cent of the richest population in urban areas have access to improved sanitation. Among the poor in rural areas 60 per cent of the households practise open defecation.
Evidently the world is unlikely to meet the millennium development goal on sanitation by 2015.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Technology reignites passion for farming among African youth

For youth in Kenya and other African countries, farming is no longer about dirt, poverty or wasted investments with limited or no returns.
Many young people who have graduated from universities are now quitting the rat race for elusive structured white-collar jobs for the gruelling yet rewarding agribusiness ventures.
While some youths want to be a part of those improving the country’s food security; others are driven by the desire to earn more. While the average age of the African farmer remains at 60, more youth are turning to farming, thanks to the use of technology.
The International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD) in its November report, ‘‘Youth, ICTs and Agriculture,’’ which explores how digital tools and skills influence motivation of young farmers, notes the changing perspective of farming from a back-breaking, labour-consuming task to a much more profitable and honest source of income.
“ICT not only improves the status of the young people using it, but also of the farming sector in general. Those who used to see farming as a last resort source of income now see it as a rewarding business,” the report says.
Last year’s World Bank and Africa Development Bank (AfDB) joint report ‘‘e-Transform Africa,’’ highlighted the potential of ICT in transforming the agricultural sector in various ways including offering financial services for the farmers, providing information on best practises, and providing better risk management.
The joint report recognises that ICT contributes seven per cent of Africa’s GDP, attributing the larger share to mobile phones which have turned into financial credit platforms, newspapers, games gadgets and source of entertainment.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that the mobile penetration in Africa this year stands at 63 per cent with 2.7 billion people using the Internet.
About 93 million people across the continent subscribe to mobile broadband, indicating the growing preference among the population to access Internet on mobile devices.
The agriculture sector contributes 32 per cent of the region’s GDP and employs 65 per cent of the labour force. At the moment, only 183 million hectares in the region are being cultivated while another 452 million hectares suitable for farming are lying fallow.
Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) in their ‘‘Africa Agriculture Status’’ report 2013 identifies the role of innovation and technology development in building productive capacities within the agriculture sector, noting the substantial increase over the past decade.
In an interview with the Business Daily, Michael Hailu, the director of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural co-operation (CTA) said that ICTs and particularly mobile phones have the potential to transform smallholder farming in African economies especially among women who produce 80 per cent of the food.
“African countries spend up to $50 billion a year on food imports. With abundant land, water and cheap labour, there is no good reason why Africa should import so much food,” he said.
While acknowledging the tremendous growth the sector has seen in recent years with increased investments from governments and the private sector, he said it’s time to improve food production.
“To achieve its full potential, smallholder agriculture must be transformed from a subsistence activity to a profitable sustainable business and ICTs play a vital role in the transformation by providing timely advice and information. They help farmers increase their production, make markets more efficient and increase incomes along the value chain,” he said.
Young software developers are finding ways of solving problems like access to information, marketing of produce and seeking finance by using technology and communication tools ranging from social media platforms, community radios, videos, and Internet-based as well as offline mobile applications.
A research paper on the drivers of youth unemployment in Kenya released by the International Labour Organisation in October, says that the country is listed as among those with the lowest youth unemployment rates globally.
While young men and women account for 37 per cent of the working-age population only 20 per cent are employed.
The UN World Population Prospects report, which predicts that by 2050 there would be 17.5 million youth aged between 15 and 24 years in the country, underscores the need to create employment for the close to one million people that enter the Kenyan job market annually.
According to Joseph Macharia, a lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, one of the main reasons that youth have not taken up farming is because they lack evidence of successful young farmers.
“We have musicians who portray a wealthy lifestyle and whom many youth want to emulate if we create more platforms in which young agriculture champions can showcase what they are earning more youth will venture into agribusiness,” he said.
In addition to the creation of role models, their success stories as well as information on other best practices in agriculture should be on online platforms like Facebook and other social media.
Similar services
“Rather than target those in rural areas, focus on youth in urban areas who are educated and unemployed showing them a sustainable way of making a living through agriculture and they will in turn employ or motivate the youth in rural areas who are keen on moving to the cities,” Mr Macharia said.
Despite the spurring progress in integrating ICTs into agricultural practices, Judith Payne, an e-business advisor working with USAID notes there has been little measurable evidence to show the impact that the technologies have had on smallholder farmers in Africa.
“While we have very many people coming up with applications to help farmers, the areas that they cover is mainly small. Many donors are now looking to fund applications that can be up-scaled, not just by adding more people in that area but taken to another place facing similar challenges with little or no modification,” said Ms Payne.
Her words were echoed by Stephen Muchiri, the chief executive of East African Farmers Federation, who noted that many of the technologies and the information transmitted through them still remained out of reach for many of the farmers.
“While there is a great need to transform smallholder farming in Africa , many of the ICTs that are being advanced are donor-sponsored and target small groups of people which makes it difficult for the technology to spread and most of them tend to die off once the sponsorship is withdrawn,” he said.
He said that there had been a lot of similarities especially in the mobile apps platform where many start-ups and entrepreneurs promoted similar services.
While acknowledging that this left room for business competition and efficiency in the technologies, many of the smallholder farmers were often spoilt for choice.
“We have a lot of information for farmers on weather and planting, agronomy and horticulture but post harvest losses are still a great challenge for many farmers. For instance, if you look at Kenya, between 20 and 50 per cent of the crop is lost at post harvest and it would be good to have solutions that address these areas,” the farmer said.
Speaking with the Business Daily, the knowledge and information management officer with Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao), Michael Riggs, said that with the global population expected to double by 2050, there is need to identify ways of boosting food production and security across all households in Africa where the bulk of the population will reside.
“ICT provide youth with new opportunities in agribusiness, skills specialisation and dissemination of vital information as technology continues to advance every day,” he said.
Mr Riggs noted that while there was a global excitement phenomenon from the technology explosion and the potential to positively impact livelihoods, reversing the unpopular trend would require more than the sector’s expansion and integration into agriculture.
He added that creation of agricultural interest among the youth requires efforts of both the government and the private sector to create an enabling environment that addresses the economic and socio-cultural aspects.
“There is need to ensure that the positive effect of ICT in agriculture is sustained. Global networks need to ensure that the lessons learned and challenges are being shared and addressed collectively. Governments also need to create enabling environments through policies promoting the use of ICT along with ensuring that they become disseminators developing digital and not just aggregators of information.”
The Fao officer, however, cautioned against the perceptions that ICT would provide a one-in-all solution to the continent’s problems of youth unemployment, food insecurity and poverty in the continent.
“While agriculture is not a dying art, people need not think that ICT will keep youth on the farms, there is need to look at the whole agricultural value chain and see what needs to be done. Digital technology has enabled us reach more people than before but they are enabling tools and not the final solution, they are not a magic bullet.”
Ms Aparajita Goyal, an economist with the World Bank in Washington DC holds a similar view that financial stability and scalability should be key parameters for use of technology in agriculture.
Positive effect
“In order to have a bigger impact we need to use ICTs with a win – win model for both the farmers and other stakeholders. Unless there is a financially sustainable model behind the innovation it is not going to go far,” she said.
According to the World Bank, research has proven that price information transmitted via technology to farmers has had a positive effect on market efficiency and on the farmers’ welfare in sub-Saharan Africa though there is still limited information on the impact of other innovation systems.
Ms Goyal noted that while reaching a small group of people is needed in the initial stages when you are piloting a project, young innovators need to work on frameworks in which the projects can be upscale through public private partnerships in order to have greater impact.
“ICT is not a panacea for development it is a tool and we cannot ignore complementary investments in roads, electricity and infrastructure if we need to tackle the bigger issues of food security in Africa.
Governments have a bigger role to play by creating that enabling environment for the private sector to come in,” she said.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A plate of worms please!!

Twenty-nine-year-old Kofi Kafui Kornu recalls with nostalgia the visits to his grandparents’ home in Ghana’s eastern Volta region during his childhood. Though he last visited the village three years ago, he cherishes memories of wine tappers partaking the local delicacy of silk worms.
“When the tappers returned home from their farms they carried a bowl of worms collected from the palm trees. The insects would be boiled and eaten as an accompaniment,” he said on the sidelines of an international agricultural conference in Accra.
The ICT and mathematics teaching assistant at the Catholic University College in Sunyani says although he did not get to eat the worms, he still shares the memories with his age mates.
“I can picture myself eating the worms and will definitely try them when I go to the village,” said Mr Kornu.
Experts at the conference called to look at ways to end endemic famine in the region see the consumption of insects as an alternative but rich and readily available source of nutrition.
Insect eating in Ghana, like in many African countries, is common. Up north, tribes like the Frafra also collect and fry termites attracted to light after rainfall. After the wings are plucked, the termites are fried without oil and eaten.
Kornu’s friends at the university often taunted him that once he started eating termites he would not stop. He counts himself fortunate for being exposed to his culture even though he was born and bred in the Tema area of the greater Accra region.
The most commonly consumed insect in Africa, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), is the cricket whose consumption preference of either being fried, smoked or dried in the sun depends on local communities.
In Algeria, the desert locust, which is a good protein source is ‘harvested’, soaked in salt water and dried in the sun and eaten mainly by the poor.
Caterpillar eating is common in central African countries and in Botswana, where either the legs of the caterpillars are plucked off and the insect deep-fried, or the gut removed before what is left is cooked.
Studies have shown that in every 100 grammes of dried caterpillars, there are about 53 grammes of protein, 15 per cent of fat and about 17 per cent of carbohydrates — which is a higher content of fat and protein than would be found in a similar amount of beef.
The Mopane worm found mainly in Zimbabwe is huge export business. It is dried and exported to Botswana, South Africa and sometimes onwards to African hotels in Europe.
In May, when the FAO released a report advocating more consumption of insects, it attracted support and criticism in equal measure. The report, Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security, promotes the creatures as low-fat high-protein diets for people, pets and livestock.
Though currently two billion people eat insects globally, FAO has launched a campaign for their increased uptake as an alternative source of food for the continent’s growing population which is expected to double in 2050.
According to Dr Suresh Raina, a principal research scientist with the Nairobi-based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe), the uptake of insects though significant in Africa is greatly hindered by perceptions.
“So many people think about what the insects do when they are alive and where they have been and this negative picture actually creates the unpalatability perception in their minds,” he said.
Dr Raina says that urbanisation also plays a role, especially in cases where people who used to eat insects in their rural areas do not now want to be associated with what is seen as poverty.
“The public needs to be educated on the benefits of eating insects because they are more nutritious than red meat,” he said. “Most people are just put off because of the presentation of the cooked insects but if people came up with protein bars and shakes made from insects people would be more receptive.”
The scientist admits that it will, however, take time before “high class” people in African cities walk into a restaurant and order a plate of worms or other edible insects, however, exquisitely they may have been cooked.
In line with the FAO’s campaign, Icipe has already dedicated a department for the mass production of caterpillars and grasshoppers to increase their population in areas where they are highly consumed.
Dr Raina, who is involved in a project to promote beekeeping for pollination purposes in Kenya, also wants to champion the consumption of drones locally and export them to a ready market in Japan.
“Male drones in the hives have now other work apart from populating with the queen bee and studies have shown that they are quite a high source of protein,” he says.
“So apart from farmers having a bumper harvest from the cross pollination and honey which they can sell, they will in time be able to harvest the drones to supplement their food stores,” he said.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Kala-azar: Silent killer disease ruins livelihoods in rural Kenya

Before 2006, Daniel Kibet was an ordinary healthy boy who had just begun his secondary education in Kapenguria.
He was a beacon of hope for his age mates in the poverty stricken village of Loruk in Baringo County, who would not in their wildest dreams think of completing primary school.
When Kibet’s abdomen began to swell his family was convinced that he had been bewitched by their enemies because of this academic progression.
Unknown to them he had an enlarged spleen and symptoms similar to other people in the village. Kibet’s family gave him a regimen of herbs and concoctions to heal him but they did not work. He was forced to abandon his studies and what had earlier seemed to be a path to a brighter future.
Fortunately for Kibet and other villagers, the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) had by then already taken a keen interest in the ailment.
When Samuel Chirchir, one of Kemri’s field officers came to Loruk he noticed Kibet’s condition, examined him and concluded that he like many others in the area he suffered from kala-azar.
Even though the incidence of the disease is high not only in Baringo but also other rural areas, patients have no access to proper healthcare and treatment.
At the time, main treatment centre for the disease was Kemri headquarters in Nairobi, and Chirchir knowing the fatality of the disease quickly arranged for Kibet and the others to travel there. They were admitted to the facility and prescribed sodium stibogluconate (SSG) injections for a month.
“The injections were unbearable and I had to stay in hospital for the whole month. When my condition began to improve I looked forward to the day I would go home,” recalls Kibet.
He is thankful that he is free of the disease and he has since moved on with his life.
Kala-azar also known as visceral leishmaniasis is a protozoan disease caused by parasites found in the female sandfly. Its symptoms include enlargement of the spleen, loss of weight and sometimes anaemia.
The disease is listed by the World Health Organisation as one of the 17 neglected tropical diseases. Globally, 300,000 new cases are reported and about 40,000 deaths annually.
An estimated 90 per cent of the new cases are reported in Bangladesh, Kenya, India, Nepal, Brazil, Ethiopia and Sudan where the disease burden is the highest.
The Ministry of Health data shows that an average of 4,000 people are treated annually, though the figure may not reflect the actual number of those infected because most of the patients lack access to proper healthcare.
The disease affects the rural poor in 22 districts in the Rift Valley, Eastern and parts of North Eastern regions.
Chemasila Lokorlima, 24, can now manage a smile, even though she has been confined to a bed in the kala-azar ward at the Kimalel Health Centre, she is happy that her 10-month-old baby girl is responding to treatment.
Ms Lokorlima recalls how her child’s health began to change close to a month ago, forcing her to abandon other family responsibilities to nurse her child.
“Some people in my village had suffered from kala-azar before and they advised me to come here for treatment,” she said. “It is quite remote, about 110km from Loruk and there is no public transport. I walked half the distance before I hitched a lift from a motorists who was heading to Baringo.
Ms Lokorlima says that treatment of the diseased is better than a few years ago when her neighbour’s son was diagnosed with the disease and was admitted to hospital for a month.
“We have been here for close to a week but we hope to be out of hospital and return home before the month ends,” she added.

Kibet is among kala-azar patients who have suffered for decades because of the lack of an affordable and safe treatment.
According Kemri assistant director of research Monique Wasunna, the drug that was used for a long time to treat kala-azar globally was developed more than three decades ago.
“It had a bitter test and was in itself toxic, as a medical practitioner you would opt to give it to patients in order to save their lives but also at the back of your mind know that five per cent of the patients will not survive the treatment,” recalls Dr Wasunna.
Several countries, NGOs and pharmaceutical companies have since invested in research to develop drugs that are less toxic and taken for shorter period.
For instance, in East Africa where the disease is endemic, Kenya Sudan Uganda and Ethiopia have partnered under the aegis of the Drugs for Neglected Disease Initiative to develop research on treatment methods.
So far, the heavy investments in research have begun to bear fruit, which many recovering patients like Ms Lokorlima’s daughter can demonstrate.
The greatest milestone is the acceptance of a combination therapy for the treatment of kala-azar in the four countries.
Last year, the then Ministry of Public Health released revised guidelines for health workers in the diagnosis and management of kala-azar that included use of the new treatment.
Clinical trials have shown that the use of paromomycin together with SSG reduces death and other complications during treatment as well as reducing the treatment time to 17 from 30 days.
Dr Wasunna disclosed that the research platform is also working towards new combination therapies that would further bring down the administration of drug to 11 days.
The treatment whose trials are being conducted in Kenya and Sudan involves patients receiving oral treatment only on the first day.
“We are working on a combination treatment that will include miltefosine, a drug that is currently being used in India for the treatment of visceral leishmaniasis (the most common form of leishmaniasis) but, which on its own cannot be given to women of child-bearing age as it is known to affect unborn babies,” she explained.
The clinical trials, if successful will see the reduction of the medicine’s cost to less than Sh8,000. Currently, full treatment costs Sh15,000, a significant drop from SSG injections which cost Sh22,000.
She cited infrastructure and illiteracy as some of the challenges that have made it difficult for the disease to be wiped out.
“A few years ago all the testing for kala-azar was being done at the Kemri in Nairobi and people would travel there, when we started the research centre here in Baringo people from as far as 100km away could come, but now our reach has grown to more than 170km in the interior where there are no roads and basic facilities like water and toilets,” she said.
Dr Wasunna adds that despite cultural setbacks and inadequate funding, researchers still conduct clinical trials in order to develop more effective medicine.
Even with major achievements in drug-making, very little has been gained in terms of finding ways to eradicate the vector — the female sand-fly — which transmits the parasites to humans.
Many of the patients treated of visceral leishmaniasis and discharged still return to their homes where these sand-flies are. It is possible for the cured patients to catch the disease again.
There is, however, a lack of knowledge among the public with many people terming the disease a curse.
Joel Yator’s son contracted kala-azar in 2010 and was fortunate enough to get treatment in time saving his life. However, today the seven-year-old Alex Kipkotot is back in hospital, this time not only with a swollen abdomen but also rashes all over his face and neck as well as lighter patches on cheeks.
“When the field officer came to the village, I took my son to him and explained his previous ailment and treatment then he asked us to come to the health centre,” lamented Mr Yator. “He is not the first boy to have these symptoms in the village. I know of three others whom I have left behind.”
He expressed concerns that the outbreak might be an allergic reaction to the medication that was administered during the first treatment.
However, Dr Njoroge Njenga, a Kemri researcher based at the Kimalel dismisses the claim.
“It is possible for kala-azar to recur in a patient even after they have been treated, because the body does not form immunity against the parasites, in most cases the recurrence is shown by the rashes on the skin,” he says.
Dr Njenga defines Kipkotot’s medical condition as post kala-azar dermal leishmaniasis, which occurs in 25 per cent of all the treated cases.
The rashes occur on the face in the first few months after treatment and could spread to the rest of the body.
“Treatment given is almost similar to that of visceral leishmaniasis but normally administered for a longer period,” the researcher added.
Apart from kala-azar, another neglected disease that plagues Africa is sleeping sickness also known as the human African trypanosomiasis, which is endemic in Central Africa with many of the cases reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Like kala-azar, very little had been done a decade ago to develop better drugs and a number of patients could die from drug poisoning.
Over the years patients were treated with a century-old regimen, painful injections of an arsenic-based drug, which killed one in 20 patients.
An improved treatment was developed in 2009 — a therapy combining an oral drug with intravenous injections, which has become the treatment of choice in all endemic countries.
Trials of oral drugs are currently being conducted in selected areas in Central Africa to provide a better therapy for the sleeping disease.
The new 10-day oral treatment by fexinidazole is currently at advanced stages of clinical trials in DRC and Central African Republic.
According to Dr Wilfried Mutumbo Kalonji, who works with the HAT National Control Programme in DRC, many of the patients do not access treatment in time.
“Yes, the (civil) war might have contributed to the lack of access but then again if you look at the peaceful areas there are no hospitals for the sick let alone the roads to get there,” he says.
Dr Kalonji says that the skilled medical practitioners in the country specialising in sleeping sickness are quite few and many of the doctors have to cover long distances using motorcycles to reach patients.
“The medication for sleeping sickness is also not that available in the country, we mostly give both injectable and oral drugs, which require the patients to be hospitalised and sometimes even as you try to reach those in remote areas you have to carry just enough for a few patients because of the weight,” he says.
Neglected tropical diseases continue to cause significant deaths in the developing world. Yet, of the 1,556 new drugs approved between 1975 and 2004, only 21 (1.3 per cent) were specifically developed for tropical diseases and tuberculosis, even though they account for 11.4 per cent of the global disease burden.
According to John Amuasi, a medical doctor who heads the research department at the Komfo Ankoye Teaching Hospital in Ghana, these challenges can be adequately addressed with proper funding.

“Many of the people who suffer from these diseases are not financially stable and as such cannot on their own afford these kinds of treatment,” he said. “Most pharmaceutical companies unfortunately look for areas to invest in where they can eventually make profits.”
The researcher said that because of this, most of Africa’s rural population, who are mainly at risk of neglected diseases, are caught up in the vicious circle of poverty.
“If they are affected in one way or another because treatment for the diseases eats into their finances, which they could have used to improve their livelihoods,” says Dr Amuasi.
With the help of donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a pilot programme to produce affordable medication against malaria was implemented in selected West African countries.
The researcher noted that the pilot programme increased greatly the number of poor people who could access malaria treatment and also helped to boost their livelihoods because they were able to buy food with the money that they saved.
“Even with such noble ideas there is a need for proper government structures to eliminate corruption and to ensure that the public get the increased access to medication at the set prices,” reiterated Dr Amuasi.
Prof Marcel Tanner, a director at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute told the Business Daily that it is possible for the continent to eradicate such neglected diseases with proper investments.
“Neglected diseases can be eradicated by using a wholesome approach, not just by looking at them from the point of just being diseases,” he said. “If you look at the endemic areas many of the people there lack basic facilities like toilets, roads, hospitals and education.”
Prof Tanner called on governments to provide the much needed political goodwill that would fast track World Health Organisation plans to eradicate some of neglected diseases by 2020.


 There is nothing as bad as being a let down to people who look up to you, who depend on you for  quality  content and for credible news.

And I have let you my online audience down, by failing to constantly update this blog.

It has not been my wish to appear arrogant or ignorant  so please accept my sincere apologies.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Africa gets closer to the stars with major telescope project

Imagine being able to explore the stars and black holes in the universe.
Imagine being able to discern which between the stars and the galaxies came first.
Now picture an African making the first discoveries of new planets and whether or not humans are the only intelligent beings in the universe.
Fast forward to 2024 and this will no longer be a figment of your imagination.
African astronomers will be better placed in making these and many more discoveries thanks to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope that is currently being installed in Australia and selected countries in Africa.
The dream is being made possible after close to a decade of lobbying by South Africa to have the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope brought to the continent.
The SKA is a global project, with 10 member countries, that aims to provide answers to key questions about the universe.
Countries involved include the UK, Sweden, South Africa, New Zealand, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, China, Canada and Australia.

The road has not been smooth, with many of countries that bid for the telescope doubting Africa’s capacity to implement and manage the project to completion.
“Very many people would come and say — why are you thinking of looking at the stars when Africa has real problems like poverty and diseases which need to be dealt with as a matter of urgency,” Bernie Fanaroff, the project director said in an interview.
He noted that the project is among the many opportunities provided for the continent to show leadership globally by putting into use its talents and proving wrong stereotypes that Africa can only be a follower in matters technology.
The South African team’s efforts were finally realised when the SKA organisation announced in May last year that the radio telescope would be shared between Africa and Australia, with the extensive mid-frequency dish array being constructed in South Africa while Australia would host the more compact low-frequency aperture array.
The mid-frequency array will consist of about 3,000 receptors or dishes linked together across a distance of up to 3,000km. The scattered signals from the receptors will be combined digitally to enable them produce the sharpest pictures of the sky.
The telescope will give 50 times the sensitivity and 10,000 times the survey speed of the best current day radio telescopes, in addition to using enough fiber optic cable to cover the earth twice, its backers say.
Total costs to have the radio telescope up and running by 2024 have been estimated at $2 billion, but this is subject to change dependent on the cost of materials and the global exchange rates.
Dr Fanaroff explained that the receptors would be connected to one another via fibre optic cable and also connected to a central control station in South Africa and another in Australia.

“It will be so sensitive that it will be able to detect airport radar on a planet 50 light years away,” he added.
Construction for the first phase is expected to start in 2016 and be complete by 2020. In the second phase another set of mid frequency antennas will be set up in Northern Cape province of South Africa, with stations of 40 antennae each set up in Namibia, Botswana, Kenya, Zambia, Mozambique, Ghana, Mauritius and Madagascar.
“We have already started working on remote locations to place the antennas in the other countries because they need to be protected from electronics and machines that emit radio waves and thus interfere with the radio signals coming from the universe,” explained the project manager.
Together the antennae will provide a large surface area with which astronomers can explore different parts of the universe simultaneously. Working on the same principle used by radios, the telescope will be able to pick up radio waves from the galaxies, which will then be processed by computers to form images.
“At the moment such computer technology is non-existent. We are working with computer manufacturers and we also have our own team working on a motherboard that would enable the collection and processing of large data without overheating the machines. Anything capable of producing radio waves within the sites of construction will be put in underground bunkers so as not to interfere with signals,” said Dr Fanaroff.
The biggest question among critics has been whether Africa has the human capacity to manage this project.
Astronomy has for years been viewed as a non-lucrative venture with most top performing students opting for law or medicine fields. Others view the subject as unapproachable because it involves a lot of calculations and physics.
Still, the few astronomers that the continent has managed to educate were in the past unable to secure good jobs within the continent and moved to greener pastures in the West.
At the time of initiating the bid for the SKA project in 2003 for instance, there were only 12 practising radio astronomers in southern Africa, increasing gradually to the current 60 or so.
The project has awarded 293 grants and scholarships across the continent to boost the development of skilled personnel at both graduate and postgraduate levels.
“There are a lot of opportunities with the SKA telescope not just in astronomy and astrophysics but also in areas like engineering and data management. Everything for the project is being constructed from scratch and we have since taken several students from across the continent to pursue graduate and post graduate studies in order to improve our current human capacity,” Dr Fanaroff said.
Rather than be futuristic, astronomers are establishing a pilot radio telescope with receptors built to the specifics of the SKA radio telescope under the MeerKat project, currently being implemented in the Northern Cape province of South Africa.
According to the programme director, MeerKat has provided an opportunity for global scientists to test their science and engineering skills before the construction off the SKA radio telescope.
“The 64 antennas and the whole infrastructure was strategically designed to be scalable and come 2016 they will be integrated into the mid-frequency array,” he added. Many of those involved in the construction and establishment of appropriate technological support in the MeerKat project are Africans.
South Africa has also initiated a programme to connect satellite dishes across the continent, which were formerly used for communication but have since rendered redundant by fibre optic cables. The satellites will be upgraded to radio telescopes and used in exploratory research.
 The upgrade has already began in Ghana and Mauritius, while the SKA South African team is currently holding talks with the Kenyan government to upgrade the two satellite dishes in Longonot.

The SKA project experienced its first milestone mid last month when the Royal astronomy society agreed to publish the first scientific paper based on observations using MeerKat helping to boost the study of the neutral gas emissions that existed before the first galaxies and black holes were formed.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Obsolete policies 'fanning Africa's hunger'

Food security in Africa can be better improved if countries invest more in their food and agricultural policies.
In an interview with the Africa Review, Keith Weibe the deputy director of the Food and Agriculture Organisation's Agricultural Economics Division noted that many African countries still lagged behind in matters of food security because most of their policies are not based on current research.
"The food and agricultural policies were formulated a long time ago, though there have been several changes in terms of market dynamics the policies are yet to be adapted," he said.
Mr Weibe explained that the most food secure countries are able to conduct research on a constant basis that has helped in the formulation of strong agricultural policies which is contrary to what is taking place in sub-Saharan Africa.
Under the Monitoring African Food and Agricultural Policies (MAFAP) project, FAO seeks to partner with national stakeholders in ten African states running the pilot to strengthen capacity and provide information on the impacts of policies and investments affecting agriculture and food security.
"What has been missing is a systematic and sustained mechanism for policy monitoring that is adapted to the needs and circumstances of developing countries. This will set the foundation for evidence-based policy dialogue at national regional and international levels," added Mr Weibe.
Unlike popular belief
The MAFAP project is currently running in Burkina Faso, Uganda, Tanzania, Mali, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia.
Each of the countries’ expenditure on agriculture is identified and analysed on how it is composed along with measuring how different policies and markets affect the prices farmers receive for their products.
The information collected is then used to improve policy advice at both national and regional levels as well as identify investment opportunities that will have a positive impact on the sector’s performance.
Mr Weibe reiterated that despite the global increase in food prices farmers particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa have continued to register low incomes even with improved production.
"Unlike popular belief when the food prices go up, the farmers’ income still remains low because of the lack of supporting infrastructure like roads and storage which increase the costs of production. There is need for dialogue among policymakers and other stakeholders to ensure that farmers are protected while at the same time consumers are cushioned from high prices in order to boost individual food security," he said.
The Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) report 2012 projects that the food demand in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to grow at an annual rate of 2.83 per cent until the year 2030 mainly due to the population increase.
Effective reform
With the continent’s current productivity rates it warns that only 13 per cent of the total food demand can be met in 2050.
The report calls for accelerating and sustaining agricultural productivity through effective policy reform that will promote investments by the public and private sectors, trade liberalisation along with the use of new science and information based technologies to improve productivity.
"To produce more successfully and sustainably, farmers need enough land, water, crop nutrients, appropriate equipment and tools, and vastly improved infrastructure such as rural roads, bridges, and storage. Improving the productivity of smallholder farmers and increasing yields are the region’s best opportunities to provide the needed food and enhanced livelihoods for those actively engaged in farming," the GAP report states.
Though there have been numerous studies examining the food and agricultural policies in the continent many have either been one -time studies or using different methodologies and not sustained overtime, leading to a huge information gap for policymakers.
In Kenya for instance where MAFAP project has been running for a year and a half, national partners have been working to build a database and analyse price incentives and disincentives for ten key commodities as well as inform on the public expenditures on agriculture.
FAO Kenya is implementing the MAFAP project in partnership with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and Kenya Institute of Public Policy Research (KIPPRA) and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries.
Though the Kenyan government has over the last decade increased its public expenditure to support government policies to promote profitable agriculture in order to raise incomes and increase food security, it is still below the below the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) target of 10 per cent of the national budget as agreed in Maputo.
"Even as we focus on policy that will open up more farming land we need to address the fact that most of our farmers have abandoned simple practises of improving productivity like cropping systems and the proper use of fertiliser,” KARI director Dr Ephraim Mukisira said on the need for informed policy briefs.
Findings in most of the ten countries have also shown the need for governments to invest in the infrastructure to support agricultural productivity and reduce the existent disincentives by improving storage facilities and access to markets.
For many of the countries, the policy environment and market structure have led to lower prices for farmers especially where policies aim at lowering prices for consumers.
In Tanzania for example many farmers cannot access their markets in time due to lack of rural roads and storage facilities. MAFAP analyses showed that if these constraints were removed farmers would be able to obtain higher prices for their products as well as increase their production.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Kenya's Food Security out put grim despite bid to boost it

Last week the Ministry of Agriculture released 517 metric tonnes of seeds for drought-tolerant crops valued at Sh178 million.

The vehicle carrying the seeds was flagged off by the minister, Sally Kosgei, with the seeds scheduled for distribution to farmers in 31 counties for planting during the long rains.

Ninety-nine districts were selected to bolster food security by planting the high- value seeds in the arid and semi-arid areas.

These include sorghum, millet, pigeon peas, cowpeas, green grams along with cassava cuttings and sweet potato vines that farmers will be able to purchase at highly subsidised prices.

Apart from being able to mature with little rainfall the seeds are rich in nutrients, hence the government’s continued efforts to popularise them.

The 2012-2013 short rains season assessment report initiated by the Kenya Food Security steering group reveals that the country’s food insecure population declined from 2.1 million people in August 2012 to 1.1 million people in February 2013.

This is attributed to the significant improvement of the short rains towards the end of the season as many areas received average rainfall while some surpassed this.

The Kenya Metrological Department’s forecast project that the western and coastal parts of the country will experience between normal and above normal levels of rainfall.

They also note that the rains are expected to end early across the pastoral areas and coastal lowlands.

The March 2013 food security assessment report by the Ministry’s department of crop management shows that 40 million bags of maize were produced last year, with current stocks as at end of February  estimated to be 26 million bags.

There was an increase in the production of drought tolerant crops of up to 200,000 (90kg) bags.

Use of uncertified seed and low adoption rate of the drought tolerant crops by farmers were cited as reasons for output falling below the estimated potential.

Farmers are just recovering from a succession of failed planting seasons as the 2012 long rains were erratic in some parts.

The main seed producer, the Kenya Seed Company, last week also announced a 20 per cent increase in the prices, citing an increase in the cost of production.