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.