Monthly Archives: January 2012

Crowdsourcing Funding for Projects in Africa

For the first time today, I gave some cash to two very cool causes through organizations that allow start-ups and projects to crowdsource funding from a lot of different people.

The first is being run by a friend and former Kiva Fellow, Rebecca Corey who worked for a microfinance institution in Dar es Salaam, the capital city of Tanzania. She is back again for a way-cool music festival in Zanzibar that I hope to attend, but that isn’t the only reason she is visiting the eastern coast of Africa. The music archive at the Ministry of Culture in Tanzania has a deep wealth of great music in reel-to-reel format, which could be lost to the elements.  To prevent that from happening, Rebecca and her team are going to save the archives before it is too late.

Here is the project description:

More than 100,000 hours of music like this is sitting idle and all but forgotten on deteriorating reel-to-reel tapes at the headquarters for the Tanzanian Broadcasting Corporation in Dar es Salaam. The Radio Tanzania archives are running out of time and it’s our goal to digitize and preserve them before it’s too late. Remarkably, our project coincides with the 50th anniversary of Tanzania’s independence from colonial rule. It’s the perfect time to celebrate Tanzanian culture by preserving and reviving  this treasure of national heritage.

The Kickstarter funds will be used to purchase equipment for the digitization, to pay royalty fees to musicians and the Tanzanian government, and to produce a “Best of Radio Tanzania” compilation CD with extensive liner notes, photographs, and lyric translations. In order to make the digitization sustainable and directly beneficial to the local community, we are going to establish a Radio Tanzania Digitization workshop that will train Tanzanians in the digitization process and will employ locals to run the workshop in our absence.

The roots of music can be traced back to the continent, where traditional African music spread across the world and morphed into jazz, rock, hip-hop, and everything in between.  When I lived in Ghana, I used to buy gospel CDs from pick-up trucks riding through the streets with speakers blaring the music and practically went deaf listening to highlife and hiplife at outdoor bars and clubs, where having a conversation is difficult, if not impossible.  Music is an important part of the culture and historical tradition of African life. Preserving it is a noble cause.

There is an old Zimbabwean proverb quoted in a Talib Kweli song called African Dream that goes, “If you can talk, you can sing.  If you can walk, you can dance.”  Unfortunately, anyone who has witnessed me do either of those things knows that the saying has little bearing on reality.  But still, I can do my part to help.  I urge you to do the same.

The second project I supported is a fledgling Kenyan start-up called M-Farm, started by three Kenyan ladies here in Nairobi.  The company helps farmers gain access to markets through their mobile phones.  They are raising money to attend the Unreasonable Institute, a start-up accelerator in the United States.  Here is the description from the Unreasonable Marketplace:

M-Farm enables farmers inquire about the current prices of different crops in specific markets throughout Kenya. Up-to-date market information empowers farmers as they bargain for a fair price with middlemen and purchasers.

The M-Farm system provides farmers a group selling service where they can connect with other farmers from the neighborhood to jointly market crops in greater volume, helping rural farmers access large-scale local and international markets. Farmers often need to have large quantities of produce available in a short time frame in order to sell to exporters and large-scale retailers.

We’ve more than 2000 farmers,from the pilot test we carried out,already subscribed to the system and are paying for the service. During the pilot test,73 farmers working with M-Farm who have benefited by having a 50% increase in their profits and a 30% saving on the cost of input. M-Farm has achieved this by creating direct market linkages with local exporters and international buyers who have ensured stable prices for these farmers.

They are growing fast and providing a valuable service to Kenyan farmers, who suffer from a serious information assymetry that leaves them at the whim of middlemen who use their ignorance about market prices to low-ball them on prices.  Using mobile technology, they connect those farmers with markets around the country.  In doing so, the supply chain becomes more efficient, food becomes cheaper, and farmers become richer.

A start-up accelerator is the kind of thing that gives young social enterprises a platform to grow and expand.  So, if you have some time, support a real homegrown startup out here in Nairobi.



Yes to Industrial Agriculture in Tanzania

Agrisol, an American agriculture company, is considering investing $100 million in purchasing and developing 325,000 acres of farmland in Tanzania.  This development has raised the ire of the Sierra Club, an environmental group that is concerned with the impact on the smallholder farmers that will be displaced by project and the inequity of repatriating money out of the country.  They are concerned that the move amounts to a land grab – developing land in Tanzania to the detriment of Tanzanians.   From the East African:

Opponents charge that the deal amounts to a “land grab” that would result in the displacement of 160,000 refugees from Burundi, some of whom have lived on the land for 40 years. “Very productive smallholders” would be replaced by “large mechanised farms” growing genetically modified maize to be used as biofuels in developed countries, says Anuradha Mittal, a researcher with the California-based Oakland Institute.

The company denies that it plans to grow crops for biofuel production. It adds, however, that “as crop production increases over time, excess crops that are not needed for valued-added food products could become available for other uses.

Agrisol says its $100 million investment over the next 10 years is intended to produce staple crops and livestock that “will help stabilise local food supplies, create jobs and economic opportunity for local populations, spur investment in local infrastructure improvements.”

I have somewhat strong feelings about agriculture developments like this one.  When I was working in Ghana, I was involved with the rice sector, and spent a lot of time trying to understand why West Africa imports more rice as a share of consumption than most regions in the world.  I asked my boss at the time – a veteran of African agriculture who cut his teeth in the soybean industry in Zambia – what Ghana needs to eliminate its dependence on rice imports from Thailand, Vietnam, the U.S., and other countries.  “Give me 125,000 hectares of irrigated land near Lake Volta,” he said, “trucks to transport the rice south to Accra, a warehouse in Tema for storage, and I will feed of all of Accra.”  In other words, economies of scale.

The Sierra Club might say that this is also tantamount to a land grab.  But, unfortunately, the reality of the rice sector in Ghana is that large-scale industrial farming is essential to substituting the rice imports from around the world.  The fact is that people in Ghana will eat rice.  It is not a staple like maize, cassava, or yams, but, as the country has increased in socioeconomic status, the demand for rice has increased.  In the early 80’s, the country produced 100% of its rice – about 80,000 tons per year.  After a structural adjustment program imposed by the IMF decimated the industry, local rice production atrophied, leaving the vacuum to be filled by the U.S. and, ultimately, Southeast Asia.  The rice that was imported – jasmine long-grain – quickly supplanted the local variety, and people developed a taste for rice from the outside.  Unfortunately, smallholder farmers were unable to bring jasmine long-grain to the seed – either due to regulatory issues or cost – and could not compete.

Today, most Ghanaians in Accra, the capital city, would take some rice imported from Thailand over local rice any day. One day I went to the field with Andrew, the rice guy on the team.  We went to see a subsidiary company of an American agribusiness that had set up an industrial rice mill outside of Accra.  They had 1,000 acres and a large industrial mill that produced nearly impeccable rice with little breakage, as compared to the small local mills.  While there, we heard about another Brazilian operation that planted 1,000 acres of jasmine long grain.  They were fairly industrialized, supported by the Brazilian government agriculture organization, and had remarkably high yields, compared with local smallholders.

The smallholder rice farmers, on the other hand, were farming by hand and had limited access to irrigation.  They could often only plant one season per year instead of two, due to the fact that they couldn’t access the abundant waters of the Volta River.  As a result, the local variety of rice grown was often milled in small mills with poor equipment that broke the rice into small pieces and commanded a much lower price at the market than the imported variety, or the Brazilian crop for that matter.

This, for better or for worse, is the reality. Brazil pioneered the revolution in agriculture that Africa would do well to replicate.  The Economist had an article two years ago about Brazil’s admirable approach to farming titled “How to Feed the World.”  Here it discusses the innovation:

Brazil has followed more or less the opposite of the agro-pessimists’ prescription. For them, sustainability is the greatest virtue and is best achieved by encouraging small farms and organic practices. They frown on monocultures and chemical fertilisers. They like agricultural research but loathe genetically modified (GM) plants. They think it is more important for food to be sold on local than on international markets. Brazil’s farms are sustainable, too, thanks to abundant land and water. But they are many times the size even of American ones. Farmers buy inputs and sell crops on a scale that makes sense only if there are world markets for them. And they depend critically on new technology.  As the briefing explains, Brazil’s progress has been underpinned by the state agricultural-research company and pushed forward by GM crops. Brazil represents a clear alternative to the growing belief that, in farming, small and organic are beautiful.

That alternative commands respect for three reasons. First, it is magnificently productive. It is not too much to talk about a miracle, and one that has been achieved without the huge state subsidies that prop up farmers in Europe and America. Second, the Brazilian way of farming is more likely to do good in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia. Brazil’s climate is tropical, like theirs. Its success was built partly on improving grasses from Africa and cattle from India. Of course there are myriad reasons why its way of farming will not translate easily, notably that its success was achieved at a time when the climate was relatively stable whereas now uncertainty looms. Still, the basic ingredients of Brazil’s success—agricultural research, capital-intensive large farms, openness to trade and to new farming techniques—should work elsewhere.

These last three ingredients are what the Agrisol investment could potentially bring to the agriculture sector in Tanzania.  As much as the Sierra Club would like to think that “very productive” smallholder farmers could bring about this kind of revolution, 160,000 smallholders cannot compete with one 160,000 acre farm (or a 325,000 acre one for that matter).

And the problem of food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa will continue to be a problem without the innovations of industrial agriculture.  People will certainly be displaced.  But the Tanzanian economy, hopefully aided by woefully-lacking good governance, can capitalize on this investment to produce much of the food for the region.  In doing so, it, along with its people, will become richer in the process.

So when organizations like the Sierra Club oppose such investments, I understand where they are coming from, but my realipolitik radar starts to register abnormal activity.  To denounce the benefits of industrial agriculture, which clearly provide huge benefits in the form of cheaper food, more efficient supply chains, better seed varieties, higher yields, employment, and tax revenue, seems impractical.

In a perfect world, cooperatives of smallholders could function perfectly and produce the same yields as the Agrisols of the world.  Unfortunately, we live in a world where economies of scale simply offer better results.  So I support the company’s acquisition of 325,000 acres, for better or for worse.  But hopefully for better.

Non-Profit Career Advice: Urban Development

Photo credit: Digital Slide Theater

This is the first post in an ongoing series offering advice to people interested in learning more about international development work. Mandy Goodgoll, a Masters Candidate in International Affairs at the New School, offers advice on urban development in developing countries and emerging markets.

First of all, let me say that urban development is a great field to get into. It can be analytical, creative, big, small, international, local… essentially, whatever you want it to be. Having said that, I would highly recommend narrowing the search a little. By that I mean, narrowing down to a sub-field you think you might want to try out.
Some examples:

  • Water (from infrastructure like sewage management, to conservation, to increasing access to potable water for the urban poor… I’m currently writing my thesis on water management)
  • Forestry (a variety of important issues in forestry like conservation… not something I know too much about)
  • Low-income housing (could be in an urban environment in a big city in the US, or it could be related to ‘slum upgrading’ in any developing city around the world).
  • Urban management (working with local governments to make service provision (like water works, or roads) more accessible or managed more sustainably
  • Urban farming (this is kind of a big deal as of recently, not only in cities like NYC. It’s also being written about in Argentina and Tanzania – reducing the footprint of cities and eating local)
  • Renewable energy (from solar panels in India to wind farms in Eastern Africa… it’s one of the hottest topics right now, and extremely relevant in the developing world)
  • Transportation (another really hot topic that mostly centers around public transportation, bike lanes, and other new forms of transportation – death to the car!)

So that’s a very brief rundown of topical areas you may want to delve into.  I would recommend thinking about what kind of experience you want. Large and internationally recognized organizations may look great on the resume, but in actuality, you may not have such an exciting experience sitting in the head office of some organization doing research on the internet.

Here, I suggest – go local! There are a lot of opportunities to volunteer for 3-4 months at local NGOs, so that’s why narrowing it down to a sub-field you’re interested in will help in your hunt.  Then I would recommend narrowing down on a region. South-East Asia? East Africa? South Africa? Central or South America?  There are very unique issues in each of these areas, pertaining to urban issues and urbanization in general.

Latin America is heavily urbanized. Look at Bogota, Carracas, Santiago, Sao Paolo, Rio, Buenos Aires… mega urban cities with big divides between rich and poor – making urban issues very complicated to answer.

In Africa, urban development is much less advanced. You have the cities of South Africa, which present unique problems in respect to the rest of the continent; you have Lagos which is essentially a huge mess of poverty, bad-governance, zero infrastructure, and corruption (don’t go there); and Nairobi, which is this complicated urban metropolis that essentially makes no sense at all, from an urban perspective.

Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya

Then there’s Asia – which I don’t know as much about as my focus and experience has been Latin America/Africa. But in cities like Bangkok, you have crazy issues with water management, alternative forms of transportation, sustainability issues, green-building, and urban poverty overlapping to create a melange of a city that is really exciting.

I would highly recommend looking into NGOs in different places that get you working at the local level. It doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to the urban specifically, because any exposure you get to how the city works (or doesn’t work) from a local level will give you insights on how citizens (or non-citizens) are affected by the decision made in the city. How are people excluded from infrastructure? How do they view their urban environment? How do the flows in a city impact society, economies, the environment? I would recommend this avenue because it can give you more insight into the structure at the bottom, rather than the top – which will inform you in a different way in the future.

On the other hand, you can go dig wells in West Africa, or work with a Sanitation Activist Group in Cape Town… That would give you access to very specific topics, and would also allow you to work at the local level.

Regarding where to find such NGOs… you could look at organizations that have partnered with UNICEF or UN-Habitat in the past. Also, has volunteer opportunities.  One organization which comes to mind as a good hub of information is the African Center for Cities. It’s run out of the University of Cape Town, and is led by Edgar Pieterse – guru of African urban development in general. I like the work they do, and a lot of it is really on- trend:

Okay, hope that helps.

Mandy’s Music Recommendation

A Tale of Two Education Systems: Finland & India

A private school serving Muslim students in India. (Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times)

Two interesting articles in the Atlantic and the New York Times highlight two very unique approaches to education.

The first, “Many of India’s Poor Turn to Private Schools,” discusses the prevalence of private schooling at every socioeconomic level in urban and rural communities.  These private schools, many of which are low-cost and bare-bones, provide a comparable education to government schools and offer an English-language curriculum – something highly valued by the low-income populations who see English as a path to a higher-paying job and a path out of the slums.

The second, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success,” discusses the Finnish government’s reliance on exclusively public schools to train its young people.  Rather than pushing rote memorization of letters and numbers, the Finnish public education system gives less homework tries to foster creativity among students.  Its teachers must have a master’s degree to teach, and the job is highly coveted.  As a result, Finland ranks among the highest in the world on standardized test scores.  By focusing on equality across all socioeconomic strata, rather than school choice, which is the revolutionary approach to education being pushed in the United States, Finland has managed to provide its children a top-notch education.

A low-cost private school in India. (Mukesh Gupta/Reuters)

In India, the government is taking a similar tack.  In April 2010, India passed the Right to Education Act, which guarantees every child, age 6-14, an opportunity to receive an education.  The program is clearly a step in the right direction, but could have some unintended consequences.  Private primary schools exist because of inherent inequality in the education system.  For whatever reason, parents who send their children to private schools feel the quality of education at the government schools is inferior.  Some do not appreciate the emphasis on local languages.  Others feel the government schools are overcrowded, preventing their children from receiving the level of teacher interaction they feel is necessary.  And others believe the teachers, with no incentive to perform, do not take their job seriously.

These are all very real concerns.  In India, like Kenya or the United States, people send their kids to private schools when they think they could do better somewhere else.  The Right to Education Act, which will increase the presence of public schools and government spending on education, tries to address those achievement gaps.  But the strict regulations imposed on private schools as a result may cause them to close.  From the New York Times:

Few disagree with the law’s broad, egalitarian goals or that government schools need a fundamental overhaul. But the law also enacted new regulations on teacher-student ratios, classroom size and parental involvement in school administration that are being applied to government and private schools. The result is a clash between an ideal and the reality on the ground, with a deadline: Any school that fails to comply by 2013 could be closed.

Kapil Sibal, the government minister overseeing Indian education, has scoffed at claims that the law will cause mass closings of private schools. Yet in Hyderabad, education officials are preparing for exactly that outcome. They are constructing new buildings and expanding old ones, partly to comply with the new regulations, partly anticipating that students will be forced to return from closing private institutions.

“Fifty percent will be closed down as per the Right to Education Act,” predicted E. Bala Kasaiah, a top education official in Hyderabad.

This is unfortunate, and the repercussions could be severe.  If the government is not able to provide a good quality education, the children whose parents would normally pull the kids from school and send them to a private school will be stuck.  They will underperform, with little recourse.

Perhaps more importantly, the education sector in any country is often the most corrupt.  Not even the United States is immune, as the Atlanta testing scandal made clear.  With so much money going toward public education, it could very well become a piggy bank for corrupt officials, undermining the efforts of the program.  These points bring me to the second article, and the success of the Finnish education system.

Educators worldwide look to Finland’s model for guidance.  How is it that a purely socialist, egalitarian model to primary education could produce such amazing results?  Well, there are a few reasons.  First of all, the teachers are highly educated and incentivized to perform.  The Atlantic:

For Sahlberg, what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg’s comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don’t exist in Finland.

“Here in America,” Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, “parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy whatever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

By investing heavily in education, and ensuring that all schools provide the same level of quality, Finland has created a more equitable system that produces results across the board.  In India, that simply will not be the case.  The schools in the major cities, where educated teachers are more likely to settle, will have a disproportionate advantage.  Schools in slums and rural areas will almost certainly suffer from a lack of resources and qualified personnel.  And the prospect of a fully equitable public education system similar to that of Finland is very unlikely.

If the private schools serving the poorest segments of the Indian population are forced to close as a result of the Right to Education Act, it will be a tragedy.  And, as is usually the case in these situations, the children caught in the middle will be the ones who suffer.

Develop Economies Returns to Kenya

In eight hours, I am boarding a Virgin Atlantic flight bound for the United Kingdon.  Tomorrow, I will spend the day wandering around London, before boarding another flight for Nairobi.  On Sunday morning, I arrive in Kenya, and start work again on Monday.

The transition is one of the more interesting parts of living in different countries around the world.  You start in one place and end up in another 36 hours later.  During those 36 hours, you are either in transit over the Atlantic Ocean, sitting at the airport bar, killing time reading the newspaper and wondering where other people are going, or exploring a new city, if only for the 12 hours that you have before your next flight.  It can be an intensely personal time of reflection, as you wait around for the next move and think about why you are making it and what you want to get out of it.

At Kiva Fellows training in San Francisco two years ago, I met a girl who had spent 9 months in the Philippines and Cambodia.  I asked why, if she enjoyed Southeast Asia so much, did she come home?  She told me that she hated saying good-bye to people.  I thought it was a bit sappy at the time, but she had a good point that I see echoed everywhere I go.  It is hard for people to invest in relationships that they know will only last for a few months, especially when they know they are leaving for good.

In countries or cities with relatively small ex-pat communities, this dynamic is less prominent, since people tend to spend time with whoever happens to be around.  But in much larger and more diverse cities, like Nairobi, people stratify by neighborhood, country, industry, or other common defining characteristics.  This isn’t because people are necessarily afraid to jump outside their comfort zone.  It is just easier for some people to fall in with a group of people who speak the same language and understand their own cultural context.

But the more interesting stratification to me is the one that develops around timing.  People who are going to be in the country long-term tend to be less interested in meeting people who are staying for only a few months.  I came to Nairobi during the summer, when people flooded into the place from everywhere for short-term work assignments.  I met people staying short-term and long-term, and enjoy meeting new people in general.  But it is always a bummer when people leave at the end of their stay.  And this is why many people simply don’t bother trying to form new relationships with people who are just going to move in and out of their lives.

For me, it doesn’t make a difference either way.  If someone is only staying for a month, I don’t usually go out of my way, but for anyone else, that is plenty of time to meet new people and become friends.  I am heading back to Nairobi for round two, where I will be focused on work, writing, and becoming an expert photographer with my new Canon DSLR camera.  So happy new year to all my readers.  I will enjoy kicking it off with a few more posts written from Nairobi.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation