Friday, August 28, 2009

No Rain, but Plenty of Sun and Wind

Photo: Even Nairobi gets enough sun to generate at least some of its electricity.

The Kenyan government expresses concern at the amount of money that is being spent on emergency power and at the amount of money that is being lost by power outages. Expressing concern is all very well but there are plenty of alternatives to the tired old sources of electricity from hydro and fossil fuels. There is no single source that is best: try them all.

For a start, many parts of Kenya get huge amounts of sun; others get lots of strong wind; and there is an abundance of geothermal potential in parts of Kenya. Fossil fuel shortage is not a recent thing. There were shortages in supply in the 70s and 80s. Throughout the 90s, it was clear that fossil fuels prices would fluctuate and rise, there has been plenty of time to make changes.

Kenya is lucky to have such potential sources of energy. The thing now is to try to build their own generation units, instead of importing expensive technology. Investment in renewable energy will also help keep carbon emissions low and thus reduce the pressure on climate change.

The problems are even more acute in Tanzania, where an estimated 90% of people don't have access to electricity. They also have access to similar potential sources of energy. Yet, I recently saw an article about extremely expensive wind turbines being imported from the UK. If they want cheap energy in Tanzania, they need to produce the products themselves.

The problem is, someone is making a lot of money out of emergency power generation and supplying overpriced technologies, such as wind turbines and hydroelectric plants. But countries like Kenya and Tanzania can take advantage of the low prices of solar panels, which are currently dropping for several reasons.

It's not all bad news. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Beware of Vegetarian Trojan Horses

Photo: Sugar, one of Kenya's monocultures.

Apparently Kenyan farmers are going to grow new wheat varieties that are said to grow in poor conditions, heat, cold, floods, droughts, etc. The problem is, the article in question doesn't say if these are genetically modified (GM) wheat varieties or if they are produced using more traditional crop breeding techniques.

This is an important question because most of the claims about what GM can do are not supported by evidence (though they are supported by lavish and expensive publicity). Some GM organisms do relatively well in ideal conditions but fail field tests. And there is nothing that GM organisms can do that can't already be done using more traditional agricultural techniques, enhanced with recent innovations that don't involve GM.

When there is so much hype about something, there has got to be money behind it. If there is money behind it then there are people hoping to make a quick buck. Recently, an organisation was started with Gates funding called the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGORA). Extraordinarily, it is chaired by Kofi Annan. What bundle of lies possessed him to take this position we'll probably never know. This organisation believes that Africa will be a lot better off if they have a Green Revolution of the sort that was experienced in India and other countries following the second world war.

Except that this time, the revolution will be 'assisted' by these expensive and unproven technologies. Of course, AGORA dither over the question of whether GM is or isn't part of their 'final solution' but you can be sure there will be plenty of parties looking for their big pay off.

But the biggest question over the pronouncements of the dubious 'visionaries' of AGORA is why they think the original Green Revolution was such a success. India may have enjoyed a few decades of high food production but they are now paying for it. Most Indian farmers are finding it impossible to keep up with the costs involved in producing food. In fact, most Indians are still poor and some farmers are so caught up in debt hundreds of them are committing suicide every year.

In addition, much of India's agricultural land is contaminated by pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, that played a big part in the original Green Revolution.

The last things Kenyan farmers need is more debt, contaminated land and further monocultures. They need greater diversity and self reliance. GM, or any costly technology, will only reduce diversity and self reliance. The champions of GM will tell us otherwise, just like the champions of fossil fuels told us that there was no such thing as climate change.

It would be far more informative if articles talking up some new scheme would make it clear what kind of scheme we are dealing with. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Photo: IYAP have a VCT clinic in the centre of Isiolo town but they also provide mobile services on the streets and in villages and outlying areas.

My friends at IYAP (Isiolo Youth Against Aids and Poverty), who recently launched a blog, have now launched a website. IYAP provides voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) services for people in and around Isiolo and they are involved in many other community level initiatives. IYAP members are to be congratulated for achieving so much over the past years and I look forward to hearing about their future progress. Please do pay a visit to their website and blog! Sphere: Related Content

Monday, August 24, 2009

World Reserves of Phosphorus and other Vital Resources

Photo: Sun setting over Lake Tanganyika behind a field of maize.

We hear a lot and read a lot about 'peak oil' and some other resource shortages facing the world over the next few decades. But The Broker Online has a fascinating article called 'Peak Phosphorus'. It describes how intimately modern agriculture is connected with phosphorus supplies, one of the main constituents of fertilizers. Along with several other minerals, rising prices will seriously affect the price of food.

Indeed, the prices were most recently influenced by the oil price hike, which resulted in a lot of crops being planted for biofuels. In addition to depriving people of food, land and livelihoods, destroying large tracts of land and using up and polluting enormous quantities of water, the crazy plan to increase production of biofuels will also speed up the time that phosphorus reserves will become exhausted.

Phosphorus supply is even behind Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara and the US's tacit support for that occupation, because Western Sahara the largest source of phosphorus after China and the US. The US have already peaked but they have a useful little bilateral agreement with Morocco, so they're in no hurry for that particular repressive regime to end.

Other resources that are in short supply or will be in short supply in the next few decades include sulphuric acid. There was a time when it was said to be possible to judge a country's industrial output by its consumption of sulphuric acid because it has such widespread use in industry.

The simple fact is that developed countries need to find ways to reduce their use of resources. There are only so many tricks in the box to substitute for resources that are running low when we are just exhausting the natural resources that will allow humanity to survive. The big users, the rich, developed countries, need to change their lifestyle. Otherwise they will be wiped out too, eventually.

And big subsidizers, such as the EU and the US, need to practice what the preach and stop encouraging overconsumption. It's time to recover as many wasted products as possible and consider the long term future of all people, not just the comfortably off ones.

It's worth advocating for change because the most vulnerable people will probably suffer the worst and most immediate consequences of our behaviour, the people who least deserve to pay for society's stupidity. Sphere: Related Content

National Census Day

Photo: One of Nairobi's many slums. Will the census count or just estimate?

Kenya's National Census starts today. The country's population is expected to have risen to around 40 million, perhaps even higher. It will be interesting to see which areas have grown, which have shrunk, how quickly people are moving to cities, exactly how many children and adults there really are in the country and many other things.

However, the census is not expected to be completely straightforward. I have heard that in some areas, the census staff were have not been paid and say they will not work until they get paid. In other areas, people are refusing to be counted as a protest about various conditions. Some pastoralists refuse to count women and children because there is a taboo against doing so.

In the last census, there were various problems, especially in the more remote parts of the country, where there was already very little population data available. By now, estimates must be mere stabs in the dark.

But I suspect there are many figures the government don't really want to know. How many people live in slums, especially in cities like Nairobi and Mombasa? The government doesn't even want to admit that so many people live in such terrible habitations and they say they are illegal anyway. How many are still in camps for internally displaced people? The press has had little to say about the real numbers of people who are still living in tents, after the post election violence more than one and a half years ago.

Many will be looking forward to seeing the figures, despite the difficulties that may arise in collecting them. So it is to be hoped that the results will be made available as soon as possible and made accessible to all the people and institutions that need them. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Mother of All Traffic Jams

Photo: A subliminal message from the Kenyan government?

So the Kenyan government is carrying on with it's attempts to reduce traffic congestion in the central business district. They are doing this by preventing public transport, matatus and buses, from entering the city, not by encouraging private vehicles, mostly carrying one occupant, to park outside the city and take public transport.

Tomorrow morning, there will be a lot of bosses in offices wondering where their employees are. In the evening, census enumerators will be tramping from house to house, only to find that the occupants haven't returned home yet. People will be doing a lot of walking around, trying to find where their bus or matatu leaves from or where it arrives.

The problem is, the Kenyan government seems to have no idea how people are supposed to get from one out of town stage, say South of Nairobi, to another, say North of Nairobi. They can walk and...well, that's it. If they can afford a taxi they are probably driving a car already.

The Kenyan government have forgotten something: reducing congestion is supposed to be of benefit to people; it is not supposed to make things more difficult for them. Single occupancy cars and taxis should be penalised, not public transport vehicles.

Photo: Street in Issli/Eastleigh, Nairobi. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Can Kenyans Eat Public Relations?

Photo: Election graffiti in Kibera, Nairobi.

The Kenyan Government is to spend $1.7 million on an American public relations firm to improve its image in the US. That's a very expensive way of kissing ass. Kibaki and Odinga, who are going around the country to attend photo opportunities right now, are claiming to address the problems of food insecurity. That sort of money could be better spent reducing dependence on food aid.

Instead of paying money to extremely rich PR companies in Washington, they could clean up their act here in Kenya and try to gain the trust of Kenyans. What do PR people know or care about struggling people? If Kenyan politicians were trusted by their own citizens they may look a lot better in the US. Ending up with a 'power-sharing' government because politicians couldn't even run an election properly doesn't look good, no matter how much PR money you throw at it. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Kenya is Not Helpless in the Fight Against Climate Change

Photo: Much of Kenya's Eastern and North Eastern Provinces are arid. This shot was taken near Isiolo.

The rains in Kenya have failed for four years in a row. As well as resulting in a shortage of water, there have also been crop failures, domestic animals dying in huge numbers and a shortage of electricity, much of which is generated by water.

Despite all this, some Kenyan politicians think it is a good idea to give subsidies to foreign multinationals which grow biofuels for people in developing countries to burn in their cars. They also lease hundreds of thousands of hectares to foreign governments so they can grow food for their populations while Kenyans are dispossessed of their land and left to starve.

Similar remarks apply to the large amounts of cut flowers, fruit, vegetables and various monoculture goods that are produced for the benefit of wealthy countries. The owners of these operations pay as little as possible, both to the Kenyan government and to the governments of their own countries. They have disgraceful records when it comes to corporate social responsibility, environmental management and labour relations.

The continuing hoohah over the Mau Forest is also relevant here. Land there was grabbed in large quantities by rich people, many of whom were senior politicians. They misappropriated the land, stripped it of its forest and did pretty much what they liked with it, regardless of the consequences for ordinary Kenyans. And now they have been challenged, rather than rectify the problems they have caused through pure greed, they will probably do little more than evict the poorest people in the forest, who ended up there out of desperation.

Large tracts of land in other areas relevant to the country's water security, such as Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, are owned by rich landowners, often absentee landowners. Water shortages cannot be blamed entirely on climate change. Sphere: Related Content

Reduce Congestion by Reducing Single Occupant Car Use

Photo: One of Kenya's characteristically colourful matatus, the mini buses that most people use for public transport.

Traffic problems on the roads in and around Nairobi continue to make life there difficult for many. Traffic jams develop for all sorts of reasons; there are a lot of accidents; parts of the roads are being repaired, very slowly; and there are just too many vehicles.

But someone has come up with the rather stupid conclusion that congestion in the central business district can be reduced by keeping matatus and buses out. That's fine, they do add to congestion, but there is now confusion about how close to the city they can go. Several time I have been on vehicles that were stopped some distance from town and diverted through waste land and back alleys. It was quicker to get out and walk the rest of the way, though we were still some way from the central business district. The majority of people in Nairobi depend on buses and matatus and they already had to put up with frequent delays on the roads before this idiocy began.

Perhaps, given the serious fuel shortages the country is experiencing, the police could stop private vehicles from clogging up the city and even some of the suburbs. There are many cars on the road with one occupant and they seem to receive the privilege of being able to drive where they want, to the inconvenience of the majority.

I suppose the people who came up with the present, highly confused solution, drive cars. That's usually the way.

Photo: A very congested Mombasa Road, Nairobi. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Great Tanzanian Gold Robbery

Finding gold or any other natural resource must be a mixed blessing. But when an American company finds 'vast' deposits of gold in Tanzania, the blessing should be completely unmixed. The American company will take as much as it can and pay as little in royalties, taxes, wages and any other costs.

For Tanzanians, on the other hand, it will be an unmixed curse. Another invasive multinational destroying the environment, creating a few badly paid and insecure jobs and putting enormous numbers of artisinal miners out of a job. They have seen it all before and will probably see it frequently until foreigners have stripped African countries of everything they can possibly use and destroyed even the things they can't use.

People who imagine that developed countries 'give' large amounts of aid money to developing countries should be aware that even larger amounts of wealth are extracted by multinationals that don't pay much in the country they do the extracting nor in the country where they are based.

It seems extraordinary that in a country of around forty million people, around half live below the poverty line, unable to get enough food or clean water to ensure their health and the health of their families. They need the most basic things for their very survival.

At the same time, rich, foreign 'investors' take virtually all the wealth Tanzania has in order to fulfil their need for gold, uranium, precious stones and things that are not in any sense important for survival. They will use much of the country's water and contaminate the water table and the surrounding lands.

I met an Australian who worked in the mineral exploitation industry in Tanzania and he denied that people were exploited or badly paid. However, he also claimed that most highly skilled workers in the industry were not Tanzanian because, according to him, there were not enough trained people in the country. Yet, he didn't seem to see the connection between extracting most of the country's wealth and that country being unable to pay for adequate education for its citizens.

Apparently, the Tanzanian government is putting together a bill so that the state has a 10-15% stake in future mining operations. It's about time, but why don't they enable Tanzanians to do the mining? At present, there are all sorts of incentives for foreigners to come into the country and take what they can get but indigenous mining operations in Tanzania do not receive the same incentives.

Tanzania's minister for Energy and Minerals boasts about the climate for investors in Tanzania. How about the climate for Tanzanians? Most of them are still poor and many are worse off as a result of the mining operations that have been taking place in the country. The amount of money being spent on education, health, infrastructure and other basic needs is a pittance compared to the wealth leaving the country and going into the pockets of very rich people.

Tanzanians are being robbed, with the connivance of Tanzanian politicians. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Congratulations to the Clinton Foundation

The Clinton Foundation has negotiated a significant reduction in the cost of several second line antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. Out of the 3 million or so people who are presently on first line drugs, many have developed resistance and need second line drugs, but these are far too expensive for most people. This is great news because over the course of treatment, many people will develop resistance. So the availability of cheaper drugs will save a lot of lives.

May the Clinton Foundation go on to negotiate more such deals. While they are at it, they could advocate for more widespread production and use of generic versions of ARVs. Developing countries should be able to produce these themselves and thus increase their self reliance and the overall sustainability of treatment programmes. Also, perhaps they could advocate for more money to be spent on preventing HIV transmission so all these billions of dollars of aid money don't need to go straight into the pockets of rich and greedy pharmaceutical companies. But this is a very good start, so congratulations to the Foundation. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Feathering Nests and Breaking Promises

Photo: World Aids Week, 2008 in Shibale, Western Kenya. Because of the artificially high prices or antiretroviral drugs, the promise will not be kept for most people.

The Information Clearing House has a good article about pharmaceutical companies and how they maximise their profits at the expense of tax payers and the poor and sick. These companies are fond of pointing out that they need to charge lots of money so they can keep on researching and producing more drugs. The fact is that most of the research is done in publicly funded institutions and the pharmaceutical companies only put 14% of their ill gotten gains into research. They put far more into lobbying, marketing and various other legal but dirty tricks.

It is possible for developing countries to get a licence to produce patented drugs but they are being encouraged not to do so because this would be inconvenient for the drug companies. They could even produce the drugs or import drugs produced, while ignoring the patent, because it is in the interest of human rights. But again, they are encouraged not to do so and there are some cosy agreements in some countries not to do anything that would threaten Big Pharma's profits.

Much of the money spent on drugs in developing countries comes from aid money so developing country governments don't really care whether the money is being spent on small amounts of patented drugs or large amounts of generic drugs. It's a terrible waste of money and many people are denied treatment that should be perfectly affordable, but there are too many vested interests involved for the system to change much. What is required is for developing countries to stand up to Big Pharma and to produce or import generic versions of the drugs they need. Brazil is one of the few countries that has been in a position to do this.

Unfortunately, the drug industry is wealthy enough to ensure that most countries don't follow Brazil's example. Some countries, such as Kenya, have even passed ambiguous legislation that doesn't distinguish between generics and fakes, so that the production or importation of generics is unlikely to be possible there. It is feared that other countries will follow their example. This is very convenient for the drug companies. I wonder what prompted Kenya to do something that seems to be so much against their interest? Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Uranium for the Rich, Contaminated Land for the Poor

Photo: Sun setting over Lake Tanganyika, Kigoma, Western Tanzania

The announcement that Tanzania has substantial deposits of uranium may or may not be good news. The country already exports a lot of gold but receives little benefit from this. There are so many subsidies and benefits for foreign miners operating there and so little capacity for enforcing proper overview of what is being extracted and exported that the only people who benefit are the big mining operators themselves. Employment in mining has dropped to a fraction of previous levels, so the industry probably represents a net loss to the country.

Why should uranium mining be any different? Large scale mining will employ very few people, will be capital intensive, will cause a lot of environmental damage, the usual story. There is a lot of talk about new laws but it is more likely that the mining operators will be allowed to come in, take what they want, do as much damage as the always do and leave the mess for Tanzanians to clean up or put up with. All the good resolutions being made now about proper regulation mean nothing when countries like Tanzania have virtually no regulatory power because of ubiquitous excuses such as the need for 'deregulation' and 'free markets'.

Countries like Tanzania need regulation and they need to be able to enforce regulation to protect people from the sort of exploitation that they have suffered since the beginning of Western invasions of the African continent. If the market is to be free, Tanzanian mining operators, ones owned by Tanzanians, not just with a few Tanzanian board members, need to be able to avail of the benefits that foreign miners receive. And the country needs to be able to audit operations to the extent that they get their fair share of royalties and other levies. So far, large scale extractive industries have only benefitted rich people and big companies while the majority of poor people lose out and end up worse off than they were previously. Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Let’s Kick them while they’re Down

Photo: Small scale, low tech farming in Central Tanzania

In addition to buying up huge tracts of land in developing countries to produce biofuels for Western car drivers, there is also substantial investment and speculation in buying land to produce food for over consuming Westerners.

Countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, which are currently having trouble growing enough food for their citizens, are easy targets. People are desperate and land is cheap. Governments of developing countries (rather unnecessarily) entice foreign investors with tax breaks and other incentives. Countries currently at war are easier targets and the land is even cheaper. Ethiopia is welcoming investors right now, as is Sudan.

Of course, to offer incentives to their own farmers in order to improve food security would be a threat to a ‘free-market’, they can only give these incentives to foreigners. Go figure; or ask someone at the World Bank or International Monetary Fund (IMF). These countries used to assist their food producers but ‘structural adjustment policies’ and other loan conditions have ensured that they don’t do this any more. Hence the current food shortages.

These investors will be able to bring in heavy machinery and developing country governments will help them get rid of the majority of people who presently farm the land. A handful of people may be employed, perhaps only for a short time. This sort of investment requires minimal labour costs.

For Western investors, it’s a matter of finding very good returns. They emphasize the need to feed people but they are not talking about feeding people who are currently short of food. They will be exporting their produce to the West. Some of it may even return in the form of ‘food aid’, who knows?

It’s hard to know where to start listing the disadvantages of this sort of land grabbing: people will be dispossessed of their land and livelihoods; they will be rendered unemployed and homeless and forced to move to overcrowded slums; land will, eventually, be destroyed by overuse of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides; the water supply will be reduced as crops are exported; remaining water will become contaminated; whole ecologies will be exterminated, irreversibly; the list goes on and on.

This ‘investment’ by the private sector is creating the development problems of the future. Development money is, effectively, subsidizing their activities. So those who object to aid money being poured into developing countries, and possibly misused, should take note of who is benefiting. If we really give a dam about food insecure peoples being able to feed themselves, we should be spending money on helping them to adopt sustainable agricultural practices that are appropriate for small scale farms, the sort of farms that the vast majority of people in developing countries currently operate.

Are we really going to live on food that is grown in countries where people are starving? Sphere: Related Content