Review / Response to Calestous Juma’s book: The New Harvest

I love the cover of this book as it simply illustrates how important agriculture is to this continent.

I must admit that at first I was a bit turned off by Calestous Juma’s The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovations in Africa, not because it wasn’t well written and researched but because I was expecting more of a micro focus on African agricultural success over another macro-level development book. Having already read numerous books and articles from Collier, Easterly, Rodrick, and others I’d pretty much heard the story of “infrastructure, education, and governance” repeated enough. But upon revisiting the book a bit later, I realized that it is the African focus and, specifically, the application of examples from other countries and how they would apply to many nations in Africa that makes the book unique and worthwhile.

As I said, Juma doesn’t stray from the usual cadence heard from other economic development specialists, even a short glace at the chapter titles like “Enabling Infrastructure,” “Human Capacity,” “Entrepreneurship,” and “Governing Innovation” demonstrates this. His strength is in the application of these concepts to an African setting, and, in some cases, even the more localized settings of specific countries or regions.

It’s easy for a writer to come out and say that a country needs to build infrastructure in order to improve the economy, because that’s somewhat of a no duh statement. But Juma looks at specific examples of road construction in Africa as well as drawing from development examples from China and finds that while large highways are useful for the transportation of goods and natural resources, it is lower-quality rural roads which provide the greatest jump in GDP. He found, when using examples of agricultural development in China, that for every yaun invested in rural roads it would generate 1.57 yaun in agricultural GDP. Even more exciting, the same yaun would yield over 5 yaun in nonfarm GDP. Because of the incredibly low quality of African rural roads, Juma proposes that an equal or greater benefit would be found if the same infrastructural development were applied to African nations.

In the area of education, Juma discusses both capacity building in the knowledge and education of rural farmers, but also stresses the need for research institutions, like universities, which are funded by the governments and have ties to the private sector for development of African-specific innovations. The idea is that the western world isn’t going to do the research necessary to alleviate African-specific problems; western solutions will always be more applicable in the western world and don’t always translate correctly. Again, using China and other south-eastern countries, Juma discusses how the governments made a switch from a more government-controlled research mandate to a government which encourages universities to do the research and to work with the private sector in the application phase. Many of the innovations which arose in the decades which followed solved a number of agricultural problems which were Asian specific.

Juma is a major proponent of regional economic partnerships, which open up trade and tend to lead to greater agricultural diversity and less famines, and he believes these groups must be promoted and strengthened. Also, he argues that governments must work to active promote the spread of innovations which are already available in the countries but many rural farmers don’t use because of lack of knowledge of the existence, lack of knowledge on how to employ the innovations, and lack of access to financing.

Applications like these make the book stand out as a useful resource for anyone looking into development policy, particularly in the African Agricultural Sector. I would like to see more African-specific examples though. There is a nice section on the development of airports in Mali, a landlocked country which has had export problems because of unrest in neighboring countries, but these examples are few and far between. Overall, I do think it’s a worthwhile read and one which has a sort of applied macro-economic approach to agricultural development that could make an impact in the lives of poor farmers around the continent.

*Update: Excerpts from the book, including the full text of Chapters 1 & 7) can be found at


Catching Malaria

You can’t truly be considered a full-fledged International Aid Worker until you’ve contracted one of the local illnesses. In most parts of Africa, malaria is so common that if you come down with the flu the locals almost always assume it’s malaria. The reason that malaria is so common is that it is caused by a parasite that is transmitted via mosquitos, and mosquitos are everywhere!

The Malaria Parasite Up Close and Personal

Up until a few days ago I’d been rather lucky when it comes to illnesses in the Congo. I only had some minor stomach problems once, and I think that was caused by eating a bad egg rather than some local cuisine, and the occasional physical injury due to my own clumsiness. Sadly, my tendency to not sleep under a mosquito net finally outmatched my anti-malaria pills, and a few nights ago after an evening run my body began to seriously ache.

What I thought was dehydration from running in this hot, humid air, turned out to be the beginning of the most horrible night I can remember. (Note: There were times in my childhood when I ended up in hospitals due to severe asthma attacks, but, thankfully, I have only a vague recollection of an oxygen chamber.) What I experienced that night turned out to be the textbook order of symptoms for malaria:

  1. Body Aches: The whole body starts to hurt! It was somewhere between the muscle pain from dehydration and doing a full week of P90X in one day having not exercised in a year. Basically, every muscle in my body hurt.
  2. Cold Sweats: This came on right after I got into bed. Your body starts to chill but sweats at the same time. This has been persistent through the whole thing and three days in this hasn’t really gone away. It’s quite annoying and I’m running out of clean shirts.
  3. Chills: Ok, so about an hour into trying to sleep I began getting incredibly cold. I turned off the AC and the fan, opened the door to let in the hot air, but none of that helped. I was instantly teleported back to the winter of 2005-6 in Ukraine when all the heating in the city was out and it was well below Zero. Nothing I did would help and even though it was incredibly hot in my room I ended up wrapping myself in multiple thick fur blankets to try and stay warm.
  4. Insomnia: As you can imagine, shivering, sweating, and body aches don’t make it easy to sleep.
  5. Fever: It was about 4-5 hours into my hellaciously freezing night when I realized I was burning up. I felt like I was going to have to get up and fill the tub with coldish water and sit in it (can’t really get ice in Congo at 4am). I couldn’t find the thermometer until the next morning but I’m pretty sure it was around 103 from past experiences, but I was also pretty delusional at this point.
  6. Lethargy: By the time I got up in the morning the fever seemed to have gone, but I was left in a state of malaise with a sever feeling of lethargy. I was tired, weak, and didn’t want to do anything.

So, even though I didn’t really want to do anything, I knew I needed to Google the symptoms. There’s a cholera outbreak in Kisangani right now so I needed to make sure it wasn’t that. Also, typhoid fever is common here, and even though I’ve been vaccinated I’d heard it’s nowhere near 100%, so that had to be checked. But I had a feeling it was malaria.

A Home Malaria Test Kit

The diagnosis wasn’t confirmed until 4:00pm that afternoon. It took visits to a military base doc, a self-diagnosis kit which failed because I take anti-malarial medication, a hospital and doctor there, a laboratory to test my blood, return to the lab to get the results, return to the hospital to have them interpreted but the doctor was gone, visit to another doctor in the city to have him interpret the results, and finally someone saying – Yeah, you have malaria.

Blood Test Results Verifying that I Indeed had Malaria

Apparently I had a really mild case. Some people feel like they’re dying until soon after they start taking the medication which kills off the parasites. The meds actually work rather quickly and even the first dose can lead to major improvements. I still have two of my six doses left to go, but I’m already feeling much better.

I’ve now hung a mosquito net in my bedroom.

Norman Borlaug Institute Agricultural Project in Kisangani, DRC

Sorry for the long delay in posting about the project I’m actually working on. Because of its connection to the government there were some hoops I needed to jump through before I could write anything. But now I’m ready to start a series of posts on the Borlaug Institute Agricultural Initiative in Kisangani, DRC.

As I’ve written on here before, the Congo doesn’t exactly have a happy history. In 1885 King Leopold II of Belgium created the Force Publique, a group of military regulars and mercenaries, to bring his personal colony, the Congo Free State, under strict control. Unable to feed the soldiers, Leopold ordered his men to live off the land and thereby started a tradition of pillaging villages for food in the Congo. This tradition was continued after Congo’s independence in 1960, particularly under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, and still exists to this day in parts of Eastern Congo. This practice lead to a military force virtually indistinguishable from rebel factions, as the military will often liberate a town only to subsequently steal all of the food and mass rape the women.

The theory behind the Borlaug Institute project is that when the soldiers aren’t paid, they still continue to be soldiers because they don’t have better opportunities, but when the soldiers aren’t fed they will do anything they need to in order to obtain food. Therefore, if the soldiers were able to be provided with a steady food source, it will help to prevent them from pillaging nearby villages.

The project is broken into two phases:

Phase 1: Construction of the farm and training of the Agricultural Company to become farmers.

Phase 2: Expansion of the farm using local construction methods and training the Agricultural Company to become training for future soldiers.

Mostly I’m going to focus on Phase 1 here. This involved the physical construction of a farm and two fish ponds at the military base in Kisangani. This included about 12 acres of cassava (a staple food in the Congo and provides both flour from the ground up root and some sauces from the leaves), 2 acres of other vegetables like amaranth (like spinach), and two large ponds. The majority of the construction was done using bulldozers and other mechanized methods. This allowed all of the initial construction to be completed during the short dry season from January to March.

Mechanized construction presented a problem of making replication of the project impossible without huge financial investment, so when I get to Phase 2 I’ll explain the goal of replicating the construction using human labor.

Since I wasn’t around for this part of the project, I’ve only heard about it from those who took part in it, but here’s what I’ve learned:

A group of 60 soldiers were selected to form Ag Company (AGCO). They have their own Captain, a strong dedicated leader who is a major asset to the project, and a few other minor officers to keep the chain of command working.

AGCO was taught methods of creating and maintaining a farm but agricultural trainer who spoke Lingala, the local language, as well as French. Many of the men had already farmed before but they were taught about crop rotation, common agricultural diseases, and other things which would improve crop yield.

The initial farm which was cleared using bulldozers consisted of twelve acres of cassava, the main staple crop of the area, and about four acres of other vegetables. The cassava would take a year to ripen, but then it would be able to feed 1000 men for a year. The other vegetables, mostly amaranth, a spinach-like plant, would be harvested on almost a weekly basis.

Two large fish ponds were also constructed, with feed and drainage canals used to cycle in fresh water, and they were stocked with 40,000 baby tilapia. The goal was to be able to provide fish as a good source of protein to the soldiers on a semi-regular basis after 4-6 months of growth.

A livestock breeding program was also instituted. Cows and pigs were chosen to be raised by the soldiers mostly for training purposes and for occasional special events when the meat could be given to the soldiers.

In my next update on the project I’ll get into Phase II, and then I’ll write another post on some of the problems and unexpected changes we’ve encountered along the way. 

Waiting for the Barbarians

For two weeks now, J.M. Coetzee’sWaiting for the Barbarians” has weighted me down like the mariner’s albatross. Once in a long while I come across a book that seems to perfectly encapsulate the realities, both joyous and painful, of the human condition. The last such book was Denis Johnson‘s Jesus’ Son, and maybe it’s no coincidence the both were short, mostly allegorical novels, which allow the reader to fell more a part of the central character than other novels. The fact that Coetzee has presented a novel which can be read in a single sitting does not pass unnoticed – I’ve always been a believer in Poe’s philosophy that a great novel must be readable in a single sitting in order for a person to fully appreciate the experience.

Waiting for the Barbarians follows an aging magistrate who for the past few decades has been managing one of the furthest outposts of an unnamed Empire during a period of peace. He comes from a prominent family though he doesn’t seem to aspire to any greatness of his own and is content living out his life on the frontier. He is slightly obsessed with history and in his spare time excavates an ancient barbarian village on the shore of a lake. From this hobby, he has obtained one of his prized possessions, a sack stuffed with old wooden tablets covered in barbarian writing he has no ability to decipher. History is possibly the most common theme in the book, and, in particular, the recognition of the existence of history and one’s place in it is a lesson the magistrate must grow to understand himself as well as how it applies to the Empire’s actions towards the barbarians.

The main plot centers on the visit of Colonel Jol, a dedicated servant of the Empire, who will unquestioningly follow orders to root out any perceived threats, and the response of the magistrate to the colonel’s torturous actions perpetrated on the barbarians. After a short reconnaissance of the barbarian lands by the colonel, and the capture of fisher folk, he begins to question the prisoners about barbarian plans for an attack on the Empire. The magistrate knows that he must not interfere with the colonel, but he opens Pandora’s Box by looking in on the victims after a day of the Colonel’s work.

The images of the tortured barbarians haunts him throughout the rest of the novel, and it directly leads to him taking in a blind barbarian girl who has had her ankles broken during the questioning. This central action is truly the crux of the story and Coetzee brilliantly gives the reader three different interpretations to draw from it.

First is the Magistrate who constantly questions himself as to why he’s taking in the girl who is broken and disfigured. He spends his time meticulously washing her feet and then her body, a great metaphor for the cleansing of his own soul he hopes to obtain by helping this girl. Then there is the confusion of the girl, who herself cannot understand the actions of the magistrate, particularly that he doesn’t seek her for sexual pleasure. In no way does his cleaning her and taking care of her make her see him any differently than a Magistrate of the Empire, and in the end she is dumbfounded when he asks her to stay with him rather than go back to her people – she would never have even considered staying. Finally there is Colonel Jol, who, rightly so from his perspective, views the Magistrate’s actions as going native and conspiring against the empire.

There is a line early in the book where the Magistrate thinks to himself, “I believe in peace, perhaps even peace at any price.” Coetzee give us that price, but, unlike the brutality of the Empire which we expect, it is the peace the Magistrate must gain through his downfall, torture, and final poverty which permeate the later pages of the book. In a way, I was reminded of Kafka’s The Trial in how it almost seemed as if I were the one being punished, as if I were the one who, though guilty in the eyes of the Empire, must cleanse myself and prove my innocence the through suffering.

The Magistrate later understands that the truly awful thing the Empire has done to the Barbarians is not to go off and kill them and take their land, but to impose history upon them:

“Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history.”

By forcing the barbarians to recognize and live in a world with history, the Empire has taken from them their normal cycle of existence, taken their culture and way of life. The Empire has given them an unrecognizable future, past, and present. And this crime against the barbarians haunts the Magistrate even more than the tortures of Colonel Jol, more than the broken girl who he gave back to the barbarians, and more than his own torture by the agents of the Empire.

Understanding all of this, the Magistrate can once again take up his leadership position, but only because he steps out of history and simply begins to exist in the now, to live to see what comes in the future. Finally cleansed, the Magistrate can wait for the barbarians to come.

I can’t imagine an existence where I wasn’t aware of history, but the idea of existing to exist without our other preoccupations, which invariably lead to more stress than they’re worth, is definitely attractive. But because we live in such a world, history has demonstrated that most people lack the cultural sensitivity to approach a completely different society and not think themselves superior. Over and over we’ve seen that cycle, and now our planet is left with so few uncorrupted cultures that a book like this may never be written again.