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  http://www.belfercenter.org/global/.

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. 


Leakage: Increasing Returns from Capital Investment

Today while our project assistant Didier and I were hiking through the marshy wetland we are converting into fishponds he told me how glad he was to have been involved in every stage of the Camp Base Agricultural Initiative. He told me that even though it’s a good project and will hopefully make a difference, what he is truly excited about is to have learned how a project like this is run. In the past year and a half, he’s learned how to construct and manage a farm. He’s also learned everything that goes into the construction of a fishery including things like the proper size, ways to fill it with water from a source, how to cycle the water while preventing fish from escaping, and soon he’ll learn how to harvest the fish. He’s excited that in the future he’ll be able to take these new skills and ideas with him to further his career.

Other locals working on this project have learned comparable skills. Soldiers in the Ag Company will have a better understanding of agriculture when they’re finished with their service and will be much more valuable in the professional world. Our engineer will have taken ideas which he had only seen on paper and transformed them into a series of working fisheries like you’d find in a developed nation. And others will have gained ideas from our work which we can’t possibly quantify.

What is happening is leakage. We are investing capital to teach these people how to complete this project, but the ideas are still in their heads when we leave. Now, none of them would have the funding to just go out and replicate this project, but it’s not impossible for some of them to create a working fishery, or put better agricultural practices into place, or end up working for some company where they in turn train others from their own experience.

In his book The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics, William Easterly explains how leakage causes increasing returns on a capital investment, but the returns are usually now given to the investor, rather to society. As he says:

As a society gets more and more productive ideas, each additional idea contributes more and more additional production. If this investment in knowledge leaks to everyone, then this new knowledge raises the productivity of all existing knowledge and machines throughout the economy.

So, doesn’t this just tell us that we should invest all our development work in education, particularly practical education directed towards skill building? Well, there’s a problem of course:

If at the beginning there is little knowledge, then there is a low rate of return. If this low reate of return falls below the minimum required rate of return, that is, the discount rate, then there will be no investment in new knowledge.

No one is going to spend money training workers if the expected return doesn’t include a profit. In Easterly’s example, he talks about a Korean clothing manufacturer which partnered with a Bangladeshi factory. The Korean company paid to have 120 workers come to work in their factory for six months to be trained to manufacture clothing. This initial capital investment was huge, and it was not something that could have been made in Bangladesh as the return would be low. But the Korean firm also had additional knowledge including how to set up lines of credit and how to create import and export deals around the globe. Because of these things, the Korean firm knew that it would turn a decent profit from the joint venture. Had Bangladesh had to invest enough capital to create all of these things it would have taken many years to turn a profit, so no one would have every invested.

In Easterly’s example, after the initial factory was a major success, many of those 120 workers took their knowledge and opened their own manufacturing centers. Within a few years, Bangladeshi exports of clothing went from $50,000 to over $2 billion. Neither the Koreans nor the Bangladeshi firm benefited to that extent, instead the increasing returns went to the society.

So, what can we hope for in the DRC? Well, it’s not unrealistic to think that a few man-made fish ponds might pop up around Kisangani or in other regions of the DRC from knowledge that leaked during this project. Plus, in a few years there will be many highly trained farmers leaving the military and entering the workforce, so it could help to change the agricultural practices of the people in the area.

It’s not $2 billion in exports, but it’s a start for a place where knowledge is incredibly low so returns on the investment are still low.

There are leaks nonetheless, and those leaks will help things grow.

Here is a link to a very interesting guest blog post Didier Lifenya Kombozi wrote for A Crowing Hen.

Clearing the Jungle

Jungle is thick. I had an image of jungle in my mind; it was something like the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy is running from the natives. But that’s not jungle. Jungle is like a wall of life that surrounds on all sides and above. If you cut a path through it, the strange thing is how it’s more of a tunnel, as the jungle still comes together above your head.

Today, walking through a ‘path’ I was amazed at the heat and humidity. Unlike shade, which you go into the jungle the temperature rises. Moisture comes out of the ground and the leaves and humidifies the area to a point where it’s almost suffocating.

For $3.00, a Congolese man must cut a line two meters wide and fifty meters long. The more men, walk into that line and they are paid $3.00 to cut out their own 100sq meter chunk of jungle. The work takes them from early in the morning until two or three in the afternoon, all this time hacking away with machetes in the hot, humid cave of jungle.

What’s unbelievable is that with a hundred men or so, we’re able to clear vast amounts of land in just a few days (4-5 Hectares in two days). But it will still require some extra days for cutting trees, burning, and then clearing out the leftover wood. All-in-all, an impressive feat when you compare what was once there with what is left, and all by the power of human labor, not machines.

Here is a recently cut line in the jungle where we’re checking the land to see if it’ll be good for growing vegetables:

Here’s what the land will look like after clearing, burning, and removing sticks but before all the stumps are taken out:

Here’s a woman removing some of the stick from the recently burned area to take them home and use them for firewood (We allow that as it’s free labor):

The final goal is more vegetable gardens like these:

And here I am coming out of a line that was cut:

U.S. Delegation Visits Ag Initiative Project

Today we had a delegation from the United States come to visit the Borlaug Institute farms and fisheries on the FARDC Base in Kisangani. The delegation included Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro, the U.S. Ambassador to D. R. Congo, and the U.S. General in command of AFRICOM. Over the course of the day they also watched marching and live fire demonstrations by the American-Trained FARDC Fast Deploy Battalion.

Overall, Assistant Secretary Shapiro was very impressed by the agricultural initiative, and specifically mentioned that he had never seen or heard of a project like it anywhere else in Africa. In a press conference later in the day he reiterated the need for the army to be able to feed itself in a sustainable manner and not return to living off the land, as was the method under both Mobutu and King Leopold. For 150 years the Congolese army has been taking their food from the people, and breaking this tradition is not an easy thing, but this sort of project is a start.

Our project philosophy is based on one thing: If an army doesn’t get paid, they will still continue to work, but if an army doesn’t get fed, they will rebel.

At this stage, we have 5 hectares of cassava fields planted, a 4 hectare fish pond stocked with tilapia and catfish, and 3-4 hectares for other vegetables. Last week the Ag-Company of the FARDC cleared another 5 hectares of jungle and this week they’ve begun clearing a further 5 hectares. Both of these clearings will be converted into additional fish ponds by the soldiers. Once complete, the total entire farm and fishery will produce enough cassava to feed a company of 1000 soldiers for a year, as well as give them fish multiples days out of the week. It will also produce excess cassava which will be sold in the markets to provide income for growth or other food items.

Next week, I’ll be spending my morning overseeing the clearing of the jungle area. Because of some corruption problems, we need to make sure that the number of civilian workers hired to clear the jungle matches the actual number who are working. There is a tendency for those two numbers to not exactly match and some money ends up in the captain’s pocket. While that is to be expected to a point, we would prefer to minimize our losses to corruption. Having lived in Ukraine for three years, I lost my American belief that all corruption is unacceptable, as it wasn’t too long ago that our own country had some serious problems. We need to understand that there is a way things work in some places. In many countries, if it weren’t for the bribes, it might take years to get a business started because of the government’s laws and bureaucracy. Here, it’s just not feasible to completely eliminate it. But watching over their backs will help to cut it a tad.

Kisangani Camp Base Project

On January 12th, 2011, I’m flying from San Francisco to Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo for a four and a half month long internship. The project is an agricultural initiative through the Norman Borlaug Institute and AFRICOM in order to provide a sustainable food source for the Congolese military. There have been two previous interns from the Bush School of Governments, each of which have posted blog updates in the AFRICOM blog here and here.

So far, farms have been established at Camp Base to grow amaranth (a leaf vegetable) and cassava (a staple of their diet), fisheries stocked with tilapia and African catfish are soon to produce their first batch of fish, and livestock have been introduced. The program’s main goal is to train trainers so that they can continue to train other soldiers in the future to participate in the farming, fishing, and livestock operations after the U.S. Military and the Borlaug Institute leave in late 2011.

I will be interning for the project manager, assisting with the budget paperwork, military reports, and various aspects of the day-to-day operations. I plan to learn as much as possible about project management, while getting to know some of the issues with development work in a post-conflict country.

I’ll also be taking a few correspondence courses at the same time. One of them will be on technology transfer, and the other will be a African Development Studies course. I’ll be posting a number of responses to the reading for the African Development course on here, as it will be applicable to development in general.

In preparation for the journey, I’m reading A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul, which takes place in Kisangani right after the colonial period came to an end. I’m also planning on re-reading Heart of Darkness, as Kisangani is the place on the Congo River where Marlowe found Kurtz.