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. 

You Think TPS Report Cover Sheets Are A Pain?

I swear that I’ve recently relived this conversation over email, and like in Peter’s case, I’ve had to hear it from multiple people:

Dom Portwood: Hi, Peter. What’s happening? We need to talk about your TPS reports.
Peter Gibbons: Yeah. The coversheet. I know, I know. Uh, Bill talked to me about it.
Dom Portwood: Yeah. Did you get that memo?
Peter Gibbons: Yeah. I got the memo. And I understand the policy. And the problem is just that I forgot the one time. And I’ve already taken care of it so it’s not even really a problem anymore.
Dom Portwood: Ah! Yeah. It’s just we’re putting new coversheets on all the TPS reports before they go out now. So if you could go ahead and try to remember to do that from now on, that’d be great. All right!

Now if you haven’t seen Office Space, well, something is just wrong. But the key point here is all of the paperwork that you need to do in the development world, and then the number of people you hear from if you’ve made a mistake.

One thing about International Development work is that if you’re a project manager you’re most likely on some form of a budget, and someone higher up than you is fronting the cash for that project and that person, or group, expects accountability. Now, you might be lucky to have someone back at a main office who deals with all the bills, but that still means that you, off in some foreign country, need to gather receipts for every little thing you buy related to the project.

But you can’t just send those receipts home and let them sort it out. Most likely the receipts are in some language that the assistant in the home office has never seen nor heard of. So, you’ll need to translate all of the receipts into English and enter the information in some nice, organized spreadsheet, assigning each and every receipt a number and keeping them in date order.

Of course, if you’re vigilant and organized about this process you’ll quickly be faced with a local counterpart that shows up a week later with a receipt or three from earlier in the month. There goes your numbering scheme and date order in one swoop. Sometimes you just modify the date, which will keep your work all nice and fancy and prevent a talk from each boss, or sometimes you start over.

In any case, you’re bound to forget something when dealing with hundreds of receipts, some of which are no more than a square inch in size. A receipt might not get scanned, a number might not match up with the receipt, or the total price might not have been scanned because it was added up on the back side and since the total ISN’T ACTUALLY VISABLE ON THE SCAN it can’t possibly be valid.

So, just a warning to those who are looking at getting into development work: Take an accounting class and never throw away a piece of paper without first having it translated!




Three Weeks as Project Manager

Tonight signifies the end of my role as “Acting Project Manager.”

Over the past three-and-a-half weeks while our project manager has been having meetings around the country and ordering parts for our cassava processing center, I’ve been running things from Kisangani. In this short period of time the project has been going through its largest expansion since the initial construction of the farm.

On the day I took over, we broke ground on nineteen expansion fish ponds. Using three men to dig each pond and create the dikes around them, six of the ponds have been completed with the remaining ones to be done in the next day or so.

Digging a Fish Pond

A few days after that we began clearing 7-9 hectares of land (1 hectare = 100X100 square meters). This land is to be used for growing rice. Our workers have been cutting trees, vines, and bushes six days a week to get the land we need, and yesterday it looks like we finished the initial removal. Next week we’ll burn the field and begin clearing the wood and turn it all into seed beds.

Here is a Completed Fish Pond

Two weeks ago we began preparations for our initial fish harvest. This included getting a large net – and I mean LARGE! 80 meters long – a dugout canoe, and some fishermen to teach us how to harvest the fish. Yesterday we brought the fishermen out to the base to check out the fish ponds and to test out the net. We discovered that we have a few too many branches in the ponds right now, but we have a strategy in place for our actual tests next week. One of the fishermen said, after getting out of the pond, “It was like swimming through fish!”

Tonight, as a bit of a celebration, Didier and I went over to Palm Beach, a local hotel / restaurant, and we had some drinks and a decent dinner. I had some delicious pork chops and fried plantains.

Oh, and yesterday I met some kids who liked using our fish ponds a swimming pools!

African Kids are Awesome!

So, that was my past three weeks. Development work is a lot of work, but there is some to be had as well.


What Three Dollars Will Get You

$3.00 For this Refreshing Beverage

Yesterday I bought one liter of tropical juice, something that I’d been craving for a while. The juice cost me 2700 Congolese Francs, which is exactly equal to $3.00. Now, this doesn’t seem to be that significant, as that’s about what a liter of juice would cost in America, and I knew that it was an imported product as there is nowhere in Kisangani which could manufacture juice.

Today, as I poured a glass to have with my breakfast, it clicked that for the same $3.00 I could have paid a day laborer to hack through and clear 200 square meters of jungle. This work would take him five or six hours, and would be an exhausting endeavor, but he wouldn’t even question or argue about the price. $3.00 is the standard pay for clearing 200 sq. meters.

So, for a day laborer in Kisangani to obtain that small box of juice, he would have to work in the hot, humid jungle, constantly hacking at bushes, branches, vines, and trees for six long hellacious hours.

$3.00 of Hard Labor

The next time you buy a Grande Soy Latte, just try and enjoy it a bit more, because for many people in the world, that’s a damn hard day’s work.

ICT4Dev: Technology is not the Magic Bean

As a self-identified computer geek, I can’t help but be drawn to the field of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4Dev). The basic premise of which seems to be: Think of all the amazing technologies we have in our everyday life and how just a few of those could drastically change the problems facing the poor and disenfranchised of the world?

One of the ‘star’ programs you may have heard of is the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program. This mission is as follows:

“To provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, we have designed hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together.”

Now this sounds like a great idea, especially when the laptops cost only $100.00 each, which seems like nothing compared to the benefits. But, as Kentaro Toyama, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, explains in his lead article of a forum on the role of ICT4Dev, laptops aren’t a panacea:

“OLPC’s target cost of a hundred dollars or less per laptop (in practice, the machines have been more expensive), sounds affordable, but that’s about half of India’s per-student education budget, most of which is currently devoted to teachers’ salaries. Does a hundred dollars for a computer make sense when $0.50 per year, per child for de-worming pills could reduce the incidence of illness-causing parasites and increase school attendance by 25 percent?”

In fact, technology acts much like investment in my previous article: If you are already educated and have means it will multiply your productive capabilities, but if you’re poor, uneducated, and have little means to purchase or maintain technology, there is little improvement.

Mr. Toyama put is brilliantly when he stated that “technology is a magnifier in that its impact is multiplicative, not additive.” Sometimes I wonder how all of us ‘computer people’ can think that simply giving someone a computer will instantly change their lives, magically granting them the same productivity gain we achieved. I mean, haven’t we all given a computer to our mothers and seen how well that’s worked out? I showed my mother how to put photos onto Facebook on three different occasions until it finally took!

But, there you have the answer, once I did put in the effort, once I figured out the best method to teach her based on how she learns as an individual – which, I might add, is quite different from how I learn and thus accounts for the two failed attempts – I was able to instruct her and thus give her the skills needed so that she could benefit from the technology.

This is a problem with the Revolutionary mindset many people have about technology in the developing world. How does, for example, putting a telecenter (like an Internet Café) in villages in India help the people if they:

  1. Don’t know how to use the computer?
  2. Don’t know what information is out there and how to access it?
  3. Don’t even have consistent power to keep the computers turned on?

In Kisangani we gave one of our workers a laptop and have been teaching him how to use spreadsheets and the word processor, but he only has access to the Internet around our house, and he doesn’t even have power at home so he must charge the computer here as well. Imagine giving laptops to all of the kids in Kisangani? How long until the batteries run out?

ICT4Dev sounds like a great idea which could work as a complementary for actual work on the ground, but it is not a replacement for real development work. Without teachers, engineers, doctors, and other specialists actively working in the countries and with the people, technology will do little to change the face of the developing world.

So, for now, let’s just spend the $0.50 for de-worming pills for each kid — Check out DeWorm The World —  and get them into the classroom. Maybe the other $99.50 could go towards teacher training and classroom materials?