May 27 2011

the riddle of Nigerian corruption

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:58 PM

A new article in The Economist paints a grim picture of a deteriorating country, which highlights the urgent crisis facing newly-elected Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan. With living standards falling perilously for most Nigerians — and especially Northerners — the odds against reform seem very high, despite Jonathan’s prediliction for surrounding himself with such reformers as the principled and brilliant Oronto Douglas. My own “wise man” on Nigerian politics, a supporter of anti-corruption campaigner Ribadu, tells me the following, with his usual pith: “I have written and said worse than the Economist writer. Nigeria is a difficult country. Unless corruption is controlled any attempt at reformation will be an exercise in futility.”

My own view is that corruption is an epi-phenomena; corruption is a function of deeper dysfunctions in Nigeria. So I am not of the school that would confront corruption directly, but rather look at underlying problems that make corruption make sense within a Nigerian context.

China is enormously corrupt at all levels, yet state and society enormously effective (though some critics insist that, if unchecked, corruption threatens Chinese prosperity and stability). The Chinese are committed to getting things done and corruption is subordinated (usually) to the overall goal of effectiveness.

Such Asian-style pragmatism is absent in sub-Saharan political culture, and especially absent in Nigeria’s peculiar circle of public servants. My sense is that the committment of Nigerian public officials to getting things done is very low and that the explanation of why this is so — especially since Nigerians at their best are talented and enterprising, on a world-class level — is elusive. Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, is en enigma, even to its own people.

May 19 2011

What can urban Africans teach Americans?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 3:16 PM

What can Africans teach us?

A lot.

My wife, a Nigerian from Port Harcourt, has taught my an infinite amount about the unmeasurable present. To be here now. Beyond the idionsyncacies of my personal experience, the answer is capacious: Africans teach the world about their own ways, and the world absorbs these lessons in complex fashion.

Because of “Africa” as a concept is constructed by Europeans and Americans in such a way as to epitomize victimhood, the very notion of Africa as a teacher strikes many as unlikely. Yet as the mother of humanity  — the birthplace of humans on this planet — Africa offers the student a great deal.

The trope of learning from African is contested. The French philosophy of negritude and its American variation, Pan-Africanism, remains a minor note in the global culture in which “Africaness” is too often equated with dependency, exploitation, abandonment and negativity.

Learning from Africa — existentially, politically and culturally — therefore remains subversive. In this spirit I wrote about what Africans can teach us in America about mass transit; specifically about what people living in northern California can learn from the experiences of ordinary urban Africans. As I explain to the readers of the current issue of Reason magazine, the Africa is home to the fastest growing cities in the world. The lessons from the rapid urbanization of Africa are many, and often surprising. While Lagos, the most populous city on the African continent, receives the most attention from global observers, my commentary is drawn from the experiences and history of medium-size African cities, mainly in the East and West, where innovations are plentiful and the problems of immense scale are less insistent. In Kampala and Nairobi to the East and Accra and Duoala to the West, lessons abound in the manifold ways that cities spawn new varieties of civilization.

Not all of these lessons are appropriate or welcome, perhaps. One colleague of mine at Arizona State University wrote this about the application of Accra’s free-wheeling, laissez-faire transit “system” to the problems of moving Californians about in large numbers:

“Nice piece-but I’d also want to argue w/ you about some of it.  For example, more developed Asian cities that still depend the type of transit that you describe for Accra are simply hells of congestion and pollution, so that’s what Accra may well be like in 10 years.  And I don’t see why the subsidies to public transport are always discussed but not the externalities of private transport (or the various intangible benefits of public transport–including keeping private transport less congested; or their value for getting money-spending tourists around) rarely included in the discussion.”

Good points all. And my own criticism is that I failed to remind readers that African governments can do more to invest in and manage transit activities.

May 16 2011

For Vodaphone in Africa, “designing for real needs”

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 7:07 PM

In my course on technology, development and Africa, a fine undergraduate student, David Metoyer, wrote this about the activities in Africa of Vodaphone, one of the world’s most significant mobil-telephony companies and a sizeable force in the sub-Saharan mobil boom:

Since 2009, Vodaphone has significantly increased its presence in Africa.  Vodacom, Vodafone’s leading subsidiary, hired 4,082 additional employees in Africa, bringing the total to 6,833 (a 150% gain).  As a whole, Vodafone employment in Ghana increased from 13,676 in 2009 to 21,064 in 2010.  Vodafone’s Seek, Identify, and Support (SIS) program enables the company to quickly identify new opportunities in the African market.  The SIS program allows employees to propose potential projects that will benefit the company, and local communities.  Often times, the communities are the employees’ home villages.

For Vodafone, sub-Saharan Africa is proving to be the testbed for R&D development that will transition to the rest of the world.  Vodafone’s emerging “Africanized” technology is highly advanced, world-class stuff; unlike other existing technologies that have slowly trickled down into African markets.

Some examples: At first, Vodafone and its network of subsidiaries in sub-Saharan Africa tapped into the existing electrical grid.  But the newly represented company was soon bombarded with complains from customers over spotty coverage and service outages. The problem was identified immediately.  Some countries, specifically Kenya and the DRC, had very weak supporting infrastructures.  As a result, the overburdened electrical grids dropped power to cell towers, regularly cutting service from paying subscribers until power loads reduced to sustainable levels.  The outages could have lasted for hours.  To remedy the issue, Vodafone fitted cell towers with gasoline backup generators.

For the past decade, the company’s critical challenge has been providing cellular coverage to places that lack even the most basic services, such as running water and electricity.  Running power to rural cell towers was expensive and cable theft was rampant.  To reach the rural customer, Vodafone planted generator-supported towers throughout the African countryside.  The new tower sites reduced grid dependency, but also increased operational costs to ensure the reliability.

Around 2009, the concerns over energy security were also met with concerns over environmental degradation, or dramatically changing climates.  Gasoline prices increased and soon Vodafone faced rapidly increasing costs to support reliability to its least paying customers, rural villagers.  Additionally, Vodafone was under fire for excessive CO2 emissions from the gasoline generators powering those rural towers.

Vodafone was forced to “design for real needs”.  Hybrid green sites have emerged as the solution.  The project was taken on internally by the Cost Reduction team; the “Green Technology Program” aims to implement diesel hybrid sites, solar power, fuel cell technology, along with new methods of cooling and storing battery power.  The results will reduce operational costs, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and further improve service reliability.  Today, the hybrid powered sites stand in Kenya, the DRC, Mozambique, Lesotho, Tanzania, and South Africa. There are only a handful of towers operational, but the results are promising.

With is successes, Vodaphone’s “green technology program” also presents challenges.  The advanced technology is expensive, and inconsistent load demands make it difficult to gauge what amount of support is necessary.  In rainy seasons, usable sunlight is a mere 5.5 hours a day, not enough to fully power the towers.  Securing space for solar panels is another challenge, though positioning the panels off the ground is providing a short-term solution.  In 2011, tower security is the largest challenge facing Vodafone.  The technology exists, but the effectiveness is severely limited by implementation due to a risk of damage and theft.

To provide access to power in rural markets, Vodafone is rolling out a solar-powered cellphone, complete with a built in solar panel on the back of the handset for charging. The phone launched in India from late 2010 and will push through Africa in 2011.

In the case of Vodafone, the “Africanized” technoscientific operations unfolding in developing parts of Africa could lay the framework for the rest of the developed world to follow.

Metoyer, a student at Arizona State University, is studying the important developmental role that multinational corporations now play in the sub-Saharan. He’ll be working in West Africa this summer, in his own private venture, based on a small-scale energy-efficiency innovation, which permits low-cost charging of cell-phone batteries off the electrical grid, thus meeting a key demand of rural Africans: juice to keep their phones running.

May 07 2011

Should Britain offer Kenyans more than apologies?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:43 PM

The British government should be applauded for its decision to release critical documents about brutal efforts in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa to crush independence movements. But once scholars and policymakers have a chance to study these records, the government ought to consider doing more: moving beyond regrets and apologies for the murder, torture and imprisonment of thousands of Kenyan men and women in the 1950s. Britain should ponder whether more concrete steps to atone for the country’s “dirty war” against Kenyan nationalists should be forthcoming. Such steps could include:

1. A formal apology and payments to victims of mistreatment by both British government officials and British citizens living in Kenya.

2. The identification and surrender of valuable lands, essentially stolen by British colonists, in the 20th century. In encouraging the Kenyan government to strip illegally-obtained lands from British nationals, the British government could guarantee compensation payments to those who lose their land in the process.

3. A British-Kenyan historical commission should be formed in order to create a series of public history monuments, and a museum, in which the abuses against Kenyans could be presented in context and in detail.

Time is running out for Britain in its long official denial of flagrant abuses in Kenya in the years running up the country’s independence in 1963. The possibility of an independent British court mandating remedies for the colonial abuses now seems impossible, given a court ruling earlier this month in London in which the government was found to be immune from liability for any of its against individual Kenyans. The basic unfairness of the court ruling, and the additional information brought out by the release of important government records, should increase the pressure on the British government to fully account for its bad actions in colonial Kenya — and to do so in a myriad of ways.

There’s already overwhelming evidence about British abuses in Kenya in the 1950s; see, for instance, David Anderson’s authoritative History of the Hanged, and Caroline Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning). As a country whose official often lecture others in the world about human rights violations, Britain owes the very same world a full and fair disclosure — and a porfolio of remedial actions, including the payment of reparations to victims — about the shameful efforts to suppress Kenyan nationalists prior to 1963. To fail to do so risks undermining British influence in Africa, and around the world.

May 03 2011

U.N. forecast: How many Nigerians is enough?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 2:44 PM

New U.N. forecasts on world population always attract attention. Larger populations, while carrying benefits, also penalize societies. In sub-Saharan Africa, sparse population density and relatively low urbanization suggests that more people can deliver benefits, especially economic benefits, by creating larger markets and greater effeciencies due to rising human densities.

Striking the balance, however, remains difficult, and extrapolating from present population growth can yield scary forecasts. In the most startling single piece of data in the entire new U.N. report is the number 730 million, which refers to the total amount of people to be living in Nigeria in 2100. Is it really possible for Nigeria’s population to rise, even in 90 years, from today’s estimated 162 million to a breathtaking 730 million, or an incredible 7.3 percent of the total human population, which the U.N. estimates will be 10.1 billion in 2100? Given the daily scramble in Nigeria, an observer could be forgiven, after all, for wondering how the country can support even a million more people, no less than 100 million or even an additional 500 million.

These are not sloppy projections either. They come from the highly-respected United Nations population division, which has a track record of fairly accurate forecasts going back to the 1950s. In the new report, the division also raised its forecast for the year 2050, estimating that the world would likely have 9.3 billion people then, an increase of 156 million over the previous estimate for that year, published in 2008.

Why so many Nigerians? Well, the African population, covering the entire continent, is under this forecast is expected to more than triple in this century, rising from today’s one billion to 3.6 billion. How can so many more people survive on a continent where the threat of climate change and resource depletion has some dour observers predicting a Malthusian doom even for the “small” population inhabiting the continent today?

The U.N. report doesn’t explain. The task of population agency is simply to forecast numbers, drawing on accepted practices. Still, any report that predicts the population of poor, and poorly endowed Malawi, will reach 129 million 90 years from now (from a mere 15 million today) raises uncomfortable questions that demand, if not a defiitive answer, then at least some serious reflection.

Even without the gargantuan numbers forecast by the U.N., Nigeria, Malawi and other of Africa’s more densely-packed countries are experiencing a Darwinian struggle for resources and space that nearly seems out of the pages of science-fiction novel. To be sure, improved medical care and rising incomes for many Africans means that quality of life, despite the resource squeeze, has risen. But for how much longer? The U.N. report provides a useful reminder that African governments, and civil society organizations, should do more to address family planning and population growth.

While demographic “momentum” is hard to alter, Africans need not resign themselves to a world where 730 million people consider Nigeria to be home. I’m married to a Nigerian, and a fan of the entire nationality. Yet I know well, from my own visits to Nigeria, we should be mindful of the old adage: beware of having too much of a good thing!

May 02 2011

Should Ivory Coast nationalize its cocoa crop, emulating Ghana?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:48 AM

Now that Ivory Coast has rid itself of its criminal former president Laurent Gbagbo, Alassane Outtarra — the country’s new president — can get on with the task of governing this west African country, long known as an economic powerhouse. Ivory Coast’s world-class agricultural endowment is cocoa, and its farmers have historically produced the largest annual crop in the world.

Ten years of civil war, and electoral frustrations cost Ivory Coast its pre-eminent global position, which is now likely held by neighboring Ghana. In a well-reported article on the problems of Ivory Coast’s cocoa farmers, James North, in The Nation, argues that large European and American cocoa buyers, notably Cargill, ADM and the big Swiss firm, Barry Callebaut, are terribly “exploiting” Ivorian farmers. North, while admirably cataloging the abuses by brokers and dishonest middle-men in the cocoa value chain, proposes no solution to the problem, other than suggesting that Western consumers of chocolate ought to refuse to tolerate “this injustice,” implying that perhaps a consumer boycott would help.

Strangely, given North’s long history of reporting for left-wing and progressive journals, he makes no mention of a potential solution open to Ivory Coast’s government: the well-established practice, in Ghana, of having the state serve as the sole buyer and broker of Ghanaian cocoa. As the sole buyer, the Ghana Cocoa Board, an arm of the government, sets terms and prices for cocoa, and serves as a supplier of inputs and expertise for Ghana’s many cocoa farmers. Undoubtedly, the cocoa board penalizes some farmers because it pays prices well below the level of the world market. The Ghana government pockets the difference on the grounds that the nation should benefit as a whole from cocoa — and that farmers are receiving some benefits from a system that frees them from the Darwinian competition — dog eat dog — that James North insists undercuts and immiserates cocoa farmers in neighboring Ivory Coast.

There’s a long and tangled history to the political economy of cocoa in West Africa — to long and tangled to go into here. The relevant point is that Ghana’s form of state socialism once delivered poorer results than Ivory Coast’s liberal, free-market approach, where farmers sold to whomever they wished and pocketed all of their winnings. With cocoa prices at record-high levels, the market-oriented approach is failing Ivorian farmers, while rewarding those in Ghana, where the government posssesses enormous leverage over the global cartel of cocoa buyers because of a shortage in this essential bean.

For Outtarra, the case for emulating Ghana is clear. Nationalizing cocoa could also be an instrument for bringing some sanity and equity to rural Ivory Coast. Ghanaian technocrats could assist in this process, and the two countries, working in concert, would amass even stronger market power over cocoa, perhaps leading to price increases. Expoitation of producers — virtually all of whom are farmers who work their own small plots of land — would decline. And the shattered Ivorian state would demonstrate a new avenue for delivering public goods to its strife-weary citizens. Networks of cocoa farmers would require direct assistance from the Ivorian state — in the form of fertilizers, storage services and other inputs. These networks could then be used to “piggyback” other social goods, such as education for women and children, health services and even lessons in conflict-resolution techniques.

The failure to imagine new possibilities in African politics often bedevils reformers who appear stuck in a rut, powerless to transcend old patterns of failure. Yet in the case of cocoa, alternatives are not idealistic but are working — right across the border.