Archive for February, 2010

Granted I’m a TED Talks junkie but this one is amazingly fascinating!


Ron Eglash is an ethnomathematician (someone who studies the relationship between mathematics and culture).  Yes, you can actually get paid to do this.  He studies fractal math and the design patterns of African architecture caught his attention as being inherently fractal.

Eglash got a Fulbright to research this in greater depth and has discovered that the findings go beyond architecture.  We can learn from Africans and their fractals in everything from computer design to how to better teach math to how to improve capitalism, even how to deliver mail. What I found most fascinating is, thus far, Eglash has found that the inherent use of fractals is unique to the African culture. Yes, there is no 1 African culture but he does find the traditional use of fractals to be pervasive in several different African countries.

For those who are interested in more of this type of information, I got the link through Penn State’s Interinstitutional Consortium for Indigenous Knowledge (ICIK) listserve http://www.ed.psu.edu/icik/

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Free trade, loss of support systems crippling food production in Africa.

Reposted from ScienceDaily February 16, 2010

Citation: Oregon State University (2010, February 16). Free trade, loss of support systems crippling food production in Africa. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 18, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100215174136.htm

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Background Information

Global population trends indicate that the world’s human population is growing by roughly 75 million people per year. We currently have close to 6.8 billion people and are forecasted to reach 9 billion by 2050. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population

Why is this a concern other than just overcrowding?

Arable land (the land we can use for farming/growing food) is limited and, thus far, we have been using arable land to accommodate expanding population needs (i.e. our population growth is beginning to exceed the amount of available arable land) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arable_land

Fresh water (land we can use to drink or to grow crops, e.g. salt water tends to be damaging for most food crops) is also limited. Only 3% of the global water supply is fresh water. We also use freshwater for bathing and other human activities. Hence, the more people we have, without new sources of fresh water supply, the bigger the problem http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_resources

Climate Change (commonly known as Global Warming) is adversely affecting our ability to produce food http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_change_and_agriculture and, as shown in this 2007 study by the Center for Global Development,  this impact is and will be harsher in poorer countries http://www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/14090

Biofuels http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biofuel derived from plants (e.g. soybean, corn, algae, trees like moringa oliefera) are actively being pursued as a solution to our growing energy needs. It is not just our cars, we absolutely MUST power our cellphones and we are now at a point where on a plant of 6.8 billion people there are close to 5 billion mobile phones http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/309315,un-agency-sees-global-mobile-subscriptions-rising-to-5-billion.html I’m not being Puckish just to be funny. The spread of mobile phones illustrates another issue, as population increases and new affordable technologies emerge (technologies that were unheard of 50 years ago) our energy needs are likely to expand in unforeseen ways.  Plant based biofuels, not only compete with food production when it comes to use of arable land, but also competes with food production in terms of incentives. Even if we were to use non-arable land, if you are a farmer wanting to make a profit just like anybody else and you can make more money growing biofuels than you can growing food, which would you choose?

The Debate

The arguments in favor of biotechnology in agriculture have been well summarized by a recent panel sponsored by CropLife International  www.cropnewsnetwork.com You can view the 1.5hr discussion here http://vimeo.com/9450194 To summarize the main points:

  • We need to vastly improve the amount and quality of food that is being produced
  • We cannot feed the world’s growing population without the assistance of biotechnology (e.g. fertilizers, pesticides, new seed varieties which resist pests and extreme climates, vitamin enriched crop varieties, etc.)
  • Efforts to promote biotechnology are being stymied by public and political resistance.

The only thing I found alarming about this panel was the constant characterization of those opposed to biotechnology as being non-scientific (i.e. strictly political or social and let by non-profit “marketing” groups).   It leaves me scratching my head as to why a group called Union of Concerned Scientists is considered to be non-scientific? They also portray those against biotechnology as a wealthy urban elite.

Arguments against biotechnology are focused on the promotion of organic farming and the spread of indigenous farming techniques and seed varieties. Since I haven’t found a broad based panel discussion, I will use links to summarize:

With respect to charges that only the urban elite are against biotechnology, it ignores instances when farmers themselves protest and organize such as the Network of Concerned Farmers. Here are some examples

It also ignores the fact that in many developing countries, poor farmers do not have the literacy skills or financial ability to issue scientific briefs or press releases hence many rely on intermediaries such as non-profit groups to advocate on their behalf. Here is one example of a report published on behalf of African farmers http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/voicesfromafrica/pdfs/voicesfromafrica_full.pdf

A more detailed examination of the pro’s and con’s of each side of the debate (including their economic impact) can be found in a 2009 article by Paul Thompson from Michigan State University http://www.scienceprogress.org/2009/06/ag-biotech-thompson/

Common Ground?

Despite the strong differences of opinion, both sides are calling for the same things when it comes to:

  • More technology
  • More research
  • More infrastructure
  • More production/higher yields
  • More information & education
  • More government support

The question becomes, what is the standard we are interested in achieving? I would posit that whatever technology is used (biotechnology or organic), the following basic criteria must be met:

Affordable – the resulting product (i.e. food) must be affordable to even the poorest of the poor (i.e. those living on under a dollar a day). This is not to say luxury food items do not exist but that food that is produced for mass consumption must be affordable.

Zero Impact – the resulting product and the inputs used to create the product cannot have a negative impact on biodiversity (flora, fauna, insects, humans) or existing eco-systems. In other words, before we promote any technology, we must first spend time researching its impact on the existing environment. This is not just a sustainability (resource depletion) issue but also a toxicity issue (not creating things that poison the environment around us). It is this criterion that has been woefully ignored over the years and has been brought to the forefront through the polemic debate.

Ubiquitous – agricultural production cannot be limited to a few regions of the globe. At the most basic level, food preferences and climates differ which, by definition, limits what can be grown in different regions.  People all over the world should be able to enjoy foods they are traditionally accustomed to eating as well as new foods.  Whatever technology is used must be technology that can be used by rich and poor alike.

It is my personal belief that, if we can come to an agreement on using these 3 criteria as the standards to evaluate our technological activities (in agriculture and other arenas), then it does not really matter which technological approach we use.

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This post is actually related to my post about the screening of the documentary Africa Open for Business (http://wp.me/pzhqg-5J).  I meant to write a follow-up about the discussion but then realized that a significant theme emerged from the Q&A discussion. For those unable to attend or who haven’t seen the movie you can see it in segments through this link: http://www.nbpc.tv/mediacenter/africaopen/

Members of the audience were quite enthusiastic about seeing Africans in a completely different light – namely, as successful entrepreneurs and corporate leaders.  Social responsibility (i.e. a need to support and assist the surrounding local community) clearly emerged as being an intrinsic part of the African business mindset and not a marketing ploy. The hope and resiliency shown by the business owners profiled struck a chord with everyone.

Whether it was Adenike Ogunlesi  in Nigeria who decided to start a Nigerian clothing label for children despite having no access to financing, facing a country wide textile ban and erratic electricity supply http://www.nbpc.tv/mediacenter/africaopen/episode-02.php or Alieu Conteh in the DRC and Mohammed Yassin Olad in Somalia who decided to start their businesses in the midst of war.  Both men realized that life goes on and people still need to talk to each other (so mobile phones are perfect in a war zone http://www.nbpc.tv/mediacenter/africaopen/episode-07.php) and travel to see family or do business (so they still need airlines http://www.nbpc.tv/mediacenter/africaopen/episode-08.php).

Everyone was inspired to see that, despite the real challenges which exist throughout the continent, it is possible to start and operate viable businesses that are able to compete on international standards and generate multi-million dollar revenues in real dollar terms.  Mr. Olad best summarized the pro’s and con’s of doing business in Africa when he talks about what it is like to operate an airline in a country with no government: the bad thing of no government is that there is no one to establish and enforce safety regulations; the good thing of no government is that corruption is not a problem because there is no government.  Sometimes what we see as a desperate situation of extreme lack can also provide a tabula rasa of extreme opportunity.

From this discussion another topic emerged – the issue of biased stereotypes in relation to all that is African.  Director Carol Pineau (http://www.africaopenforbusiness.com/director.htm) explained that her passion for creating the documentary arose from her frustration as a journalist with CNN and Voice of America.  If the story was about war or refugee camps or poverty or micro-credit there was great interest in allowing her to pursue a story.  However, if she wanted to cover a story about emerging business trends or new technologies that could revolutionize the continent or significant wealth in Africa there was no editorial interest.

After the discussion I realized that what we were really talking about is the difference between respect and admiration.  It is possible to respect a person or a people without admiring them.  The difference? You can respect a person or group’s  right to freedom, self-determination, basic needs, etc.  However, to admire a person you have to find something in that person or group of people that you would like to emulate or replicate.  Something that says I want to be like her/him/them.

In my opinion, this is what drives the bias against all things African.  Many respect us.  However, how many admire us?  The Japanese get admired for their manufacturing systems and art. The Indians get admired for their cultural traditions, things like yoga and innovation. The Chinese get admired for their history, will power and current economic prowess. Westerners get admired for their wealth and order. Prior to 9/11 those of Arab descent get admired for the legacy of learning, Islam and oil wealth (Islam is now a subject of negative bias). Latin Americans get admired for their vibrancy.  Who says, I love Africa and I want to be like Africans? Who says, this is an African business model that works well and others should adopt? Who says this scientific discovery could only have been made by an African?

Needless to say there were many opinions on this during the discussion ranging from racism to colonialism and paternalistic attitudes to plain bad journalism/sound byte talk.  However, my personal opinion is that the change must come from Africans.

More important than the question of why the bias exists is the question of: when are Africans going to start singing their own praises and beating their own drums? It is no longer a matter of lack of resources.  There are film cameras and directors who are in African and are African.  There are also African media stations.  Why is it we do not see more positive spin being created and distributed by Africans themselves? Nollywood has proved that African movies can have world-wide distribution channels and the movies are an important first step.  However, we need more.  We need websites and press releases and documentaries and movies and requests for different media focus.  I remember during Kenya’s post-election violence, text messages were flying asking all Kenyans to contact CNN and other media asking them to continue coverage, especially when the government issued a ban on local media coverage.  Why is it that we are not asking CNN and other media for coverage of our business success stories with the same level of enthusiasm? Admiration from others must begin with admiration for oneself.  As Gandhi so aptly pointed out: become the change you wish to see in the world. Once others see the pride and admiration we have for ourselves, they will have no choice but to share the sentiment.

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