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NEW IDEAS . BIG IMPACT

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Re-imagining African development

TMS Ruge is trained to think outside the box. Confronted by economic problems in his native Uganda, the Creative Communica tions graduate embarked on an offbeat path to development, blazing trails in the worlds of agribusiness, environmentalism and tech in the process. Even the White House took notice!

                                                                                           By Ngum Ngafor

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Hello Teddy. Thanks for agreeing to speak to us. You have been making waves with alternative ideas about African development. What inspired your involvement in this area?
I had a passion to see change happen. And the more I looked at it, the less I was convinced it was going to be the case if the status quo was left the way it was. As a continent, we have become too comfortable and complacent about letting entities like the UN, World Bank or other NGOs take care of our problems instead of looking within and taking ownership of the things that are happening. To me, that is not a sustainable model of development; it is perfect if you want to maintain a dependent state. So I began thinking about solutions from a diaspora perspective. One of the things we do best is sending remittances home. Latest estimates suggest Africans send $5060 billion (2-3 times more than aid ) back to their countries. I wondered what we could do tangibly with that money beyond transferring it to loved ones. Could we invest it? Could we pool it together and be creative enough to make a much greater impact? Although I wasn’t trained in international development, I knew I could make a difference in my corner of Uganda, so I began trying various things and have learnt a lot over the years.
It is interesting you come from a different academic background. Has this influenced your innovative approach to development?
Absolutely! My degree was in Creative Communications (advertising) so I am trained to look at things from outside the box and continually seek creative solutions to problems. My background enables me to see problems as opportunities to do something great and not simply apply learned formulas. I think a lot of projects fail because current discourse doesn’t consider the fact that there is no panacea for the development of this continent. Everything needs to be contextual; from village to village, the dynamics, people, customs and economics are different. That is why I am looking to create effective rather than replicable solutions.

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“Latest estimates suggest Africans send

$50-60 billion – 2-3 times more than aid – back to their countries”.

You agree with economist, Dambisa Moyo’s damning verdict on aid. In fact, you both favour a greater focus on business as a more credible path to sustainable economic advancement. What more could Africans do to make this idea a reality?

We need to have pride of self and not be afraid to challenge current dogma. Dambisa Moyo was one of the first Africans to lead that dialogue. She was taken to task for a lot of what she had to say but it needed to be said. We needed to wake up to the reality that aid is not working; the record of 50 years of applying these same old rules, which have been repeatedly tweaked, shows it. Africa has become something of a testing bed for really bad solutions from professionals and Western individuals who just want to do good. It is important for us to reclaim our agency by questioning ineffective programmes and introducing prospects for cooperation with interested external parties on more viable ones.

Africa-Western partnerships seem to be what you are proposing. Do you have any examples of such collaborations that have been successful?

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Yes. I had the chance to see some Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in progress while I did some work with the UN. Despite the challenges they face, PPPs can be effective and are probably going to be the best way to tackle really big issues like infrastructure or electricity (supply). There are a lot of PPP energy programmes in Uganda. Some of the projects in the telecommunications sector – especially the undersea cable initiatives were PPPs of which African countries took part ownership and showed leadership. It may have taken a while but we are now beginning to see the benefits of this approach. Private-private partnerships also offer opportunities. Just look at the telecommunications industry. We went from Zero to boom without any aid! What we really need from governments is their creation of enabling environments in which such enterprises can thrive.

“I am trained to look at things from outside the box.

I see problems as opportunities to do something

great and not simply apply learned formulas.

Let’s talk about your organisation, Project Diaspora. How did it come about?

I was curious to find out what other members of the diaspora were doing regarding development. While we are unified by the effort to do something for our communities back home, our projects are usually different. Although no one organisation can do something that applies to the whole continent, I thought it was important to get different groups to communicate and share ideas which could be customised to suit local realities. Since the initiation of the project, around 2007, many other diaspora groups have formed in an effort to bring about positive change either from a country or regional perspective. Thanks to social media, I am able to discover more of them. Having achieved my objective, I now focus on scaling up programmes I started in Uganda some time ago.

One such initiative is your work with the Uganda Medicinal Plants Growers (UMPG). Tell me more about it please.

It is an interesting programme which started with a group of farmers who were looking for markets for their commercial produce. The government had introduced various crops and sold the farmers seeds, with a promise to buy their products for export to the international market. However project after project, everything would fall apart and the farmers would be left with crops but no mechanism for getting them to market. There was also no value addition process toattract international buyers. So I looked at farmers in my community and the crops they were planting. When I examined the global demand for their produce, I was able to pick the best crop to commercialise. Four years on, we have done a good job of creating a business. It is very challenging to start such a venture from scratch – especially if you are working with thousands of farmers. I have learned a lot of lessons along the way especially in terms of the funding priorities of international organisations.

How did you raise funds for the project and what challenges did you face?

The money came from my remittances and a few members of the diaspora who saw the vision, believed in it and decided to invest in it. What is hard is that we sit in a strange space between a start up and a full grown organisation so traditional funding organisations are unsure of how to work with us as we are too small for them. Most want massive impact so they opt to support $3-4 million projects which could generate reports on about 50,000 farmers. I would rather have $200,000 and use it efficiently. If you wrote me a $3 million cheque, chances are within 2 to 3 years, the business would have collapsed because we would have grown too fast and faced unrealistic demands from investors. To get your money back from starting something from scratch in Africa, you are looking at at least a decade as you have to build the entire infrastructure around your business. Most investors are not that patient. So I have had to scale back my ambitions and look at what can be achieved with our current income sources, which have worked well so far. In fact, we just finished building a processing factory in the district of Masindi. This is a huge milestone for us as it will create more jobs and opportunities for us to come up with high quality value added products.

What product(s) do you export and where to?

Our main product right now is a highly marketable crop called moringa. Its leaves are usually harvested for powder which is used as a nutritional additive. We found markets (in Kenya, Germany, Ghana, Canada, USA, South Africa and Finland) for the powder and oil pressed from moringa seeds. I think we have hit a really good niche because both product lines are constantly sold out. Our main challenge is that it takes time for the crop to mature once planted.As the market is not that patient, we are trying to expand as much as possible.

You are a champion of environmentally sound development in Africa. Why does it matter and how can we achieve it?

I worked in partnership with various UN organisations and the World Bank on an initiative called Connect4Climate. It involved us engaging youth on the continent to find out what climate change meant to them. We also looked at Africa’s role in terms of sustainable development. One of the major issues – and it is one thing that I also struggle with as a businessman – which arose is the importance of access to energy. The West used dirty energy to power development at a cost to the environment. But as we work to improve our economies, we need to redefine what it means to be developed. Clearly, we can’t do some things as they used to be done but that is ok because we have an opportunity to be creative and grow cleanly. Therefore it is important to look for alternatives in solar, wind and nuclear energy sources.We also need to improve our infrastructure. In Kampala, for instance, we have about 5 million boda boda (bike) taxis. Could we replace them with a rail system? We could create jobs by placing the drivers in a rail yard instead. I know it sounds huge – especially when we face basic challenges such as keeping the lights on – but we have to be ambitious enough to be able to take on these massive projects. Otherwise, we will never catch up.

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“We need to redefine what it means to be developed.”

Hive Colab, Uganda’s first tech incubator is another interest of yours. What inspired its creation?

I got into tech on the continent while writing about the diaspora. One of the things that has made our connection with Africa so much easier has been the emergence of mobile phones, and faster and cheaper connectivity.Technology has been at the core of understanding how we as members of the diaspora are engaging with the continent. But what about the flip side? We have a continent that is fast getting connected to the internet. 50% of its population is under the age of 15. I wondered how these young people who were growing up with smarter phones and cheaper connectivity were using these technologies. A friend and I also came across young developers who were hungry to create something but lacked a suitable space, so we set up Hive Colab as an incubator/coworking space where techies collaborate and create great products. It has been fantastic seeing the kinds of things that they can come up with!

Give me an idea of some Hive Colab highlights.

We have had a lot of participation in regional competitions. One of them was Apps for Africa, in which we had a couple of winners. The World Bank also had Apps for Dev a couple of years ago; we had winners from Kenya and Uganda. Our techies also designed various apps that tapped into the World Bank database. A Hive Colab member also created an award-winning version QuickBooks. The software enables local entrepreneurs to easily manage their businesses online using either a mobile, smartphone or desktop. I think it is a great product because many business owners find things like accounting and doing projections challenging. Such issues can inhibit good financial planning. Another advantage is that Quickbooks helps to digitise the economy and therefore provides a tool for gathering small business data, which could facilitate the Uganda Revenue Authority’s tax collection processes and ability to track activity in the informal sector.

The White House gave you a Champion of Change award in 2011. How did it feel to gain that seal of approval?

It was quite a surprise because one toils away and doesn’t think anybody is noticing. For them to recognise me and a group of my friends for the work we do to make our continent better really legitimised our efforts and pushed us forward. Also, such an acknowledgement inspires others who want to do something to act on their ideas.

Your Villages In Action Project was unique in the sense that it included ordinary Africans in the development debate and empowered them to improve their circumstances. How did you come about doing this and how has the project progressed?

It started out as a twitter conversation where a group of us were commenting on a 2010 gathering in New York and (Washington) DC over the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). One thing I noticed was that nobody brought the microphone to the poor. Everybody talked about the things they were doing for them but no one asked these people what they thought about their own development. I saw too much of Bono, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates talking about their efforts but failing to recognise what aid recipients were doing to help themselves. I thought that was wrong. So through a series of fortunate events, a team of us was able to put in an internet mast in a village (Kikuube, Uganda) and have our own Clinton Global Initiative type panel discussion. Everybody was a panelist and got to contribute to the conversation. We all learned something. The event was globally broadcast. I think it set a precedent in terms of inclusive communication and development. Now we are looking at making it replicable so more communities can join the conversation in 2015 when we celebrate the culmination of the MDGs.

That sounds amazing! Now let’s Imagine this: you bump into Bono or Clinton in a lift. How would you advise them to improve their strategy?

[Laughs] That is really tough because we are in an area where some things are needed while others are not. You could say Bill Gates is doing a fantastic thing in terms of his efforts to eradicate polio but I don’t think he listens very well. He sets his mind on something and just throws a whole bunch of money at it. My advice to him would be: listen more. And write smaller cheques! I think we have had enough of Bono and his speaking for us. So to him, the one sentence would be: thank you very much but we will take it from here.

To find out more on TMS Ruge’s work,
please go to : www.tmsruge.com
Follow him on twitter via:@tmsruge For information on UMPG,
visit: umpgl.com.
Get regular updates via: @umpg_ltd

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African development: 5 reasons to think again

• According to the World Bank, money sent home by migrants in 2012 exceeded foreign direct investment gained by most African countries.
• (Homegrown) businesses such as Celtel have boosted African economies and quality of life. Created by Sudanese, Mo Ibrahim, the company proved a gateway to the mobile explosion which has revolutionised business in areas ranging from agriculture to health care and financial services.
• Zambian economist, Dambisa Moyo, highlights bond markets as a “real opportunity for Africa’s governments to be serious about financial discipline and transparency—and to escape from the yoke of aid.”
• In 2013, the African Development Bank noted economic growth to be faster in Africa than any other continent.
• Africa-Africa trade presents enormous but untapped opportunities.

To find out more on TMS Ruge’s work, please go to : www.tmsruge.com

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Science Meets Society

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Introducing the Cassava
            Research University

Recently recognised as a potential gateway to food security
in Africa, cassava is gaining scientific and commercial
attention. Even Nigerian pop star, D’Banj is
hooked! Food systems expert, Laura Pereira proposes
a game changing blueprint for a progressive industry
boosted by empowered women.

Africally Speaking: Hello Laura. Thank you for speaking to us. So you are a food systems specialist. What does that mean?

Laura Pereira: [Laughs] Basically, it is about trying to understand food by looking at it beyond agricultural production or what ends up on our plates. The idea is rooted in socio-ecological systems. Over the past 10 years or so, there has been a refocusing around food security. This new approach is more holistic in that it trails the trajectory of food items from the farmthrough to processing, retailing and consumption.

AS: Cassava, a major interest of yours, has been identified as a potential enabler of food security across Africa. Why is it still ignored by governments
and private enterprise?

LP: This problem occurs for various reasons. One is the focus on maize, rice and wheat as the three key crops that feed the world. Thanks to the Green Revolution of the 60s and 70s, technological and scientific expertise was poured into developing these crops at the expense of others like cassava which drifted into ‘orphan’ status. Another consequence of technologically enhanced production of major crops is the easy availability of excess yields, which find markets in Africa from outside the continent. Also, there is a stigma attached to cassava. It is often seen as the famine crop – the peasant crop. While working in Nigeria, it was interesting to note the status symbol associated with being able to afford food from abroad. The perception that foreign produce must be better is embedded within a lot of the African psyche. And it is completely ridiculous because our food could be easily appreciated elsewhere. The States, for instance, is buying novel food items such as quinoa! Cassava also suffers another perception problem. Cultivating the crop is seen as more of a subsistence activity than as a commercial enterprise in many parts of Africa. As such, it is still very much grown by smallholders. This makes cassava a difficult crop to scale up.

“Thanks to the Green Revolution
of the 60s and 70s, technological
and scientific expertise was
poured into developing rice, maize
and wheat. Cassava drifted into
‘orphan’ status.”

AS:That is interesting.Tell me more about these scaling up challenges.

LP: I think the problem is influenced by two major issues, the first one being that small scale farmers do not necessarily have access to various inputs including land space. So cassava tends to be produced in limited amounts as it is usually grown alongside more commercially viable crops like maize. Secondly, it is seen as a crop to fall back on so people tend not to invest in it. In Nigeria, we also realised the need to enable market access for farmers as they were reluctant to grow large amounts of the cassava without guaranteed sales avenues.

AS: Your experiences led you to work on the idea of a Cassava Research University with renowned agriculture expert, Prof Calestous Juma. Please explain the concept. Why does it matter?

LP: The idea is anchored in a food systems approach to agricultural produce. So, one tends not to think of cassava as just a basic food item or erivative such as *garri. It is an entire (value) chain. Quite often, universities focus on agriculture. As such, a lot of research interest and funding go into things like biotech or different farming methods. Other important areas such as storage, processing, drying and safe methods of removing cyanide from cassava are likely to attract less investment. Also, there is a great need to develop better marketing strategies for this product. So we thought that in order to encapsulate the entire value chain, various skills and knowledge required to make it a viable economic endeavour need to be considered. That was where the idea of the Cassava University came from. Our aim is to create a point of confluence for enterprise, scientific research and training in best farming practices which would enable graduates to positively respond and adapt to changing circumstances.

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“Cultivating cassava seen as more of a subsistence activity than
as a commercial enterprise in many parts of Africa. It is still
very much grown by smallholders and difficult to scale up.”

AS: Who would qualify to study at such an institution?

LP: The plan is to run courses for a range of people including farmers, entrepreneurs seeking to enter the cassava space and government officials who want to know the best way of creating policies that could benefit this area. It is important to gather the right mix of intellectual capital and knowledge about cassava
for such a university to function effectively. The teaching staff would comprise farmers, scientists and business leaders.

AS: Several agricultural research institutes exist in Africa. Why imagine a Cassava University instead?

LP: Indeed. There are many research institutes on the continent but they tend to attract insufficient interest. We opted for a university because it presents a an ‘easier to embrace’ connotation. Also, when Prof Juma initiated this concept, his aim was to create a space, not just for scientific research but also for community engagement and capacity building. So we envisage the university to have two structures: a main centre, which would have a strong research focus, and spin offs, which, like the main centre, would be transdisciplinary spaces of engagement. However they would address local problems. For example, a spin off centre could be a place where farmers gather to share information on best practice and propose new ideas for research

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“We envisage space, not just for scientific
research but also for community engagement
and capacity building.”

AS: Given its position as the world’s largest producer of cassava, Nigeria would be an ideal location for this institution. What has been your experience with the nation’s government concerning this matter?

LP: I found there were clashing priorities at different levels of decision making. Although the governor of Osun State – where I worked for a while – was very interested in collaborating with cassava (and some cocoyam) farmers to set up an institute, it became evident that the private-public stakeholder mix for such a project needed to be negotiated very carefully.

AS: Have any other countries or organisations shown interest in the idea?

LP: The World Bank showed some interest, but we preferred to keep it more in-house. It is all very well having an idea but putting it into practice and ensuring it is done in a way that is sustainable, irrespective of what is thrown at it is really the key. Prof Juma has been in talks with organisations such as the Innovation Institute in Arusha (Tanzania) about possibly implementing the university model, but a concrete set up is not yet on the cards.

AS: How can private investors take advantage of the opportunity of a Cassava University?

LP: There is definitely a space for corporates. Private  investment really needs to happen but from an ownership perspective, the best way forward is through a public enterprise as monopolies on this kind of idea are not ideal. Take the dominance of companies like Monsanto and Syngenta around innovations in GM foods for example. This has been problematic because of the intellectual property that gets captured and its possible social implications. Also, the lack of transparency involved makes people even more wary. One could argue for Non Governmental Organisations such as The Gates Foundation as a possible alternative that can bridge the divide between public and business interests more easily but their work, with Monsanto, on drought resistant crops in Africa, has also received some backlash. Despite such risks, private sector input cannot be underestimated. The Cassava University needs to be not just an academic endeavour but also an establishment with real commercial and economic potential.

AS: Are there any significant new developments regarding this idea? How does its future look?

LP: The Global Cassava Initiative is interested in bringing this idea to fruition. We hope our discussions with them, as well as potential public and private sector stakeholders will ignite a coming together of key people who will take things forward.

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A
way to
empower women

AS: In a recent study, Nigerian academic, Temidayo Apata, observed an overall female dominance of the cassava value chain in the nation’s South West region. What did you make of the gender dynamics in Osun State?

LP: I found that women dominated the traditional value chain of harvesting, peeling, grating and drying cassava. These labour intensive activities mainly happened at village level where the crop is processed at a central point. However milling plants, where cassava was converted into a commercial product for transportation to markets around the country, were usually run by men. They involved very technical processes which took away the hard work that women were putting into traditional methods. Hence, women, as a workforce, became replacable.

“A cassava university could empower women
with knowledge, entrepreneurial and
mechanical skills to enable them compete
effectively and realise financial benefits
from the crop’s value chain.”

AS: Women could empower themselves by upskilling to take on new roles within a more mechanised work place. Why is this not happening enough?

LP: I think it is because processing facilities tend to be owned by people with capital and these are usually men. Also, women are unlikely to apply for factory jobs because they are usually located far away from their families. The interesting thing about village level processing is that women can have their children around them while working. This set up enables them to mix their traditional duties of taking care of the household with this more commercial aspect [of processing cassava]. However a factory situation is less family friendly; rural women are more likely to opt out of it because cultural norms highly value their ability to care for children at home. City women, on the other hand, are usually more able to make alternative childcare arrangements and can therefore enter mechanised work spaces.

AS: How could a Cassava University enhance economic prospects for women?

LP: A place like that could empower women with knowledge, entrepreneurial and mechanical skills to enable them compete effectively and realise financial benefits from the cassava value chain. Unlike an agriculture or economics department, an all encompassing, interdisciplinary space such as a cassava university would present a platform for raising very important questions such as the impact of gender dynamics and how it could be used in an optimal way within this area.

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Follow Laura Pereira on twitter via: @laurap18
Images courtesy of Laura Pereira.
*Garri is a grainy product of cassava, which is widely consumed
across West Africa and in the diaspora.

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