Category Archives: Development

Sustainable Intensification: Making Science the Solution for African Agriculture

This post of mine originally appeared on Huffington Post here.

As the expiration date of the Millennium Development Goals draws closer, our promise to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty remains largely unfulfilled. In sub-Saharan Africa,over 200 million people (nearly 23% of the population) are chronically hungry and 40% of children under the age of five are stunted due to malnutrition. As a global community, we urgently need to establish new models for addressing these challenges.

Science-based agriculture offers such a solution – not only tackling food insecurity but also overlapping with multiple, interacting global threats, from managing scarce supplies of land and water to minimizing carbon emissions and post-harvest losses. Whilst no silver bullet exists to eliminate these threats, scientific approaches can go a long way to manage them. Across the agricultural value chain from agricultural research laboratories to agronomists and extension workers in the field and processors and exporters, scientific interventions can help people at each step to make African agriculture a great deal more productive and resilient, as well as more viable as a livelihood and business for the continent’s farmers.

The Chicago Council’s Global Food Security Symposium and its upcoming report, Advancing Global Food Security: The Power of Science, Trade, and Business, will discuss this very question of how to capitalize on the power of science to end hunger. Similarly, arecent report from the Montpellier Panel outlines a new paradigm for African smallholders focusing on ‘sustainable intensification.’ The term refers to equipping farmers with the innovations required to navigate the joint goals of producing more nutritious food and boosting incomes whilst preserving the environment, adapting to climate change and reducing food waste.

This concept is by no means new but has typically been associated with larger commercial farms and with other regions of the world. Conversely, crop yields in Africa have remained largely stagnant, only 4% of cultivated land in Africa is irrigated, and 75% of soils on the continent are classified as degraded. If African agriculture does not adapt, under current climate predictions, even current yield levels will decrease by 1.5% by 2050.

Happily, we need not accept these bleak projections as inevitable. Science-based solutions can give African smallholders access to the context-specific innovations they need to reverse this reality. They will allow African farmers to boost their productivity sustainably – balancing higher production and productivity with socio-economic realities (especially amongst smallholders) as well as sound environmental management.

The Montpellier Panel report divides the sustainable intensification process into three categories. The first is ecological intensification, in which natural ecosystems are managed more effectively. Practices include the planting of faidherbia trees, a leguminous tree species which sheds its nitrogen-rich leaves during the wet season, thereby providing nutrients to crops planted below, allowing sunlight in as well as fixing two tons or more per hectare of carbon to the soil.

The second category is genetic intensification, that develops crops and livestock better suited to various challenges, for instance, achieving higher yields, withstanding extreme temperatures, and also being more nutritious, such as in the case of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in Mozambique that have doubled citizens’ daily intake of essential mineral Vitamin A.

The final facet is socio-economic intensification, which looks to create more of an enabling environment for farmers and others to learn, share, collaborate and support. This encompasses efficient farmer organizations and cooperatives and robust land rights as well as improved infrastructure for storing and transporting crops, and high quality extension services to provide farmers with the training they need.

In order to realize this vision of sustainable intensification in a way that will work for African smallholders, several concrete actions can be taken. First, the policy environment for the food and agriculture sector must become more socially inclusive and business-friendly in order to promote participation and cooperation. Local enterprises in Africa should be encouraged, by both streamlining yet pressure-testing current legal requirements and regional trading regulations.

Investment can also be facilitated by encouraging the private sector, public sector, civil society and knowledge institutes to collaboratively determine the outcomes they all desire, which should also enable strategic partnerships to grow. Providing fundamental inputs such as good quality seeds and the right amount of fertilizers must be prioritized, especially oriented to reach smallholder farmers. Public services such as healthcare, education, water and sanitation are also crucial for a healthy and empowered agricultural workforce.

The challenges are great, but the window of opportunity is greater. Science-based solutions for African agriculture have the potential to achieve synergistic outcomes for a more prosperous and resilient Africa.


DAY 4: Eating on £1 per Day

On Day 4 of eating on £1 a day, I felt as if I was spending my entire life preparing and cooking.

I woke up in the morning and made porridge for breakfast and then also had to prepare some boiled white rice for lunch.  I also still had four of my five apples left and needed to come up with a way to use them (I wasn’t enjoying how tart they were so had avoided eating them earlier in the week.)

So I decided to make a simple apple tart — one for me and one for my friend who is also eating on £1 a day this week.  Pastry ingredients were quite simple: equal parts butter and white flour with slightly less equivalent of water.  Then just mix the butter and flour together and then drip on the water as you go until you get the right consistency and then thinly slice apple and lay it along the top of the pastry and sprinkle a bit of sugar on top:

Making pastry Rolling out  pastry Apple tarts ready for the oven

I was able to afford the butter, flour and sugar because I will not be using my second can of baked beans (37p) and probably the last two of my five apples (20p).  I should say though that this is technically not abiding by the rules of the campaign as I would have had to buy the entire block of butter and an entire bag of flour and  sugar (which I did not).

Put the tarts into the oven at Gas Mark 5, and in about 10 minutes or so, they were ready.  I put a bit of extra sugar on top and then caramelised it with my blowtorch (again, thank you, technology):

Caramelising the sugarApple tarts

They turned out pretty well.  I still have to deliver the second tart. I hope it goes down a treat.

Dinner was much the same as earlier in the week: boiled potatoes with chives, two dry-fried eggs and mixed vegetables although I was able to harvest some rocket leaves from my garden, which was a real treat.

Dinner Day 4

Relative Poverty

I think that most people, when they think of poverty, think in absolute terms.  In essence, this is what the £1 a day challenge is all about — determine a minimal level of physical subsistence required (i.e. £1 a day) and then anyone who falls under that line is considered poor.

In reality, poverty is much more complex a phenomenon than that.  “Relative poverty” is defined not in absolute terms but based on the average standard of living in the society where you live. Similarly, policymakers and practitioners are also debating whether additional metrics (other than income) should be factored in, such as life span, education and even “happiness”.

So far this week, I seem to have been able to give myself enough food each day, but I definitely have felt deprived in the context of others around me.  A good lesson to reflect on for the remainder of the week.

DAY 3: Eating on £1 per Day

I’m just about finished with Day Three of eating for £1 a day.  I am starting to get into the flow of how this all works.  The eating itself is actually getting easier, but two things I’ve noticed which are different than my typical routine:

  1. How much I think about food. At night I think about what my next day’s meals will be. The next morning, I have to remember to bring my Tupperware of lunch with me in the morning. At lunch and during the afternoon, I think about what I am going to make for dinner. And every once in a while, I worry that I will run out of food before the week is over — not a nice feeling.
  2. How much time I spend actually making food. Cooking two meals a day (breakfast and dinner) takes a lot more time than I remembered.  Having gotten out of the habit of cooking so often during the week, I find myself consciously rearranging plans to make sure I can be home in time to eat.  I even skipped an after-work lecture tonight because of it.

As for meals, I had a good breakfast of porridge and a frozen banana which I’d stuck in the freezer on Sunday because they were already getting too ripe (You could buy twice as many ripe bananas for the same price). And for lunch, I had more leftovers of my lentil and rice concoction.

Dinner was, again, surprisingly good.  I ended up straining the last bits of lentil stew along with my remaining half tin of baked beans in order to separate the beans from the liquids. Once the liquid was separated, I took leftover boiled potatoes from Tuesday’s dinner and mashed all of the solids up together into two vegetarian patties.

Straining lentils and beansSolids and liquids separated

I dry-fried the bean patties and warmed up the sauce and some frozen mixed vegetables.  It was actually really good and cost less than 50p to make.

Bean patties with mixed vegetables

Role of Technology

My broader reflection for today is on the role of technology in helping us eat well.  I used my freezer to keep my bananas from spoiling, I used my refrigerator to store my leftover lentils, I transported my lunch in plastic Tupperware (which was reheated in a microwave) , and I crisped up my bean patties on a non-stick pan (to avoid the cost of expensive cooking oil).

We forget how much of a role technology plays in our food storage, transport and preparation.  For many farmers in the developing world, this is not their reality.  While we waste about a third of our food (yes, a third) as consumer waste, farmers in developing countries lose between 5 -30% due to poor or non-existing storage and transport in what is called “post-harvest losses“.  In other words, they bag up their maize (or whatever other crop they’ve grown) after harvest, but it gets attacked by pests and diseases like rats or molds before it can get eaten.  Or there’s no good road to transport the crops to markets so it spoils before it can be sold.  In my view, this is one of the most important and challenging problems that the agricultural world should address (perhaps second only to increasing agricultural productivity).

Thank you, Tupperware, non-stick pan, refrigerator and freezer and, yes, even the microwave.

DAY 2: Eating on £1 per Day

Day Two of eating on only £1 per day went quite well.  I felt full and satisfied, if only a little bored or constrained by the lack of options.

For lunch, I had the leftover lentil stew and rice concoction that I had made for dinner the previous night.

Lentil stew with rice_£1 a day

Not great surprises in the recipe — lentils, water, salt/pepper and the frozen mixed vegetables for the stew and steamed rice — except for the fact that I could turn to my herb garden for a bunch of fresh rosemary and then also fresh chives for mixing in with the rice and over the top at the end.

Gardening at home

Having a herb garden has made a big difference already, and coincidentally home gardens are also one of the best ways to improve the nutrition of the rural poor. At an event held in Parliament by the UK Hunger Alliance on Monday Night, they launched a report which recommended home gardens as one solution fighting malnutrition (Did you know that among children under age five globally, 26 percent of them are stunted in their growth and 16 percent are underweight?). The home gardens supply them with a broader range of nutritious foods such as  leafy vegetables, eggs or poultry meat for their families but also — if there is extra food leftover — they can sell the surplus food to make some extra money.


As I sat at the pub with a glass of water in my hand, my friend Emily graciously tried to convince me that her buying me a pint would be the equivalent of a friend or family member helping someone out if they were short on cash one week.  What awesome friends I have, as it wasn’t the first such offer (and a great reminder of the importance of informal “safety nets” for the poor).  But I declined the offer and made my way home to cook dinner.

At a stretch,this recipe is like breakfast for dinner. I boiled some potatoes and mixed them with half a can of baked beans and then dry-fried an egg which went on top along with some more of my fresh chives. It was actually quite good.

Egg baked beans potato_ £1 a day

Thanks for all the nice emails so far.  Feel free to leave comments below as well!

DAY 1: Eating on £1 per Day

For five days this week, I am eating on only £1 per day as part of the “Live Below the Line” campaign.  

The campaign challenges those of us living in the developed world to buy, source, cook and eat food as if we were living at the poverty line – in order to help us understand poverty better and (perhaps) motivate us to do something about it.

Preparing for the week:

Over the weekend, I met up with a friend of mine also doing the challenge to do our shopping.  We figured that we would have a better chance of getting good bulk deals if we shopped together.  At the store, we immediately realised how scant our options were: no meat, no dairy, no juices, no alcohol, no cooking oils, few fruits and vegetables, no brand names. We mainly bought simple sources of carbohydrates and protein (rice, lentils, beans, oats, potatoes) and some fruit and vegetables to mix in with them.

£1 per day shopping

Getting our purchases home, we then realised that even the amount of food we had purchased would take us over our £1-per-day limit so we allocated out the food and calculated the costs:

  • 3 bananas @ 14p = 42p
  • 5 apples @10p = 50p
  • 2 tins of beans @37p = 74p
  • 3 eggs @ 10p = 30p
  • 1kg potatoes = 64p
  • 500g red lentils = 50p
  • 500g rice = 50p
  • 500g oats = 50p
  • 450g frozen mixed vegetables = 50p
  • Salt/pepper = 5p
  • Home-grown vegetables and herbs (cost of seeds) = 35p

£1 per day food allocation

So far today, the cultural aspects of food are already looking to be the most difficult for me to deal with.  For instance, last night, my flatmate baked a large chocolate cake, which I know I won’t be able to sample this week.  Also, this morning, my colleague made me a cup of coffee that I do not have budget to drink.  And later this afternoon, I am going to a drinks reception where I won’t be able to hold a glass of wine in my hand as I meet the others who have attended.  Not an insurmountable hurdle by any means, but it does go to show how much of our social interaction revolves around sharing food and drinks with each other.

My lunch consisted of five small boiled potatoes which I supplemented with fresh chives and rosemary from my herb garden.  It wasn’t actually half bad — a bit dry and plain but the herbs really helped.

£1 day lunch day 1

I’ll need to get cooking tonight.  I plan to make red lentil soup with rice and some mixed vegetables — should be delicious.

Justice and Compromise in the Middle East

The recent political upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East have caused many to speculate on what the next generation of governance will look like in the region.

Will news governance structures emerge or will new leaders simply fill the voids in an unchanged political system?  And how will the new leadership balance this transition while maintaining sufficient stability and cohesiveness to ensure economies and cultures are kept sufficiently in tact?

In one of the most reflective pieces I have read on the topic, Cambridge historian Marc Michael discusses how the searches for truth and justice can be balanced in a post-Mubarak Egypt. Does immunity for some in exchange for information necessarily imply that others will be scapegoated as a result?

The author above argues for a model adapted from the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC) set up in post-Apartheid South Africa and Rwanda in order to give culpable Egyptians the chance “to participate in the rebuilding of their nation rather than undermining reform for the sake of their personal safety or privileges.”

The need for compromise in political decisions is not unique to transitional governments.  Governments face these decisions on a daily basis: growth vs. stability, secularism vs. self-expression, liberty vs. order, tradition vs. progress and, yes, truth vs. justice.  (Read the work of Ronan McCrea of Reading University if you’re interested in this from a religious perspective in the EU.)

Striking the right compromise between these competing objectives can often be as much of a challenge as the original struggle which gives people the power to make them.

Are You Happy?

On Friday, I went to see two Iranian documentaries playing at the British Museum. The second of these documentaries, directed by Ali Tamadon and entitled “Are You Happy?”, sees the film crew visits different areas of the country and ask local families this most fundamental of questions. Throughout the 50+ minutes of tape, the range of responses continued to surprise me. Most people — perhaps out of shyness, naivete, or sheer optimism — claimed to be happy in their lives. A few of the more nuanced responses stood out to me:

– A middle-aged mother discussed how happiness and sadness are two sides of the same coin. To know one, you must know the other.

– A teenage boy, squirming in front of the camera, confesses to being unhappy, full stop, but begs the director to not force him to reveal why.

– An old woman, who looks to be in her 80s, talks of hardships and the deaths of her loved ones. She prays to Allah that she will be taken to a place where these burdens will be taken away.

– A Tehran-based documentary filmmaker claims he is happy only when he is allowed to speak his mind and express freely what he sees around him.

The film never bored. The camera frames were beautifully set and simple, showing the interviewee in his home with his family in the background. It drove the point home to me that happiness (or contentment, as I prefer to think of it) is a mindset and is only tangentially linked to actual events of your life.

This truth was echoed in the memoirs of a young autistic savant, which my friend Stephane sent me. Called Born on a Blue Day, it describes the life of 27-year-old Daniel Tammet, the oldest of nine children born to a poor East London family. Tammet’s childhood could be seen as brutal: several bouts of epilepsy, Asperger’s syndrome, poverty, homosexuality, and social dislocation at home and school. Despite all this, he manages to find a decent life for himself by just being upfront, embracing his savant abilities, and openly admitting his quirks and apparent ineptitudes.

This focus on happiness is particularly useful in a time when material excess is increasingly the norm in the developed world. Clothes, appliances, furniture — even houses, for that matter — are increasingly made to be disposable. Fat middle-aged Americans are now making way for fat Chinese children. Almost 1/3 of the food purchased and brought home in the UK is thrown out. Something doesn’t seem right.

This debate has even entered the academic world. While studying at the London School of Economics, I came across the work of Richard Layard, one of the university’s professors who has pioneered a branch of economics that he refers to as “happiness economics.” Rather than allocating resources to maximise wealth, Layard argues that they should be allocated to maximise people’s happiness. A simple enough premise to argue for, but how do these models differ? When measuring optimal economic outcomes, he claims that neo-classical economics fails to consider (or purposefully disregards) the psychologically damaging impacts of inequality, the implicit costs of our evolving tastes, and our path dependency for material objects which we have grown accustomed to. The effect is a society which works harder than it should and is less happy (Incomes contribute to greater happiness, studies suggest, only up until $10-15,000 US dollars annual income… maybe that’s why so many Japanese are committing suicide…)

And Layard is not alone in the academic world. Other economists, such as Cornell University’s Robert Frank, argue for an entirely new form of taxation which is based on consumption rather than earnings (Look out for his book Luxury Fever for a more detailed explanation). Frank argues that high wage-earners who save their money should not be disincentivised from being productive; tehy are, in fact, facilitating future investment (either directly or through middlemen such as banks) by saving what they have earned. On the other hand, the more they consume, on average, the more they should be taxed, with items considered most luxurious taxed at the highest rate. This way, non-productive consumption could still have a place in the market, but its social cost (in terms of the inequality it produced) would be more properly reflected.

Microfinance 101

A friend of mine works at a law firm in London which does pro bono work for microfinance organisations. She, like a few others I know, want to know more about the intended and actual impacts that microfinance is argued to have in developing countries. Here is my take and some (hopefully) useful links to learn more… Please leave your own comments or other good links in the Comments section below…

The Basics

At its heart, microfinance tries to employ market-based principles to produce developmentally-progressive results. The guru of microfinance is a Bangladeshi professor called Muhammad Yunus, who started an organisation called the Grameen Bank. As the legend goes, around thirty years ago, Yunus came across a group of female basket weavers in his home country who were prepetually in debt because of the high interest rates that local loan sharks were charging them to buy the materials they needed. Unable to get out of debt, these women could never save enough money to invest more substantially in their craft business. Yunus sympathised and loaned them about 25 dollars to get out of debt; to his surprise, they quickly repaid the debt in full. This basic concept laid the groundwork for a concept which serves about 50 million borrowers and another 50 million depositors (with even more growth projected over the next decade).

In the beginning, microfinance worked a lot like a typical bank does, except with much smaller loans/deposits (most less than $100) and with alternative means for establishing collateral (because they don’t have any!). Loans are most often given to rural women who are assembled in small groups, whose collective credit rating depends on each of the members repaying their loans. This forces them to monitor each other and to help them out with business advice or support.

Since then, these microfinance concepts have been expanded to include the urban poor, HIV/AIDS and other sufferers, and even marginalised groups in the developed world such as immigrants and even schoolchildren. Still, the market is estimated to only be meeting between 5 to 10% of estimated demand.

But microfinance has also been challenged by some as a means of keeping poor people in debt or that it does not even reach the poorest of the poor (when these groups should simply be given humanitarian relief). The pressure to repay these loans has resulted in reports of suicides and continued patronage of loan sharks. In other words, it does not empower people but keeps them in a cycle of debt-fed poverty. Others argue that microfinance organisations have simply taken the place of loan sharks and formalised what used to happen on side streets and alleyways. Still others argue that the supposed gender impacts are negligible or even regressive.

Current Microfinance Debates and Trends

There is no doubt that the breadth of microfinance institutions (MFI) around the world has expanded in recent years. A noted example is the Mexican MFI Banco Compartamos which was just publicly listed and gave shareholders whopping returns while being accused of charging excessively high interest rates on its loans to poor people.

Simultaneously, mainstream investment banks have begun loaning increasing amounts of their money to MFIs in developing countries so that they have the funds necessary to grow more quickly. These banks get a set rate of return on their “big” loans (often less than their traditional loan rates) without having to do the work on the ground collecting all of the repayments/deposits and drumming up customers.

So is microfinance just like any other commercial activity or is it a developmentally progressive concept that happens to be market-based? Alex Counts, the current CEO of the Grameen Bank, argues that this is a “false choice”. It can be both, or neither, he claims. In a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Counts argues that microfinance moves into previously untapped markets and helps deliver a number of financial, business, and social services to people who had previously not been reachable. Counts terms this microfinance benefit as that of a platform rather than a product. Thinking long-term and high yield (many users) but low margins (low profits per user), microfinance can get preferential regulatory treatment and develop trust in its users and in the general public.

My view is that — as with every growing industry — new microfinance propositions will emerge quickly, but the market will soon choose the “winners” among them and kick the cowboys out. As the industry matures, regulations will become more streamlined and this more easily monitored and reported. In a recent lecture I went to in London, Alex Counts sums up his view: “Microfinance is firmly rooted as non-profit but is just a fairly efficient way of promoting growth and jobs.”

For an overarching review of 90 academic studies of microfinance, check out Nathaniel Goldberg’s December 2005 article “Measuring the Impact of Microfinance: Taking Stock of What We Know”

For all things microfinance, check out: