22 March 2008

How to do a census, African style

Liberia is holding its first census since 1984. This report comes from the BBC. I particularly like the special song composed for the census: "It's about development, not taxes!" I only wish the BBC played the whole track.

In the US or Europe, a census is a boring affair. The conscientious citizen completes a questionnaire and the less conscientious are filled in by statistical guesstimation. In Africa, a well-run census is a matter of civic pride. Liberia has trained enumerators to go to every village, house and shack in the country, however small. Most are volunteers. A few years ago, I was counted in the Tanzanian census when the enumerator came to the compound I was staying in. All she got for a hard day's work was a free T-shirt, saying 'Tanzania Sensa 2002'.

Soon we should know how many Liberians there are - 3.5 million, 3.8 million? I wonder if anyone is trying to count Liberian citizens outside the country?

14 March 2008

The quickest route across the Atlantic

A few months ago, I found myself trying to get from Colombia to West Africa. I had to fly around 10,000 miles, burn 5 tonnes of carbon and travel for 3 days to cover a point-to-point distance of only 3,000 miles.

Now I realize that there are, in fact, direct flights (on private jets) and even regular ships making this crossing. Cocaine dealers ship their product from Colombia to Europe via Guinea-Bissau. It seems this tiny country, wedged in between Guinea and Senegal, has become the best hub for the trade - precisely because it's a failed state. This fascinating report is from the Guardian.

Once again, we see the consequences that our 'war on drugs' has on the people and countries caught up in it.

07 March 2008

Who wants to develop a low-cost rice mill?

Anyone visiting a West African village will notice the distinctive sight and sound of women pounding food to eat - yams, cassava or rice. As combine harvesters spread across Europe and North America and the green revolution throughout Asia, farming and processing practices in Africa barely changed. Rice mills, such as the one shown below, are the exception, not the rule, in rice-growing countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Does this matter? Not if pounding rice by hand yielded the same quality of rice as milling it - but it doesn't and it's hard work as well. The evidence suggests that African farmers continue pounding by hand because the alternatives are too expensive or simply not available. In some countries, women are actually going back to hand pounding, because their diesel-powered mills broke down or were sold for scrap to fuel a civil war.

There are various programs led by NGOs and the UN trying to change this, based on the belief that agricultural processing technology is essential if farmers want to move beyond subsistence and grow a surplus for sale. However, their efforts are generally uncoordinated, fall well short of what is required and may just hand out the same old technology that is inefficient and breaks down easily.

Now there are two exciting developments in this field. The first is a program sponsored by the Gates Foundation to create 600 agro-enterprises in Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso using multifunctional platforms, essentially a diesel generator to which different machines (rice threshers or mills, peanut shellers and cassava graters) can be attached. It's a traditional grant-based program, but I'm optimistic because Gates is paying for it and they insist on value for money.

The second development - and one I am keen to join - is the spread of social enterprise models using new technology. New technology here means redesigning a product to make it simpler and cheaper: this is the One Laptop per Child model, not the MacBook Air! Typically these enterprises bring together engineers, designers and development practitioners and create some clever, cheap technology. The challenge, as always, is taking it to scale and getting people to pay for it.

There are some great organizations working out there: in the last few months, I have been introduced to the MIT D-Lab, the Extreme Affordability program at Stanford's d.school (d for design), KickStart and Design that Matters. Fortunately for me, Cambridge seems to be a hub for this kind of thing! I have also heard of Engineers without Borders and Practical Action. But nobody has developed a low-cost rice mill yet. Is nobody interested, or am I just not looking hard enough?