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Norah, tell Europeans what they are not used to hearing

By Vision Reporter

Added 2nd June 2009 03:00 AM

Dear Norah Owaraga, CEO, Executive Support Services, Kampala, Congratulations! From your e-mail on Monday, I understand you have been invited to attend a development aid conference in Bonn, Germany in three weeks’ time.

Dear Norah Owaraga, CEO, Executive Support Services, Kampala, Congratulations! From your e-mail on Monday, I understand you have been invited to attend a development aid conference in Bonn, Germany in three weeks’ time.

I also understand that you are one of just five invited panelists—four are heads of European development agencies and then you. The five of you will have the task of tackling the questions: How can we increase agricultural production in order to overcome hunger and eliminate malnutrition? Should we go the genetic engineering way or should we focus on ecological agriculture and the role of smallholders?

My first reaction is to envy you flying off to Germany—that is the way to live it up! But my second reaction is that this is a great opportunity to say something completely different from what Europeans are used to hearing. Foremost, if you do not have it, may I suggest you get a copy of the book Dead Aid by Zambian-born academic Dambisa Moyo.

This morning while driving to work, I heard Ms. Moyo speaking on CBC radio and she blew me away with her brilliance, eloquence and sheer intellect. She is a Harvard and Oxford-educated economist who believes that Africa has stagnated over the last several decades precisely because of the outpouring of aid money.

At the heart of her argument is the belief that aid money has supported ineffectual African dictators who feel no sense of accountability because it is free money after all.

She suggests that instead of pumping trillions of aid dollars to Africa that will end up subsidising luxury for the ruling elites, developed nations are better off working with Africans as equals, opening up their market, setting up investment capital in Africa, and essentially demanding accountability for every dollar that is invested. In Moyo’s thinking, Africa is ready for prime time, not poverty time.

Now, I have heard this argument before, but never from an obviously well read, well researched and media savvy African. Moyo is a must-read and I suggest you get a copy of the book for the flight to Germany.

If you cannot buy a copy in Kampala, let me know so that I can have one rushed to you this weekend from Toronto. On the specific question of increasing agricultural production in Africa, you will need to address one or two issues. I believe that one of the biggest problems working against increasing food production in Africa is agriculture subsidies in Europe and America.

How do they do it, you may ask. In industrialised countries, governments ensure an artificially high price for certain commodities by guaranteeing that the farmer will get a certain amount of money for producing certain crops. So, for example, an American farmer producing wheat at the cost of say $100 per unit is guaranteed most of that money through government subsidies. Once the farmer harvests the wheat he/she in turn sells it at knock-off discounts because he/she has already been paid by his/her government. Whatever else he/she makes in addition to the government subsidy is profit. The staggering amount of subsidised produce pouring into developing countries, especially in the African markets, means that the local farmer is not able to compete.

The consumer finds it cheaper to buy the cheap import than buy local! The poor local farmer somewhere in Kumi in eastern Uganda or Tabora in Tanzania or the Limpopo Valley in South Africa loses the incentive to farm and consequently the means to livelihood.

Meanwhile, there are very high tariffs which block sale of foods from Africa in industrialised countries. To break the cycle, there is need for very strong regional markets made up of a number of countries willing and able to resist pressure from the World Trade Organisation and like-minded organisations attempting to bulldoze African countries into accepting foods from industrialised nations while denying the reverse flow of foodstuff.

The other important issue is health—we need to ensure that Africa’s rural population is healthy enough to work in agriculture. A healthy population means there is ample labour to increase production. We need to focus on the health of the rural population, ensure that it has access to clean water, good medical care and plenty of opportunity to learn about good nutrition. When your farming population is wracked by malaria and HIV/AIDS, there is no point further beating their heads with the song about increasing agriculture production.

The farmers may be willing, but their diseased bodies will not allow them to do anything. Thirdly, you should drop a point about Africa’s need for more research on new crops. Rice is a relatively new crop to Uganda, but within a generation, Uganda has become one of the leading producers of rice in East Africa.

In essence, we need agricultural research into new crops while improving the one we have traditionally cultivated like simsim, maize, groundnuts, banana, and so on. Talking about banana, I lived way too long with the misconception that banana was chiefly produced in central Uganda until I visited western Uganda and had a rude awakening seeing all those beautiful banana plantations along the road to Kabale and beyond.

Finally, though it has been found safe for human consumption, I am not in favour of genetically modified crops (GMO) in Uganda or elsewhere on the African continent mostly because of the proprietary requirements.

GMO will enslave our farmers to big multinationals like Monsanto that will demand that farmers buy the GMO seeds annually. The age-old proven method of keeping seeds from previous harvests for planting in the new rainy season will be discarded as farmers are forced to buy new seed from the licensing company every year.

This is completely anti-community, anti-sustainability, anti-everything that is good for Africa. I do not want my mother carted off to jail simply because she dared to retain seeds from previous harvests to plant in the new season. That is precisely what will happen if we allow GMO to invade Africa.

Anyway, dear, these are just a few ideas that I could throw together in half an hour, but I am sure you will have many others. Seeing that you are the only African on the panel, do not worry too much about saying absolutely everything. Instead, speak what you believe strongly about.

Meanwhile, enjoy yourself thoroughly. I look forward to hearing from you on how it all went down.

Norah, tell Europeans what they are not used to hearing

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