Friday, 28 January 2011

Egypt falls off the grid

I’ve been catching up on Twitter feeds from and about Egypt and the communications shutdown. Most updates are from 13-15 hours ago, then silence from Twitter inside Egypt. Absolutely incredible the speed at which the government shut providers down. And this blog post is undoubtedly already out of date.

A look at the Twitter feeds reflects the dissention and despair at what has happened – accusing mobile operators of “colluding” with the government.

Vodafone releases a statement, which read:

All mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas. Under Egyptian legislation the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it. The Egyptian authorities will be clarifying the situation in due course

It’s impossible to get any information on the ground, given there are no phone lines, no Internet connections and no way to access services, like Facebook or Twitter, in or out of the country. It makes it much easier for rumours to fly and doubt to come in as to whether mobile operators were forced, agreed to, were threatened to close off their networks..

You suddenly realise again how dependent we have become on communication channels and how we rely on information sources online and across networks.

It seems the Internet went first, with mobile calls and SMS stopping. It was still possible to access Twitter and Facebook on mobile devices, until all of those services were shut off too.

A few links to some stories below, but changing so fast, these are really only background info now.

However, I think this will be a case study and a point of discussion for some time to come. While Tunisia was hailed as a result of youth, citizen activism, driven by social media and mobile connectivity, Egypt shows that the power can still be shifted by turning off the source.

It’s a developing story, but one that is currently only able to be told from the outside.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Book Launch: 'The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa'

On Monday 17th January africapractice attended the UK launch of Professor Jumas latest work The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa. Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development, and Director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at the Belfer Centre, Harvard University. The New Harvest is both ambitious and optimistic as Juma sets out the opportunities available for Africa to feed itself in a generation.

Addressing the audience, Professor Juma began by stressing the importance of agriculture in Africa, not just as a sector within African economies, but often as the key one. He also highlighted its interconnectivity with other policy areas and economic sectors, meaning that if current opportunities are harnessed successfully the potential impact will extend beyond the agricultural, but also that in moving the agricultural sector forward it is necessary to ensure the involvement of other sectors and actors. For example, by improving efficiency in farming poverty relief may be effected, given that the poorest are often farmers. However, improvements to agriculture can be made by making improvements in other areas, for example improving transport networks to key trade areas. Juma pointed to the example of President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malwai who, by taking on the role of Minister of Agriculture and Food Security as well as the Presidency, demonstrated the wide ranging importance for the Malawian socio-economy of its immediate agricultural development.

In acknowledging the strong role agriculture has to play in Africas development Professor Juma rejected the idea of a linear trajectory for economic development that claims countries transition from agricultural, to industrial, to service based. Both Juma and the panellists stressed that agriculture should not be viewed merely as a stepping stone to other development, but appreciated for the value it can bring in itself.

In the book itself Juma identifies and explores three key opportunities for the transformation of the agricultural sector in Africa going forward. Firstly, he argues that there are significant gains that can be made through regional cooperation. In particular Juma discussed the ways in which cooperation between various ministries and sectors could be beneficial both within and between countries. Secondly, he championed the opportunities that technological innovations and scientific advancements present for increasing efficiency, and protecting against risk. For instance, he cited the example of farmers using text messaging to pass on weather updates. Finally the professor stressed the importance of encouraging and facilitating entrepreneurs within the African agricultural sector who would be able to find new ways to drive the sector forward using in-depth local knowledge, not necessarily relying on imported wisdoms that are not always a good-fit.

This book is accessible, as well as timely, given recent advances, such as the development of drought and disease resistant crops and the spread of mobile technology. Its emphasis on the importance of structures and networks through which policy can and should be decided provides a context which should facilitate sound and appropriate decisions in African agriculture moving forward. Such an approach enables the book to have wide-ranging relevance in a continent characterized by its diversity, whilst the inclusion of plentiful case studies included provides practical insight at the policy level. The challenge ahead is significant if African countries are to make the most of the opportunities laid out by Professor Juma, but the outlook is positive if the interaction and coordination of individuals across both sectors and geographical boundaries can be managed.

Kathryn Brooks

Friday, 24 December 2010

Social Media vs Social Networking

We all use social media and are part of social networks, “we tweet, we friend and we blog”, but I often ask myself do we really understand the distinction between the two? At first glance they seem to be the same, but after digging deeper I found out that they are as different as chalk and cheese. Understanding the differences makes it easier to decide how they will work better for individuals and businesses.

By Definition

Social media is seen as the “what”; a way of communicating. Information is distributed through this medium to a mass audience. All you need it a computer and an internet connection and you’re ready to go. Social networking on the other hand is the “how”. This is a platform for engagement between people who share the same opinions and ideas. It is a circle of friends, family and colleagues.


The communication line in social media is one way. That is why social media is said to be a medium of delivery. Information is distributed to the audience for their perusal. There is no interaction between the distributer and the reader. This is completely different when it comes to social networking. Communication is very much two way, where the reader can leave comments on what has been posted. Facebook is a perfect example of this, users share their thoughts through posts and all those in their network can comment on it, thus creating a back and forth communication line.

Organisations seem to understand this notion and have taken advantage of it by having Facebook pages. There is one obstacle they are facing though, which is updating their pages on a regular basis. Organisations should consider having a designated person to monitor their various pages and offer responses to better relationships with their stakeholders.

Timely Responses

Unlike social media, responses on social networks are easy to track since the messages are between a network of people who share the same views. Conversations are of the same interest. This is much more difficult when it comes to social media. All because communication is one way and there is very less interaction amongst users.

The above mentioned are just some of the major differences I found in my quest to understand the two concepts. Despite them overlapping at times, they are quite different from each other. They can be used parallel to each other to create relationships, which will increase brand awareness for individuals or organisations. If it still not clear what makes the two different here are video clips to help clarify matters.

Social Media in Plain English

Social Networking in Plain English

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Bright new dawn for Guinea

Guinea entered a new era today; the first day in office for President Alpha Conde, who won a closely fought contest to become Guinea's first democratically elected president.

I returned from Conakry at the weekend. I was unsure what the mood in Conakry would be like - perhaps frenzied anticipation of a bright new future. In the event, I sensed that people are relieved. Guineans are relieved that after such a hard fought contest in which ethnic rivalries played a significant part, the country has remained united. Peace has been preserved. For this, great credit must go to the defeated candidate Cellou Diallo, and to the outgoing head of the transition government, Sekouba Konate. Guinea now has a revered democrat at its helm; a man whose record in opposition is as inspiring as his ambition for his country is practical. Guinea has a leader on a mission to reduce poverty and create jobs. From what I have read and learned of Alpha Conde - he is not prone to big vision statements, nor to petty politicking, nor will he have truck with white elephant projects; he is a man with a single focus, in the tradition of several African liberation movement leaders (whom Conde has met and worked with) - to improve the welfare of his people - jobs, electricity, roads, healthcare, education, water and food security. Companies who share this ambition, have a bright future in Guinea. Those who don't should leave the country now.

Conakry was spruced up and flags were placed on street lampposts to welcome foreign dignitaries for the inauguration ceremony on Tuesday. A proud nation has reason to be proud again. Marcus Courage

Monday, 6 December 2010

What’s up in Cancun and what’s the deal for Africa?

From 29th November to 10th December, the 16th Conference of Parties (COP16) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) convenes in CancĂșn, Mexico to follow up on last year's summit in Copenhagen, where word leaders failed to negotiate an international, legally-binding treaty to curb harmful emissions of greenhouse gases.

There are low expectations for successful negotiations in Cancun. This is because people have lost faith in not only the ability for a political agreement and consensus to be made, but also in the process. And on Tuesday (30 November 2010), UNEP released a report that concluded those reductions committed to in the Copenhagen Accord, even if fully met, are only 60 percent of the reductions needed to stop prevent global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels – the point considered to be the threshold for catastrophic climate change which will expose millions to drought, hunger and flooding.

So even if an agreement is made at the end of Cancun, the commitments within it will prevent some of the worse case climate change scenarios playing out, especially since from day one of the negotiations, Japan stated that it explicitly will not have anything to do with a post 2012 Kyoto Agreement.

So where does this leave Africa? Ironically, the lack of trust in attaining a political agreement has shifted discussions to issues more relevant to Africa, specifically on finance, forestry, technology transfer and adaptation in general.

Scientists agree that the best starting point for adaptation is to be rich, though it is not foolproof: not even the rich can buy off all hazards. But wealth buys information and it opens up options. Resources help people adapt both before the fact, by reducing risks, and after it, by aiding recovery from harm. Wealth can create hedges against the effects of climate change. It is wealth that Africa, compared to the rest of the world is short of.

Fortunately, a key pillar of the Cancun negotiations is the establishment of a Green Climate Fund, which was agreed upon in Copenhagen – disbursing $30 billion in 2010 to 2012, and then $100 billion each year after that until 2020. Multilateral funds have been established before so it’s not as if the Green Climate Fund is charting new territory. However, the political sensitivities and the criteria countries will have to meet to access these funds are looking onerous.

If African countries want a piece of this pie, they will have to focus seriously on governance, transparency, monitoring and valuating their carbon emissions and sinks - a tough job for any country. It would seem that many African countries will need funding to build this capacity in the first place. All of this is feasible, but African countries need to now use these conferences and meetings to gather information, exchange knowledge, learn and build their expertise from the participants and get everything in place so that they are an attractive destination for new climate and development specific funds.

For more information on climate finance and to check out the flows and channels, visit the new platform created by the World Bank and UNDP to track climate-change related finance by region, focus area, sector or financing mechanism: And to be ahead of the games for the climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa, the official COP17 website was just launched:

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Microfinance Meltdown?

The microcredit industry has grown in size and scale thanks in most part to the success of Mohammed Yunus’ Grameen Bank, which now serves over 7 million poor Bangladeshi women. It is in India that a number of problems have been surfacing in the last year or so. And it’s a sizeable problem that could get bigger when you consider the size of the industry in Africa - 427 microfinance institutions in Africa, lending more than $4.8 billion to over 8 million people (Mix Market (Microfinance Information Exchange).

The New York Times
today reports that Indian banks have about $4 billion tied up in loans – about 80% of all microfinance in India. They’re increasingly worried about their returns in the state of Andhra Pradesh, where politicians, angry at how microfinance institutions are profiting from the poor, have encouraged borrowers to stop repaying their loans.

It’s a slippery slope as banks stop lending to protect from the increasing risk of defaults, and action spreads from state to state and country to country. Despite new legislation to regulate how and when lenders collect, there is an increasing feeling that what started out as a social development movement has become more capitalist and cut-throat than Wall Street.

That’s true in Africa too. reported in January 2009 that the Malawian government had decided to stop guaranteeing loans from MFIs, given the “exorbitant” interest rates, naming two institutions that did not report to the Mix Market and did not publish lending rates.

The Central Bank of Nigeria and the Nigerian Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC),
in an attempt to audit and regulate the microfinance industry, simply shut down 224 out of 800 mcirofinance banks. Microfinance Africa makes the point that while regulation is needed, the reputation of the industry now needs work.

About 10,000 organisations around the world have lent about $25bn to about 20 million people
. An article by the BBC cites demand could be as much as $250bn. In the same article, Kate McKee, senior policy advisor at the World Bank's Consultative Group makes a now-oft-heard comparison to the financial crisis - that strong investor interest in the US sub-prime mortgage market created incentives for unsustainable growth and aggressive lending and the microfinance industry must guard against repeating the same pattern.

The Centre for Global Prosperity
has an interesting article looking at the two mindsets in the approach to microfinance – profit and altruism. While this is in the context of the controversial IPO of SKS Microfinance in India it is a global issue. Like shareholder activism, if borrowers start to feel they are being taken advantage of – whether through NGO, government or civilian intervention – those dream rates of 95% repayment might be on the way down.

But then so will the opportunity to get out of poverty for the millions of people who have so far benefitted from microfinance. Philanthrocapitalism is one thing – many corporates, banks and private individuals want to see some financial return in the work they are doing to create good. But in Africa, as in India, there has to be more weight on philanthropy
. The WSJ quotes an interview with Mr Yunus: "Microcredit should not be presented as a money-making opportunity. It is an opportunity to make an impact on poor people's lives”.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Governance - a victim of crime?

Governance is an important part of a nation’s brand, particularly with regard to attracting foreign investment. The annual Ibrahim Index of African Governance, looked upon as a credible calibration by the international community, was released on Monday, when South Africa saw its ranking move down to 5th place due to high levels of crime, despite high scores in public management and most other areas.

Mo Ibrahim foundation
board director Mamphela Ramphele commented that, "South Africa is in the Top 10 in every other category... but [with crime] we are lounging down there with the Somalians of this day and Zimbabweans. It's not a pretty place." In fact, in the personal safety sub-category, South Africa was ranked 44th – still above Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Mauritania, Zimbabwe, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, but not exactly where the country wants to be.

Crime’s been a target area in South Africa for the last twelve months, given the country’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup amid global concerns about safety. So why the drop? Is the issue policing, poverty or politics? Ramphele identified the root of the problem in the "political culture" of countries: "In our country, South Africa, we have fantastic policies but the performance doesn't always match the policies.”

She draws a parallel between business and government. Activist shareholders keep businesses in line. What we need is citizens’ involvement to drive better governance. But for that you need citizens with the same interest and stake in their government as a shareholder does. In a country where 95% of the population don’t pay taxes, 95% of the population have no reason to fight for a system that makes better use of their money.

But what does the future hold for driving governance, and who are the leaders who are going to ‘up’ the calibrations and raise the rankings on a pan-African scale?

The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership was not awarded in 2010 for the second year running, with no candidate that promoted excellence in leadership. It will be interesting to see how initiatives like the African Leadership Network build a more cohesive community of leaders for the community that might raise the rankings and compete for the award.

Meanwhile, does South Africa forge ahead trying to tackle crime in an isolated manner, or will the country use this as a benchmark for treating the root cause of poor governance overall?