Welcome to Africa Research Institute’s blog. Africa Research Institute is a strictly non-partisan think tank based in London. Our mission is to draw attention to ideas which have worked in Africa, and to identify new ideas where needed.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Urban Africa by numbers

Everyone knows that Nairobi’s Kibera district is the largest “informal settlement”, or slum, in sub-Saharan Africa. At least, they used to know. Politicians, journalists, NGOs and urban planning professionals routinely declared that 700,000 - 1,000,000 people lived in Kibera. But when the district was geo-statistically mapped for the first time in 2009 its population was estimated at no more than 220,000-250,000. Kibera has not exactly disappeared, but it is a shadow of its former imagined self.

In similar vein, the city of Lagos is widely believed to have about 15 million inhabitants – an estimate supported by the city authorities in the wake of Nigeria’s contested (and manipulated) 2006 census. But the 2009 Africapolis survey of West Africa’s urban population, the most sophisticated to date and compiled with the aid of satellite imagery, found that the city was home to no more than 10 million people. Even more significantly, while Nigeria’s census claimed that the country’s population was 140 million, the Africapolis team concluded that “in reality, [Nigeria] probably does not contain 100 million”.

The shrinkage of Kibera, Lagos and Nigeria will prove to be unexceptional. Governments and city authorities competing for funds, and donors and investors competing for projects, have shared a penchant for exaggeration. Despite the lack of a census in DRC since 1984, McKinsey forecasts that Kinshasa will be the 13th largest city in the world by 2025. The UN has routinely – and demonstrably – over-estimated the size of Africa’s larger cities and urban populations. Over time, errors and misinterpretations of data have become magnified, and projections less realistic. Yet it is the UN’s statistics which are most commonly cited. “They have become ‘fact’ by being constantly re-stated”, says Dr Debby Potts at King’s College, London, “instead of being recognised as guesses”.

More reliable urban population estimates and projections are increasingly available to anyone minded to heed them. They present a far from uniform picture for the continent, but challenge the received wisdom that Africa is urbanising faster than any other continent in the world. According to Africapolis, the urbanisation level in West Africa will rise by less than 3%, to 34.6% of the total population, in the period 2000-2020. Analysis by Debby Potts and other leading specialists of the 18 censuses published by sub-Saharan countries in the past decade reveals a similar picture. While urban populations are growing fast in many countries, only in four countries is rapid urbanisation occurring. According to Potts, “the most common pattern is for slow urbanisation”.

Rapid urbanisation is being portrayed – by the UN, the World Bank and many others – as a potential developmental “silver bullet” for Africa. Cities, we are frequently told, will be the drivers of economic growth and poverty reduction on the continent in the years to come. At present, such claims are too simplistic, and counter-productively over-optimistic.

One of the explanations for the modest momentum of urbanisation in so many African countries is the dearth of opportunities for individuals to improve their lot in towns and cities. Job creation, or lack of it, is the key factor here. In the absence of formal or informal employment, or better services, many rural migrants chose to return whence they came, or to come and go – a phenomenon known as “circular migration”. This is becoming more and more common, and stays in each location are of shorter duration. Natural increase among the poorest urban-dwellers, not migration, is the biggest driver of urban growth in Africa. This means slum growth, and burgeoning ranks of unoccupied young men and women.

As Professor Edgar Pieterse, Director of the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town, points out “this is tough stuff”. In Africa, despite encouraging GDP growth figures over the past decade, larger concentrations of people are not automatically generating benefits – quite the opposite. Talk of widespread “bottom-up development” occurring in towns and cities is far-fetched. The notion that big ticket urban infrastructure projects will be a panacea is equally misguided.

The social, economic and political consequences of policymakers continuing to ignore the best available demographic research could be grim. For example, appropriate food supply networks and health services require sound knowledge of population distribution and migration patterns. But unsound “common knowledge” is contributing to bad policymaking and wasted resources – human and financial. “A set of very pernicious trends is unfolding and planned investments will exacerbate these trends”, says Pieterse.

Edward Paice

ARI is collaborating with Dr Debby Potts and others in an effort to draw greater attention to the most up-to-date and reliable research on African urban growth and rural migration trends.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Redefining public goods, for Africa

In January I wrote a blog which argued that if internet usage in Africa is going to increase, more local African content is needed online. In the article, I referred to the internet as a ‘public good’. My assertion was based on the reasoning that although the internet is largely a private service, it’s utility extends far beyond any individual into the public realm. A farmer, for example, may decide to put some money aside and invest in going to a cyber cafe. At the cyber cafe the farmer learns about a new method of storing maize which significantly reduces the chance of weevils and other pests from attacking his, or her, harvest. The farmer applies this new knowledge with resounding success. Neighbours of the farmer follow suit, and crop wastage in the community is significantly reduced. Not exactly a widespread occurrence, but feasible nonetheless.

Shortly after the article was posted I received an email from my good friend Will Prochaska, director of Alive and Kicking, an innovative social enterprise which manufactures footballs in Kenya and Zambia. He made the point that a public good must be non-excludable, and therefore the term cannot be applied to the internet. I, of course, disagreed. But on reflection I felt that Will’s comment, and our subsequent email exchange, touched upon a question of considerable importance for African governments and regional institutions. How do we constructively define public goods in a contemporary African context, and what role can they play in the continent’s development?

In traditional economic theory, public goods are defined as non-excludable and non-rivalrous. Non-exclusivity dictates that no individual can be prevented from utilising the good, regardless of whether or not they have paid for it, while non-rivalry indicates that usage must not reduce availability of the good for someone else. Paul A Samuelson, cited as the first economist to develop a theory of public goods, defines them as:
‘[goods] which all enjoy in common in the sense that each individual's consumption of such a good leads to no subtractions from any other individual's consumption of that good’.
The problem with Samuelson’s definition – and orthodox definitions of public goods in general – is that very few products or services qualify as a public good. And those that do, are quite a random bunch – national defence services, public parks, national television broadcasters and street lights, are often cited as examples. The definition ignores the fact that there is a plethora of goods which produce significant societal benefits, and which are either non-exclusive or non-rival, but not both. A road, for example, commonly referred to as a public good today, falls foul of Samuelson’s definition. While no one is prevented from using a road, unless it contains a toll, an increase in the number of users can be accompanied by a decline in the marginal benefit to the average user.

A strict demarcation between public and private goods is not helpful from a policy perspective. When we consider the enormity of the challenges facing most African countries – from poor infrastructure to political instability to underperforming agricultural sectors – Samuelson’s definition of public goods renders them an irrelevant category. If a proactive African government wanted to invest more in ‘public goods’, they would be presented with a fragmented and confusing set of responses. The government should invest in street lights, but not utility companies to provide more reliable power; national broadcasting houses, but not improved communications infrastructure; public parks, but not wildlife conservation areas.

My argument is that if we broaden the definition of public goods to encompass goods that conform to the spirit but not the letter of Samuelson’s definition, we are presented with a much more coherent, and relevant, framework for African policy makers. Roads, ports, dams, communications infrastructure and the like all fall short of orthodox economic definitions of what constitutes a public good – because they are either excludable or rivalrous – but are nonetheless vehicles for sustained poverty reduction in Africa.

In December 2009, Africa Research Institute published Going Public: How Africa’s integration can work for the poor, a panoramic survey of half a century of efforts to advance Africa’s integration. It argues that the process of cooperation between states needs a new direction. The overriding purpose of regional integration must be to reduce poverty, with priority being given to investment in regional public goods.

Going Public purposefully adopts a broad definition of public goods to include cross-border infrastructure, development corridors and shared regional standards, for example. In so doing, the paper sought to assess key requirements – reliable power, modern communications services, clean water and basic sanitation and improved transportation infrastructure – for poverty reduction in Africa. Adopting Samuelson’s definition of a public good would barely skim the surface of addressing the plethora of challenges facing African countries and regions today.

Jonathan Bhalla
Research Manager – Africa Research Institute

Friday, 18 March 2011

Network-less mobile banking

In February 2011 Michael Joseph, former CEO of Kenyan mobile phone operator Safaricom, was appointed by the World Bank to spearhead the expansion of mobile banking worldwide. Joseph grew Safaricom from five employees to a business with an 80% share of the Kenyan mobile phone market. But his most lasting legacy is undoubtedly the introduction of M-PESA, the company’s flagship mobile payment system, and the most successful of its kind in the world. M-PESA facilitates more transactions each day in East Africa than Western Union does in a year, globally.

Joseph’s appointment highlights the growing importance of mobile banking to businesses and donors alike. But it also signals a shift in thinking about how to provide poor communities with access to financial services. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in five households have access to formal financial services, whether bank accounts, microcredit or insurance. The majority of people rely on informal methods of saving, sending and receiving money. Whether storing savings at home or sending money to family living in rural areas, the majority of Africans take disproportionate risk when managing their finances.

The precedent set by M-PESA suggests that mobile banking is beginning to change this. M-PESA allows account holders to deposit funds into an electronic kitty through a network of over 20,000 agents. M-PESA is not a service designed for the unbanked population, but it is used by them. Since its launch in March 2007, the number of users has grown to 13 million. Users can send – and receive – money to another M-PESA user through their mobile phone. As the service has gained popularity it has evolved. Kenyans can now pay for utility bills, groceries and even goods from the internet using the service.

The growth of mobile banking challenges previous assumptions that low-income populations are not a viable constituency for business. Low income populations are not averse to innovation, but simply to risk. Evidence from Kenya indicates that once risk is eliminated, people quickly demand more sophisticated products and services. ‘Initial [mobile] banking uptake focuses on low value transactions (e.g. mobile transfers and payments), but customer needs for higher margin products develop quickly’, concluded a report published by Bain & Company, the global consultancy firm

Individuals, businesses and charities have integrated M-PESA into the services they offer. Musoni, a Kenyan microfinance institution, operates a completely cashless business model. All disbursements and payments are conducted through M-PESA, and rival services including Airtel Money and Orange Mobile Money. Kilimo Salama – KiSwahili for safe agriculture – is a scheme which enables farmers to insure farm inputs against crop failure caused by adverse weather. Insurance payouts are disbursed via M-PESA.

The lessons for other countries are clear. Regulation plays an important role. In Kenya, Safaricom and the Central Bank of Kenya reached a compromise where the former could act as a formal channel for taking cash deposits without adhering to cumbersome banking regulations. A large network of dedicated agents, brand recognition and trust in the service are all crucial. But Safaricom’s 80% market share gave them a cutting edge that most other networks cannot rely on. Transferring the M-PESA model has proved difficult.

In Nigeria, for example – Africa’s most populous country – competition between mobile service providers is fierce. The mobile market is fragmented. But in December 2010, the Nigerian central bank sanctioned a number of licences for mobile banking platforms. They have insisted on “inter-operability” – i.e. a system that allows people to make transactions across mobile networks. Network-agnostic services, they argue, will offer a better service to customers, allowing them to transact with anyone, regardless of network.

“[It] seems unfortunate for a customer to have to interconnect two mobile money platforms by cashing out from one platform on which it is receiving money and cash into another on which it needs to make a payment. Let’s cut out the cash in the middle” Ignacio Mas, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
There is some pressure for “inter-operability” in Kenya, but Safaricom claims that it “[risks] killing innovations in the money transfer market”. The Central Bank of Kenya has backed the company. But in countries where the mobile phone market is not dominated by a single service provider, network-agnostic mobile banking services could be a more productive approach to replicating M-PESA success. The progress of mobile banking in Nigeria will be a telling indicator for the viability of mobile banking elsewhere in Africa.

Chris Marshall
Guest blogger

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Aid: protection or production

On 17th-18th February I attended a workshop entitled “Aid and Development in Asia and Africa: The Role of Infrastructure and Capacity Development in East Asian Growth and its Implications for African Development”. It was co-hosted by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and held at SOAS in London.

On Tuesday 1st March, Britain’s International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell announced that the number of countries receiving aid will fall over the next four years by a third – from 43 to 27. The total aid budget will not decrease, in keeping with Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge that Britain will meet the UN target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid by 2013. But the allocation of aid will alter. There is to be a greater focus on ‘fragile’ war-torn states which pose a security threat to the UK, such as Afghanistan and Somalia. This redistribution and concentration of funds implies an assumption that the efficacy of aid - to promote economic growth, social development and therefore stability - can be improved by increasing the volume of aid to a ‘fragile state’.

The ability of aid to foster economic growth and development, and the merits of ‘scaling-up’ aid are hotly contested issues. This debate is propelled most articulately by economists Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Colombia University and William Easterly, Professor of Economics at New York University.

In his book “The End of Poverty”, Sachs argues that poverty can be overcome by increasing aid spending on items such as water pumps to increase agricultural productivity, or mosquito nets to reduce the incidence of malaria. And increased wealth improves political transparency and governance. In contrast, Easterly argues there is no empirical evidence to show that aid leads to economic growth or political reform. He advocates local entrepreneurship and the growth of the private sector to reduce poverty and increase accountability, which he finds lacking in the aid industry.

Evidence for both arguments can be found on the ground, depending on where, and when, you look. Perhaps it would be better to acknowledge that aid does not - and cannot - have the same impact in all locations and under all political, economic and social conditions. To position yourself ‘for’ or ‘against’ aid is to ignore the local context. At the workshop I attended, there were some enlightening contributions to the ‘aid debate’ from speakers keen to examine the large middle ground between the black and white arguments.

Finn Tarp, Director of the World Institute for Development Economics Research at the United Nations University, shared research which argues that aid can have a positive effect on growth over the long-run. With no empirical evidence to suggest that increasing the volume of aid increases economic growth to the same degree, he argued that international donors increasing their aid allocations must be clear on where and how money should be spent. Local institutions are key to the achievement of economic growth through aid, and their capacity to absorb increased aid flows should receive particular consideration.

Jane Harrigan, Professor of Economics at SOAS, argued that over the last decade donor conditions have been pre-occupied with ‘good governance’ and social welfare. From 1990 to 2004, the percentage of aid allocated to governance in African countries increased from 7% to 21%, to education from 6% to 21%, and to health from 4% to 9%. The proportion to agriculture fell from 27% to 11% and to infrastructure from 42% to 30%. Whilst acknowledging the importance of contributions to social welfare, Harrigan is concerned that the relative reduction in allocations to productive sectors - agriculture and infrastructure - is hindering economic growth.

Kenichi Ohno, from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Japan, agrees that in order for aid to promote growth, a shift in emphasis to productive sectors is needed. African countries, he contends, should study East Asia’s success and adopt country-specific industrial policies. For example, as an advisor to the Ethiopian government, Ohno has proposed limited export promotion; import substitution; increasing private-public partnerships; building industrial clusters and the adoption of the Japanese philosophy of kaizen - the continuous improvement of processes in manufacturing and business.

With Britain re-embracing a closer alignment of aid programmes with foreign policy, will support be given to countries attempting to build a base for their economic growth? The rhetoric of results-oriented aid policy would seem to suggest this is a possibility. But the concentration of aid to countries deemed to pose a security threat to Britain could yet deny African countries with the highest potential for economic growth and wealth creation the support they require to establish themselves in international markets. An achievement which would reduce the requirement for aid, and help promote peaceful ties with the rest of the world.

Jenny Congrave

Policy and Publications Officer - Africa Research Institute

Friday, 25 February 2011

Déja vu, in Uganda

This is the third of three blogs about Uganda’s 2011 elections written by a Ugandan journalist living in Kampala who has asked to remain anonymous.

In the run-up to Uganda’s second successive multiparty elections on 18 February 2011, Ugandans keenly followed the popular protests that have swept North Africa. Dr Kizza Besigye, the main challenger to President Yoweri Museveni, indicated that Ugandans would be prepared to follow their lead and take to the streets if he did not win. It appears that the majority of Ugandans side with Museveni who insisted that “there will be no Egypt-style revolution here”.

The outcome of the elections were as opinion polls predicted. President Museveni was re-elected for a fourth term, receiving 68.38% of the vote, up from 59% in 2006. Besigye took a disappointing 26.01%. In the new parliament, Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party continue to dominate, winning over 76% of constituencies. Voter turnout continued to decline.

Reactions to the election results revealed that Besigye was not prepared for such a resounding defeat. In the past three elections – in 1996, 2001 and 2006 – Museveni’s share of the vote declined, while support for opposition parties grew. Besigye was convinced support for Museveni would further fall, but he underestimated the tenacity of his opponent. Museveni racked up a higher percentage of votes than in 2006. The seven challengers for the presidency – Kizza Besigye, Norbert Mao, Olara Otunnu, Abed Bwanika, Beti Turwomwe Kamya, Jaberi Bidandi Ssali and Samuel Walter Lubega – played right into the president’s hands, dividing any coherent opposition to his reign.

Besigye described the elections as a “sham”, and insists Museveni’s re-elected government is illegitimate. While the conduct of the elections has been criticised, with Human Rights Watch claiming that political and human rights activists were detained, accusations of voter intimidation and violence are fewer than in previous ballots. Museveni reverted to the old trick of buying voters’ loyalty. Edward Scicluna, the European Union’s election observer mission chief, told the UK’s Financial Times:

“While in the past the way of influence was with the stick and violence, now we’re getting a lot of carrots: ‘You give me a vote, I give you a bowl of rice or a goat’ – goats and money were distributed ... Definitely the ruling party has more resources and therefore a great imbalance, it uses scarce state resources as well.”

Museveni becomes East Africa’s longest-serving leader, overtaking Daniel arap Moi who ruled Kenya for 24 years. By 2016 – when Museveni completes fourth term – he will have been president for 30 years, joining an elite group of African leaders that include Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and Burkina Faso’s Blaise Campaore. A real U-turn for a man, who shortly after coming to power in 1986, insisted that heads of state who hold office for more than ten years have outstayed their welcome.

Popular revolt to Museveni’s rule is unlikely, for a number of reasons. Ethnic divisions remain strong in Uganda, and divide civil society. The opposition is reluctant to incite revolt for fear that Uganda will suffer the same fate as Kenya in the aftermath of the 2008 elections, when ethnic violence rocked large parts of the country. Nicholas Sengoba, an analyst, told Bloomberg News, “Many people are fearful of rising up in case the violence turns ethnic, and goes the Kenyan way. If you entice people and then lose control, you could still be held responsible and that may end up at the ICC.”

In Kampala – Uganda’s capital – offices, shops, schools and banks are open and running as normal. But the presence of security and military personnel in the city streets, alleys and suburbs is clear for all to see. Museveni warned that anyone one who uses “extra-constitutional means” to influence politics will be “locked up”. He appears to be staying true to his word.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Uganda decides

This is the second of three blogs about Uganda’s 2011 elections written by a Ugandan journalist living in Kampala who has asked to remain anonymous.

Kampala, Uganda - The end is in sight for Uganda’s eight presidential candidates whose election campaigns began in November last year. The polls on February 18 will mark the end of a carnival-like atmosphere that has swept the country over the past months. Symbols, signs, colours and anthems of the country’s major political parties have been on near constant show since the campaigns kicked off. Supporters from all parties have been enthusiastically waving their flags, thrusting their clenched fists, clapping their palms, and giving the occasional two-finger salute!

President Museveni and his main challenger for office, Dr Kizza Besigye, have been keen to showcase their political clout through a series of high profile political rallies. Large political demonstrations are a long-standing obsession with Ugandan politicians keen to flex their muscles in public. This time, more than in previous campaigns, the youth have been the main target of election rallies. Over half of Uganda’s population is under 30, representing a significant political constituency.

Music has been the principal medium to engage with Uganda’s burgeoning young population. President Museveni has been particularly astute in this respect, releasing his very own ‘rap’ video in an attempt to reach out to Uganda’s younger voters. In a direct appeal to Uganda’s rural youth, Museveni recites the following lyrics: "I was given a knife. I gave it to the people who harvested millet and they gave me the millet. I gave the millet to the cattle keepers, who in exchange gave me a cow." At every official campaign rally, President Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party (NRM) have hired the country’s top music artists to attract hordes of young voters.

Media jostles

Behind the noise and vibrancy of the political rallies that have characterised the campaigns lies a more subtle clash for votes and influence – the ongoing battle for the airwaves. Radio remains the most popular medium of communication in Uganda, particularly the rural areas. InterMedia, a non-profit research organisation, estimates there are about 200 private FM radio stations in Uganda. But many of these stations, however, are thought to be owned by members and allies of the ruling party.

Opposition parties have accused the government of blocking their access to the media. The Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), led by Dr Besigye, paid for special announcements on the public broadcaster, Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC). But the announcements were not aired, nor was the money refunded. No explanation was given. The FDC have filed a legal case against the UBC, demanding US$600,000 in compensation for the lost opportunity.

In the face of adversity, the opposition supporters have taken the battle online, using the popular social media site Facebook to call for President Museveni’s resignation. But with internet penetration currently at 7.9% of the population, such initiatives will have limited impact. The government are well aware that the radio remains the most powerful tool to inform, educate and mobilise Ugandans.

Third time lucky?

The elections on Saturday 18th February will be the third time that the retired colonel, Dr Besigye is contesting the presidency. He has failed in the two previous attempts to unseat Museveni who has ruled Uganda since 1986. Museveni is the longest serving president of Uganda, outstripping by nearly three times the rule of Idi Amin Dada whose oppressive junta lasted nine years. Ugandans born in 1986 when Museveni took power are now women and men with families.

Since 2000, Museveni’s popularity has been dwindling, and his share of the national vote is expected to further decline this year. Such realities have spurred the opposition. Dr Besigye has tried to persuade voters that President Museveni is yesterday’s man: “The trend shows that Museveni’s vote has been declining while our vote is increasing. In 1996 he got 75 %. In 2001, he scored 69% of the vote. In 2006, even when I campaigned in handcuffs, Museveni got 56%. With such a trend, what would you expect Museveni to get this time round?”

Opinion polls continue to favour President Museveni and his NRM party. Most predictions suggest Museveni will capture between 60 and 65% of the vote. These figures have been widely published in the state and private media. But opposition parties maintain that the opinion polls are simply propaganda, and that the government is trying to hoodwink Ugandan voters. Both Museveni and Besigye have announced that victory will be theirs on February 18th. In the event that neither candidate received 50% of the vote, a re-run will be required.

The scene is set for a gripping contest, one that will likely push Uganda’s young democracy to its limits. Dr Besigye maintains that past election victories were stolen from him by a combination of voter intimidation and vote rigging. While President Museveni still holds substantial political support in Uganda, he cannot rest on his laurels. With popular protests sweeping North Africa, the political climate for the polls has changed dramatically since the beginning of the campaigns – a reality that is not lost on his main contender for office.

In a written statement to the armed forces on February 6, 2011 as they commemorated the 30th anniversary of the armed rebellion against former president Milton Obote, Besigye noted: ‘If the election is rigged again, I will not go back to the court; the struggle is not mine alone. It belongs to our supporters across the country. If our victory is stolen it is the court of public opinion to which I will appeal’.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Campaigning in Kampala

This is the first of three blogs about Uganda’s 2011 elections written by a Ugandan journalist living in Kampala who has asked to remain anonymous.

Kampala, Uganda – On February 18, 2011 Ugandans will go to the ballot box to elect their president and parliament for the next five years. In the run up to the polls black-and blue-uniformed police are much in evidence on the streets of Kampala, patrolling in twos and threes. More than 50 tear-gas trucks and other riot control vehicles have recently arrived, imported via Dar-es-Salaam from Chinese manufacturer in Tianjin. Police spokesman Vincent Ssekate has insisted that the equipment was ordered early in 2008, but the timing of its arrival has raised suspicions that it would be deployed against opposition demonstrators.

In the five decades since independence, none of Uganda’s heads of state have been voted out of office. President Museveni came to power by coup d’état or civil war in 1986. In 2005, Museveni amended the constitution to secure a third term in office. Most Ugandans believe that whoever controls the army will win any election. Although his National Resistance Army metamorphosed into the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), Museveni’s opponents believe that it remains a presidential guard.

The army has sought to reassure Ugandans that it is impartial and its remit is to maintain peace and stability during the polls. The UPDF’s code of conduct forbids soldiers from campaigning activities of any description. But most high-ranking officers come from western Uganda, Museveni’s homeland. A number of them attend the president’s campaign rallies. An army general – Kale Kayihura - heads the police. If there is electoral violence, opposition candidates believe that the UPDF and police will display their loyalty to the president.

President Museveni’s main challenger is his erstwhile ally and personal doctor, Colonel Kizza Besigye, who leads the Forum for Democratic Change. Among Bisigye’s prominent supporters is General Mugisha Muntu, a former Chief of the Defence Forces who retains considerable respect in the army. There are six other candidates, including former UN under-secretary-general, Olara Otunnu, and Norbert Mao president of the Democratic party. All but Besigye can be considered ‘also-rans’, and the opposition is riven by in-fighting.

Peace Baagi, from the south-west, speaks for most Ugandans when she says that all she wants is a peaceful country in which to raise and educate her children. But the older generation – those who witnessed Uganda’s tremendous, and traumatic, upheavals before Museveni came to power – are apprehensive about the prospects for a trouble-free poll, and aftermath. Stick-wielding militiamen have attacked and dispersed campaign demonstrations in Kampala, and attacked Besigye himself. Electoral Commission boss, Badru Kiggundu, has warned that nine militias are preparing to disrupt voting.

Opposition candidates have also moved to prepare ‘vigilantes’ to protect their voters at polling stations. The Uganda Police has made it clear that it is the only institution legally mandated to provide such protection. Thousands of special constables are undergoing training. The opposition and police seem set on a collision course. Besigye supporters have already clashed with supporters of the ruling NRM party in Alebtong, northern Uganda.

Hostility between supporters of rival factions is increasingly evident in pubs and on the streets. Posters of presidential, parliamentary and council candidates are being defaced and torn down – a crime which can carry a one year jail sentence. In Kampala, areas which witnessed violent riots last year between Bagandans loyal to their monarch, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi, and government supporters are potential flashpoints.

Southern Sudan’s vote for independence, the ongoing power-struggle in Côte d’Ivoire, and the wave of protest sweeping North Africa and the Arab world have all overshadowed Uganda’s upcoming elections. The international media have paid little attention. It’s possible Uganda’s presidential and parliamentary votes will pass with little commotion . But a peaceful outcome to this month’s polls will depend on whether the security services act as agents of the Ugandan state or the incumbent president’s henchmen.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Connecting the unconnected

On a recent trip to Nairobi, Kenya, I met up with Tonee Ndungu, co-founder of NAiLAB, an incubation laboratory for ICT businesses and start ups. One of the things we discussed in detail was how the internet can be harnessed to have a more ameliorative impact on the lives of ordinary Africans, rather than just acting as a medium for social networking.

We agreed that infrastructure has been a hindrance. Africa has the lowest number of internet users than any other region; with internet penetration at just four percent of the world’s total. Almost half the continents 63 million internet users are in Egypt, Nigeria and Morocco. Going online in Africa is more expensive, and unreliable, than any region in the world. A recent report by the STT Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends notes that, before 2009, residents of Nairobi paid up to US$5,000 per month to rent an internet connection equivalent to that of an average European urban household.

Significant progress has been made in recent years. In 2002, sub-Saharan Africa had access to one undersea fibre-optic data cable – the SAT3/SAFE which runs from Spain to South Africa with several landing points along the West African coast. By 2010, the continent had access to seven cables. A further three are scheduled for completion by the end of 2012, by which time Africa can expect 17 terabytes of online capacity.

New and better infrastructure is only part of the solution. Increasing internet penetration won’t automatically mean a greater proportion of people go online, or that the internet will become an increasingly valuable source of information for people to address everyday problems in business to agriculture, healthcare or at home. The rapid growth of internet penetration rates must be matched by concerted efforts to increase local – African – content online.

The majority of Africa’s internet accesses social media sites or adult material. The internet has failed to penetrate much beyond Africa’s urban middle classes, a reality that is hindering its development potential. Education and access are significant barriers. But most importantly, the internet is still not relevant to the majority of people’s lives in Africa. The content on the internet is mostly generated in English-speaking industrialised countries.

The questions that predominantly agrarian populations in Africa ask are not necessarily dissimilar to those an average European or American citizen would ask – but the answers are! Geography, law and culture differ remarkably between regions. The answers exist in Africa. Local knowledge is in abundance. The problem is that this information is not digitalised and readily available online. Unless the dearth of local African knowledge online is addressed, efforts to develop SMS search engines or website translation facilities will have limited impact. The impetus for this must come from both the top and the bottom.

Initiatives are underway. In 2010, Google launched Google Baraza, a community driven question and answer site, as a way of integrating more local knowledge into their search engines. Google Baraza follows a host of other Google products designed specifically for the African continent, including local language search engines, an Africa blog and Google Trader. But Google Baraza and similar products are only likely to have limited impact on localising digital content, largely because they only appeal to Africans who are already online.

More bottom up approaches are needed that tap into the knowledge of people who are not online. Map Kibera uses OpenSteepMap, an open-source online mapping website, to create the first public digital map of Africa’s largest informal settlement, Kibera. It not only records streets and alleyways, but important public goods – including schools, health facilities, religious institutions and water points. Crucially, the map was researched and constructed by local residents with an intimate knowledge of the settlement’s geography. Map Muthare, a project to map another of Nairobi’s large informal settlements is currently underway.

Mocality is Africa’s first business directory accessible through a mobile phone. Over the past year, agents have been scouring Nairobi recording and mapping the city’s small and medium-sized businesses. Each business recorded is allocated a web and mobile page detailing the services they offer, contact details and location. Small businesses in Nairobi are provided with a web presence, and are searchable via Google and the Mocality website.

These are just two examples. Efforts to increase African content on the internet are growing. Kenya’s ICT Board has been trying to encourage local entrepreneurs and businesses to build their web presence through digital content grants. But my point is that more of these initiatives are needed, and fast.

The internet is a public good, but a largely private service. People are required to pay to use the internet. The mere presence of cyber cafes and WAP enabled mobile phones will not entice the vast majority of Africans to go online, unless what they can access is relevant to their everyday lives. Development theorists have long held a lack of information as a principal source of underdevelopment. The source of this information is often far closer to home than many recognise.

Jonathan Bhalla

Research Manager – Africa Research Institute

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The cans and can'ts of technology

In late 2010, I travelled to East Africa to explore the region’s budding technology industry. It was not just the growth of telecommunications that interested me, but the emergence of a new generation of technology bloggers and entrepreneurs who are busy designing mobile applications and web platforms to tackle everyday problems. Africans are not merely passive recipients of communication technologies; rather they are actively participating in the development of a new industry by building innovative, locally relevant, software and web platforms.

'The ubiquity of mobile phones is matched only by the ingenuity of their users'. African Affairs, August 2010

The creativity and ingenuity deployed in the development of telecommunications is indicative of a much wider shift in Africa towards more active participation in the global economy. Local innovations, such as Kenya’s Ushahidi, an online platform that maps real time crisis information, has proved to be a robust export and shown that African software developers are globally competitive. Users too have proved to be equally robust innovators. One only needs to look at Kenya’s flagship mobile banking facility, MPesa, to discover the resourcefulness of people who use the service for myriad purposes, whether sending money to rural relatives, paying for services and household utility bills, or purchasing groceries in local supermarkets.

The growth of mobile communication in Africa has received extensive coverage. But one of the consequences has been a great deal of hype about the potential of information technology to alleviate poverty. American economist Jeffrey Sachs championed mobiles phones as the ‘single most transformative technology for development’. Some have heralded the potential for One Laptop per Child to eliminate poverty through education. Others have touted mobile phones as the vehicle to raise rural incomes. The assumption in much of the rhetoric is that information technology is some sort of developmental panacea for Africa, and that it can provide a shortcut to more conventional methods of tackling poverty.

It can’t. Hard evidence to back up such grand claims is thin on the ground. While the notion that information technology can have a positive, lasting impact on African societies is no longer fanciful, much remains to be proved. In almost all instances where technology has been successfully harnessed to promote development, humans have played a far more important role than the technology. Kentaro Toyama, a researcher at the University of California is correct in asserting:

technology – no matter how well designed – is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well intentioned people, then appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements'.

Successful application of technology for development is seldom about the technology per se, but the way in which it is utilised by people and organisations to address specific development priorities.

The danger with overstating the development potential of information technology is that it obscures genuine insight into how technology can be best used to alleviate poverty in Africa. Understanding the limitations of technology is crucial when formulating effective policy and harnessing the potential of technology to promote development. It might be productive to establish clearly what technology can’t do for development rather than indulge in wishful thinking about what technology potentially can do.

In 2009, Africa Research Institute published Nursing the Future, which chronicles the evolution of an e-learning programme to provide Kenyan nurses with new knowledge and skills. The programme, run by AMREF in conjunction with the Kenyan Ministry of Health and the Nursing Council of Kenya (NCK), uses rudimentary technology – desktop computers installed with the course material – to address the shortage of skills among frontline health workers.

Since 2007 the programme has trained 2000 nurses with a further 7000 currently enrolled. Previously, the NCK had the capacity to train a maximum of 150 nurses a year. These results could never have been achieved without the technology, however basic. But the computers were only effective because they were deployed within a programme that embraced local knowledge and institutions, addressed the needs of hard-pressed Kenyan nurses, and did not rely on sophisticated or expensive infrastructure.

People have achieved remarkable things with technology in Africa. But until initiatives like Kenya’s e-nursing programme start to proliferate, technology cannot be assumed to underwrite – guarantee – a ‘revolution’ in Africa’s development prospects. The challenge for technology entrepreneurs, business, NGOs and think tanks is to focus attention on clearly documenting what works – how and why – so lessons can be learned and experiences shared.

Jonathan Bhalla Research Manager, Africa Research Institute