Sunday, 30 December 2012

How telecommunications are revolutionising east Africa

(A re-post of an article originally published in the UK Guardian, 3rd June, 2010)
Filmmaker Declan McCormack looks at how mobile phones and the internet are changing lives in east Africa

Last month, the World Economic Forum on Africa came to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. It was the first time that this select group of world leaders and influential figures from business, academia and civil society have chosen east Africa as their venue to discuss the continent's future.

Many observers felt the timing was appropriate as a period of strong economic growth is predicted for the region. Not least because high-speed underwater fibre optic cables have finally arrived, bringing broadband capacity to east Africa for the first time, which promises to seriously reduce the cost of doing business with this part of the world.

For many development specialists the time is also right to reassess the role that international aid plays in Africa, especially with regard to stimulating business development in the region. One person with a firm opinion on that subject is British social entrepreneur Clive Lightfoot, who argues "aid money should go to the public good. You've got to train up rural folks to be able to do business. At the moment too many are just being trained up to engage in the next development project, to get their next handout".

Lightfoot is, of course, being provocative, but his words reveal a frustration born from experience. Over the last 10 years, with the support of the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), he and his business partner, Ueli Scheuermeier, have built a network of small businesses across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The network provides market access services to farmer groups, helping the poorest of the region's people to shake off their donor dependence by getting better prices for their produce.

And now with the arrival of modern communications, this business knowledge network shows great potential. Its comparative advantage lies in having a great number of boots on the ground, with hundreds of entrepreneurs at markets, big and small, across the region all exchanging market intelligence daily to secure deals.

Recently, this progress has led Lightfoot's company RAVI, Rural African Ventures Investments, to provide small loans to the network's entrepreneurs. "The idea of RAVI loans is to provide these small businesses with an opportunity to grow. With access to a little finance they can build a business track record and then be in a position to approach local banks for commercial loans, which at the moment are impossible for them to secure."

By building local networks of entrepreneurs and improving their access to local finance to further develop commercial market access services for small farmers, Lightfoot is convinced that the private sector attending future World Economic Forums would be enticed to invest in east Africa.
RAVI is currently working in partnership with Traidcraft, the UK-based fair trade organisation that is providing business training to network members.

"What is essential is to improve the investment environment. If aid money is used to do that then the private money will follow. And networks like ours, which have been developed by public money but are now fully private operations, could actually act as a risk mitigating mechanism for those investors because of their cohesion and the communication infrastructure that they have built around them."

Declan McCormack is a filmmaker who has spent much of the last five years documenting the successes and failures of business-oriented development projects in developing countries. Reports from various parts of the world can be seen on his website Flooded Cellar

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Hidden Stories of the Hidden Himalayas

by Lorina Sthapit

“Humla! Do you know that it is the most rural part of Nepal? 
“Humla! You will freeze to death!”
“Humla! Make sure you take lots of food. People are starving there and you might as well”
“Humla! Now you’ll see the real Nepal”
“Humla! I just read in the news that there is salt shortage there”.

So with all these warnings and anticipations, Declan McCormack from Flooded Cellar Productions, Suraj Ratna Shakya, a freelance photographer and I, set off for a four-day video shooting in Humla with mixed feelings and five kilos of salt from Nepalgunj; rupees 16 per kilo. But as soon as we arrived at Simikot airport, situated at 2900 meters, we saw hundreds of salt sacks stacked at the cargo station. There was no salt shortage, in fact, salt there was much cheaper; rupees 9 per kilo. We were fooled by the media. 

Humla is a mixture of beautiful snow-capped mountains, breathtaking landscapes and fascinating cultural diversity, making it one of the most mysterious yet least explored areas of Nepal. It is the gateway to Mt. Kailash and the Hidden Himalaya Trek, the two main reasons for tourists to visit Humla. But our team had a different purpose. Our trail derailed from the touristy tracks to the inner villages to witness the harsh lives of the Humli people. We were there to explore poverty.

This trip was a part of International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) documentary making mission to capture the activities of Western Upland Poverty Alleviation Project (WUPAP) under five different themes: infrastructure development, remittance, connectivity, self-help groups and microfinance. IFAD has been supporting development projects in Nepal aiming to enable poor rural people to overcome poverty since 1978. WUPAP is one of its four ongoing projects.

During our stay in Humla we were startled by the remoteness and poverty of the villages we visited but we also managed to enjoy the exoticness it had to offer. As soon as we arrived at our hotel, Bijay Hotel Lodge and Restaurant, which was only few minutes away from the airport and facing the beautiful snow-capped mountain range, we were greeted with the most amazing cup of cappuccino. Surprised to be holding a grand cup of cappuccino in the most remote area of the country, we immediately published the good news on our facebooks and twitters. Although we didn’t have an attached bathroom, the hotel room was more than what we could ask for, for rupees 500 per night: cozy bed with warm blankets, beautiful window view, personal television set, flowery wallpapers and a poster that said ‘for those who dream to fly’.

After taking over the overwhelming excitement, we started our shoot. The first stop on our itinerary was to visit a community organization formed under WUPAP and now investing in herbs production. During the shoot, we met a 64 year-old woman who had recently entered the group with high hopes of earning some money to pay off her debts. She had borrowed rupees 5,000 for her daughter’s medical treatment three years back. Her daughter couldn’t make it but she is still struggling to pay back the loan which has now added up to rupees 10,000.

“Do you want to see something?,” she asked and slowly uncovered the rice grains laid under the blanket she was sitting on. This was her food storage for the rest of the year enough only for next few meals. It was heartbreaking to see that the Humli people cannot live off the little amount of cultivable land and harsh climate. This poor woman shared with us her stories of scarcity and before we left, she offered us the last apple on her tree. This sense of generosity even at the most difficult times touched our hearts.

Later that day, we were informed that the local community radio will be broadcasting about our arrival and the purpose of our visit to Humla in the evening news. With much excitement we decided to visit the radio station, Radio Kailash. Having worked in radio stations in the past, both Suraj and I were very glad to see a well equipped and a well managed radio station in remote Nepal. We enjoyed our few seconds of fame with smiles.  A grand dinner marked the end of the day.

The next morning, we started our journey very early. It was freezing cold but we had to shed our thick clothes since we would be walking for next five or six hours. Yes, for the first hour it was walking but later it turned into crawling and then dragging. We literally crawled up the steep mountains, dragged ourselves through the rugged uphills and rolled down the slippery downhills.  After six hours of painful journey through the merciless trail, we arrived at Kharpel, a small dry village in Kharpunath, a few hundred meters below Simikot. This is where people celebrated electricity.

With a small hydropower set up by WUPAP three years ago, the villagers are now able to witness electricity which they only heard about from their friends who had visited India and China. Here we met 12 year-old Kamala Shahi who studies in grade six. Pointing at the only fluorescent bulb in her house she said, “I can now do my homework at night after I finish all the household chores”. We were amazed to see how people here valued the small amount of electricity they owned.

Kharpel is one of the most rural and underdeveloped villages we had ever visited. With vultures revolving and thousands of flies buzzing around in every household, we realized that we should have brought soaps to distribute instead of salt. Land here is too dry and infertile for agriculture and so the villagers are forced to live off the limited production of few crops including a type of highland rice called ‘cheeno’, radish, walnuts and pinto beans and that’s what we were offered for lunch. We ate two plates full.

The next day on our way back, we had a reality check. A group of donkey herders had an accident. One of the donkeys got stuck in the makeshift bridge. Donkeys, sheeps and chauri gai (a female hybrid of yak) and few other animals are the only medium of transport in Humla. The villagers use them to transport salt, rice and other items back and forth their villages. It took a while to pull the donkey out of the bridge and in the process one of the herders was badly injured on his head with no proper medical treatment available nearby. Seeing all this: a donkey stuck in a bridge, people struggling to get it out, a wounded villager, his howling son, rest of the team on other side of the bridge and to top it all, severe period cramps, I was in shock!

After about half an hour of wailing and struggling, the donkey finally fell into the river but safe and intact. The incident left us with chills. But we were glad to see them returning back from the market after finishing their deals while we were still dragging ourselves, well you could say that we were not in our best shape. Amazed at the Humli people and their stamina, we did manage to finally get back to our hotel in Simikot but were barely able to move a muscle. For the rest of the day, we just enjoyed the painful of accomplishment. For those of you who are interested to learn about people and places in rural Nepal than just admiring the natural beauty of its landscapes, we recommend you to take a little detour on your travel journey and meet the real heroes who are living each day of scarcity with glory and smile.

Now that we are back in Kathmandu with all the luxury, it feels like it never happened. Like we never had to share a yak’s skin as a blanket while sleeping on the cold floor wishing that the drunk villagers who were singing, which later seemed like quarrelling, outside would just stop and let us sleep in peace; like we never slipped for like zillion times on the steep mountains; like we never met all those people who had sad stories and starry eyes; like we never flew on a plane without a boarding pass with only six passengers and hundreds of kilos of rice and like our hearts never skipped a beat when the airplane’s siren went off while we were flying in between the beautiful but bare mountains. But we lived all this and more. Well, it might not sound as great an adventure to most of you but for us, who live in the cities with all the privilege, it was something!

the hidden stories of the hidden himalayas
kissed my heartaches away
they have sadder stories
harsher lives
painful memories
yet, full of smiles
they hide their tears
and welcome you with hugs
although hungry themselves,
the last apple on the tree is yours
the hidden stories of the hidden himalayas
sad stories
yet, full of smiles…

Declan: I have never taken a flight that does not descend before landing! (to everyone he meets back in Kathmandu)
Suraj: I should take a time-lapse. (but he never did)
Lorina: I don’t think I can make it. I am too tired. (every next minute on the way back to Simikot from Kharpunath)
Us: Phew! You know we walked 13 hours in two days through the remote villages in Humla.
Them: So? (raised eyebrows)

We are now busy with the post production of the videos. They will be uploaded in in January 2013.

Lorina Sthapit
Intern, IFAD

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

What will it take for girls in Burundi to have a stake in their society?

Bienvenue is in the fifth year of her primary education. She’s very proud that she can now read and write. At 17, she is much older than most of her classmates. But she doesn’t mind.

In this village of the sous-colline of Mahara in central Burundi, the people live in poverty and precariously. Our visit is an event: many of the villagers have come to watch and have crowded round. We ask Bienvenue about her education and aspirations. She has both. She sees she has a platform, lifts her head and pronounces: “I urge those parents who do not yet send their children to school to do so now because I am witness to the enormous advantages of school”.

It wasn’t until she was 12 that it occurred to Bienvenue’s father, Pierre Magaranamazi to educate his children. It occurred to him because he was himself learning to read and write. The change to his life that this brought lead to nothing short of an epiphany: “I realised I was really backward”, he said “I asked myself: ‘are my children to suffer from illiteracy as I have done?’ ”

According to the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), enrolment to primary education in Burundi stands at 99%. This despite the fact that rural poverty (over 60% of the population lives in rural poverty in Burundi[1]) means many cannot afford the requisite uniforms and books. It is perhaps partly because of this that the overall drop out rate is high. And FAWE statistics show that only 27% of girls manage to complete primary education.[2] In a speech on 25th April this year, Burundi’s Minister for Education, Joséphine Bangurambona, put poor results for those girls who do stay at school down partly to the high rate of pregnancy in girls from the 6th to 10th grade. She urged teachers to concentrate more on girls and warned of sanctions against those who cause schoolgirls to get pregnant.[3]

In another village, Muhingira, I had already met a group of children all of whom attend school. One girl, through her broken French, told me her name was Thérèse and she was 17 and at secondary school. I asked what she wants to do when she leaves school. “I’ll grow maize”, she said. “And beans”.

In rural areas at least, women and girls are bound by tradition and a deep-rooted patriarchal mindset. They mind the house and the children as well as working in the fields. But they are not traditionally encouraged to go to school or to aspire.

This country is also still recovering from a war that destroyed crops, decimated livestock, razed schools and villages and killed community members - even whole communities - indiscriminately. The conflict also destroyed Burundian society as a whole, such that women were never safe from violent attack and they have few legal rights. Tensions still exist in a country where political affiliations are flown from village flagpoles countrywide, where food costs are rising but employment falling and high population density means land ownership disputes regularly result in murder. Burundi stands at the bottom of the UN’s human development index, above only the DRC and Niger[4]. In Burundi, at least, there is a need to change the world.

Burundi’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza knows this only too well. Soon after his re-election in 2010, he asked Burundians to “Change yourselves, change your families and change your country”[5] He added that “women will be well represented in all areas of national life – taking into account their abilities”. Which brings us back to education.

Bienvenue’s father has great ambitions for his children. “My greatest wish is to see my children learn and earn their diploma. It will be a passport to employment … and they’ll be able to help me out too”.

Bienvenue goes on to describe what education can do for her: “I could become, God willing, a teacher,” she declares, “or work in administration”. The audacity surges up within her and her voice quavers over the hushed silence: “Or even a member of government!” The village erupts into wolf whistles and applause, as Bienvenue hangs her head in embarrassment.
In the battle to change the world, is education the most powerful weapon we can use? It is a momentous battle that needs a full arsenal – to which education is a significant contribution.

In Burundi, with its complexity of problems, education must be the first salvo in promoting gender equality and general change throughout the country. Greatest or not, education cannot be the only weapon that makes change happen, however. In this poor and isolated rural village it has, surely, taken more than education to give Bienvenue the power to dare to believe she could achieve great things.

What that is might be reflected in the shy smile of pride that now plays on her lips. The same smile that beams across her father’s face from the shade of the banana trees.

[1] Based on population numbers and number of people living in rural poverty quoted in IFAD’s Rural Poverty report
[3] Burundi RTNB TV report, 25th April, 2012 and
[4] UNDP HDI -

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Five Signs of Famine - a crisis in the Sahel is approaching and the signs are there to see

It’s a Wednesday in mid April and there’s a group of children running through a herd of goats under the shade of a baobab tree at the luomo or market at Kerrpateh in the Gambia’s Northern Region. The children play without a care in the world, but watching the activities of farmers and traders here can be a clear indicator of how life is going in this part of West Africa and this year all the signs are bad. There’s a crisis and the number one sign is that the market is full of livestock and it’s all for sale at rock bottom prices. Everyone is selling off their animals, even the village leader, Mammud Drammeh has resorted to selling his last goat. “If you don’t have anything to eat, you’ll catch anything running around in your compound and go and sell it. Goats, horse, sheep, cattle, whatever you have, you sell it” he says looking over at the animals. Senegalese traders have made the short journey over the border and are buying up the lot. These traders and middlemen know how desperate the locals are and with a flooded market, they can pay such low prices to make the journey worthwhile. Mammud shrugs, “At the market if you’re selling, you look out for your own interests. If the animal you’ve brought is worth 10,000, even if they offer you 5,000, you’ll sell it because you need to get money for food, so you can buy rice. You don’t think about what the price should be, you just want to get food for your family.”

            The Gambia has declared this season a total crop failure. Even though it’s a relatively small country with the powerful Gambia river running through, the river’s tributaries carry salty water which means that much of the crops here are rain fed and without those rains, there is little hope for a harvest. This year the rains didn’t come and because of that, the situation here, as in many other parts of the Sahel, is about to get much worse. A second sign of such crisis is that apart from animals, there isn’t much other food on offer at Kerrpateh market. When asked how this year compares to previous years, Mammud grimaces a little and shakes his head, “Well, when you have something and when you have absolutely nothing, how can you compare the two? There’s no millet. No groundnuts. No maize. In fact by now some people have eaten all they had in their stores. There’s nothing. No food.” Areas of the market usually teeming with traders are eerily quiet. Adama Njai stands by his silent milling machine waiting for customers. “This year we haven’t had any produce because the rains were so bad. In previous years you couldn’t walk around here because there was so much produce. But you can see this year there’s hardly anything. People just bring in small amounts to mill, maybe just enough for a single meal.” And unlike the animals which are going cheap, what little food there is for sale is too expensive for many locals like Mammud to buy, “I wanted to buy a bag of millet today,” says the village leader “but I can’t because its too expensive. They were selling a kilo for 15 Gambian Dalasi before. Now it’s more than 30 Dalasi and the price will continue to rise.”

            There are still children running about, ducking in and out of the stalls, but crisis sign number three is evident all around them. Farmers here are selling off all their equipment and Mammud is no exception “We’ve already sold off all the farming tools that we had. Most of it went to Guinea Bissau.” His admission bodes even worse for the future, as without tools, seeds, animals, or fertilisers, he and his fellow farmers will have no way of growing anything next season, even if the rains do come.

            At the exit to the market is crisis sign number four. There are firewood sellers set up at the side of the road in places where they never usually are. People need money so badly that they’re resorting to cutting down the few remaining trees to buy food to feed their families. Despite all the sensitization drives carried out by international aid agencies and local NGOs, people here are hungry and too desperate to think about the environment.

            On the road from Kerrpateh market to the regional capital Kerewan, a group of women provide a fifth sign of serious crisis. The women are from the village of Daresalame and are part of a two hundred strong group who grow rice on two hundred hectares of land. They point to the rice crop in their field which stands abandoned because this year they aren’t even bothering to harvest it. One of the women, Jankeh Fafana explains “The rains didn’t come and so the rice didn’t mature.“ She pulls at the heads of some rice plants. The panicles have nothing in them and crumble to dust at her touch. “We‘ve wasted sixty days of work, preparing the fields, planting and weeding and we have to walk five kilometres here and back every day to work.” Apart from the labour and energy invested for nothing, these women have also lost money spent on seeds and fertiliser amounting to 4150 Gambian Dalasi ($138) each, a huge amount to a poor smallholder farmer.

            Although no-one is starving yet and children may be still playing in the market, these five signs of crisis clearly show people on the brink of starvation. The simple fact remains that if action isn’t taken now another major human catastrophe is inevitable and then those children will be emaciated and staring at the cameras of the world’s press.