Dispelling the myth of Africa rising

The New York Times surprises us today with yet another article desperately trying to prove the “Africa rising” rhetoric without any substantial facts or data. No, increasing car traffic and new retail outlets are not indicators that things are faring well for Africans.

Nicholas Kulish’s piece is full of contradictions that have become standard in the way western media portray Africa’s economic prospects. Consumer demand is supposedly booming, but Kulish cites no specific data that reflects the trend. Such demand is fuelled by the rise of the middle class, yet this term is so loosely used by various institutions (the African Development Bank defines members of the Middle Class as those earning between $2 and $20) that it could hardly be relied on to draw any sort of conclusion on the continent’s financial prosperity. Betting on the lower middle class to bear the weight of market growth is actually ignoring that it’s near impossible to live decently with less than $4-5 a day in a large, expensive city like Nairobi. But guess what? That slice of the population has barely been growing.

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The recent prison escape in Quebec is another painful reminder of how messed up our correctional system is

VICE Canada, June 13, 2014 — Just 15 months after an embarrassing escape from the St-Jérôme prison, Quebec was gifted with a second, spectacular prison break from a provincial jail in Orsainville that saw three detainees linked to the Hells Angels take off in a helicopter like a terrible A-Team reboot. Now Interpol is jumping into the search after Quebec asked for their help, and the government is left trying to figure out what the hell happened.

So far security minister Lise Thériault has blamed the Orsainville prison, the Sûreté du Québec, the justice system and the previous government for the massive fuckup that happened last Saturday, without being able to really prove anyone’s responsibility. She also refused to comment on why the detainee’s security grade was lowered down from S5 to S3, allowing them to walk freely inside the prison’s courtyard where the helicopter picked them up.

It’s almost been a week since the latest escape, and every day comes with its own revelations that confirm the whole thing was easily preventable. Police investigators, for instance, apparently knew about the detainee’s plans to escape and had even paid them a visit to let them know—yet the prison’s managers decided to loosen the condition of their detention because their behaviour during incarceration didn’t reveal any risk of escape.

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Canadian police forces want to protect you with military battle gear

VICE Canada, June 9, 2014 — Last week, media reports described a city “under siege” as the RCMP hunted for a man who killed three police officers and injured two others in Moncton, New Brunswick. The heavily armed police force deployed armoured vehicles, helicopters, and a robot to find the gunman—while officers patrolled the streets in full-combat uniform. All of this military gear brought back unfortunate memories of the clash between Mi’kmaq protesters and heavily armed New Brunswick RCMP officers, snipers, and private police forces that rocked the province late last year.

If you’re confused as to when the RCMP started to operate like the Canadian Armed Forces, you probably haven’t realized yet that Canadian police have been following the lead of the US in militarizing their equipment and intervention tactics.

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Nairobi’s solution to terrorism: blame the Somalis

OpenDemocracy, April 17, 2014 — Perhaps due to the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide last week, the Nairobi police’s substantial crackdown on Muslims and illegal immigrants failed to hit international headlines. Over 4,000 people were arrested in just a few days, in response to  yet another grenade attack killing six in the infamous Eastleigh neighbourhood on March 30th. Although most were released shortly, an unknown number of detainees who have failed to present proper ID remain held at the nearby Kasarani stadium in substandard conditions, and police sweeps have since expanded to other neighbourhoods. Human rights and humanitarian organizations were initially denied the right to visit the stadium, despite children being among the arrested; they were finally allowed in at the end of the week. At least one woman gave birth while in detention.

Eastleigh, a largely Muslim neighbourhood near downtown Nairobi, nicknamed “Little Mogadishu” for its large population of ethnic Somalis, is a frequent theatre for both terror attacks – the previous one, a bomb blast in a local bus, claimed four lives last December – and police harassment. Arbitrary arrests and physical abuse are known to routinely target Somalis, many of which are refugees who escaped the squalid, overcrowded camps of Dadaab and Kakuma in the country’s north (Kenya hosts 610,000 documented and 500,000 undocumented refugees from Somalia).

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At the Simbi washing station


Cafe Connexion

Why Rwanda’s coffee industry is a case study in development

During my time in East Africa, I’ve had the opportunity to closely observe many development initiatives, but few managed to convinced me as well as Rwanda’s coffee industry. Here’s my take on why the recent history of the industry should be considered as a case study for economic and human development.

1) Re-developing Rwanda’s coffee industry wasn’t an aid program. It was an unprecedented alignment of government priorities with the business sector, with help from foreign aid. It’s rare to see all three types of actors advance in the same direction together. They didn’t start from scratch either - coffee production was introduced by the Belgians during colonization. Even though the industry was vastly dysfunctional even then, and was nearly completely destroyed during the genocide, the basis was there to be built upon.

2) From farmers to washing stations to buyers and exporters, all actors along the value chain have been part of the process. I see that lacking in a lot of development programs, especially in agriculture – you can’t teach skills to farmers without improving access to the market; you can’t expect industries to grow without enabling a business-friendly culture, improving roads, training managers… Development through business should imply strengthening entire industries, and not just empower some of its actors, otherwise the impact will be minimal and localised. Getting the government on board is crucial for this.

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Matt Smith, from Rwanda Trading Co., speaks with an employee.

Rwanda’s specialty coffee industry: a success story for economic and human development

Business Daily, April 2014 — Colette Mukarisa farms over 500 coffee trees on one of southwestern Rwanda’s many luscious hills. She has high hopes for the picking season that is just about to start; last year, her crop produced a coffee that fared well in the Cup of Excellence, an industry-wide competition sometimes known as the “Oscars of the coffee world.” The ranking earned her a much-appreciated bonus, as well as the right to taste her own coffee for the very first time.

Ms. Mukarisa’s coffee cherries are highly sought after by international roasters, as consumer demand for high-quality and sustainably grown coffee grows in North America, Europe and Japan. In recent years, Rwanda has placed itself as a top producer of premium beans, selling to coffee giants such as the U.S.-based Starbucks and Green Mountain, and to high-end roasters like Stumptown and Intelligentsia. Some 33% of Rwanda’s coffee production in 2013 was graded “specialty”, meaning it scored above 80 on a 100-point scale, making up 45% of Rwanda’s total revenues from coffee exports (USD$55.2 million in 2013).

Speciality coffee sells for at least USD$0.20 above ordinary coffee (the benchmark New York “C” price), and a large portion of the selling price goes directly to producers. Dozens of thousands of farmers have seen their income increase as a result, and the industry has been credited not only for helping the country make gains on human development, but also for playing a substantial role in national reconciliation, as members of formerly rival communities have been working side to side along the supply chain. The stellar growth of Rwanda’s coffee industry has become a case study in market development.

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Teaching Rwanda’s first generation of architects

Rapid urbanization is a challenge on the African continent, for reasons I could hardly suspect before spending time in East Africa. The architecture and urban plannings fields are in shamble in most sub-Saharan countries. University programs are underfunded − one of the many consequences of structural adjustment programs − and their curriculum vastly outdated. Sometimes they don’t even exist at all. Rwanda had no school of architecture until the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) opened a department six years ago (the first class graduated last year). Although Kigali has big plans for urban development, there is no urban planning school that could produce the local workforce necessary to implement these plans.

I went and visited the architecture school at KIST, and spoke with Michelle Stadelman, an American architect who, like all other faculty members, was recruited abroad to come and teach to the first generation of homegrown architects. If you have any interest in social or humanitarian architecture, and urban development in Africa, read on. Continue reading →

Online service gives Kibera slums access to clean water

Business Daily, March 5, 2014 — The Watsan Portal is an online platform that allows individuals, community groups, NGOs and businesses to obtain a price estimate for a connection to the sewerage and water grids. The service, launched by KDI and Spatial Collective in partnership with Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, is currently available for the Gatewekera and LainiSaba areas, with prospects to expand to the whole of Kibera. “This has the potential to change the face of Kibera through easing access to such services,” said KDI country director Charles Newman.

It only takes a couple of minutes to create a profile and be directed to an interactive map through which visitors can assess the feasibility of bringing sewerage and water in areas of interest. The website then lists the necessary documents and requirements to apply for a connection with Nairobi Water, among them a proof of land ownership such as a title deed or a letter from the chief, and a sketch of the site for which a connection is sought.

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New city design fails to address slum upgrade

Daily Nation, February 10, 2014 [unedited version] — Nairobi’s upcoming urban development master plan will not properly address issues of land tenure and infrastructure in informal settlements, causing a void that could have dramatic consequences for the city’s development, as information obtained by the Nation reveals.

The Japanese International Cooperation Agency, which is providing financial and technical support for the elaboration of the plan, has been instructed by city county officials to leave detailed planning for infrastructure in Nairobi’s informal settlements to government institutions dealing with slum upgrading, such as the Kenya Informal Settlements Improvement Project (KISIP) and the Nairobi Metropolitan Services Improvement Project (NAMSIP).

Civil society organizations say this is a missed opportunity to address profound social inequalities, as Nairobi has been without a master plan for decades – the 1973 plan was never implemented – leading to chaotic development and slum growth. The new plan will give a framework to Nairobi’s development until 2030.

“It’s indignifying”, said Waikwa Wanyoike, Executive Director of Katiba Institute. “You’re telling [residents] they’re not dignified enough to be considered for a master plan.” Wanyoike says the decision violates a number of constitutional principles, such as the obligation to vulnerable communities. “Clearly, there’s a case of discrimination,” he said.

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