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Africa Update for February 2020

Here’s the latest edition of Africa Update!  We’ve got 1.4 million resumes to review in Nigeria, the (possible) end of tsetse flies, Kenya’s first online archive of LGBT+ life, anti-colonial acronyms, and more.

West Africa: Ghana is trying to raise US$3 billion in investment with a new bond targeted at the diaspora.  Unfortunately that money might go to vanity projects like replacing all of the country’s still-functional electronic voting machines. Burkina Faso is taking a big gamble in arming local vigilantes to fight Islamic rebel groups. Unemployment is a serious problem in Nigeria, where 1.4 million people recently applied for 5000 civil defense jobs.

Central Africa:  Rwanda is still trying to make English the official language used in schools, despite rich evidence that students learn best in the language they speak at home.  Rwanda is also locking up and abusing children living on the streets in the name of “rehabilitation.”  Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza isn’t running for president again in the next elections, but he is getting a golden parachute with a lifetime salary and a luxury villa after stepping down.

orthodox christmas
Loved this beautiful photo of an Ethiopian Christmas celebration, via Girma Berta

East Africa: Sudan is opening up its gold market and doubling civil servant salaries while slashing fuel subsidies in an attempt to jump-start its moribund economy.  Check out this a great cartoon about the upsides and downsides of urbanization in Ethiopia.  In Kenya, gambling is increasingly seen as a chance to learn a livelihood outside of state-funded patronage networks.  Kenya’s foreign policy towards Somalia has grown increasingly bellicose over recent years.  This was a heartbreaking piece about the civilians killed by US airstrikes in Somalia.

Southern Africa: A new law means that South Africa can block refugees from seeking asylum if they engage in political activism in their home countries.  Meet the activists fighting for the rights of domestic workers in South Africa.  In Lesotho, the prime minister has resigned after evidence came out that his current wife may have had his ex-wife murdered so that she could be the official First Lady.  The billionaire Zimbabwean owner of Econet is paying the country’s striking doctors to return to work out of his own pocket.  Zimbabwe has run out of money to deport undocumented immigrants, leaving many of them languishing in jail for months.  In a landmark ruling, the high court in Malawi has ordered the country to re-run its recent election.

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Tax revenues are quite low in many African countries compared to the OECD average of 34% of GDP (via The Economist)

Politics & economics: Check out this interactive map of upcoming elections across Africa.  Here’s a good summary of the political history of African states before colonization.  What are some reasons to be optimistic about economic growth and life expectancy in Africa?  This is some useful background on West African countries’ plan to replace the CFA currency with the eco.  As transport routes with China are shut due to coronavirus fears, many Ugandan traders are also facing shortages of imported goods.

Environment & resources: Climate change is almost uniformly a bad thing, but one possible exception is that rising temperatures might kill off the tsetse fly and end the spread of sleeping sickness across Africa.  In Uganda, people in gold mining communities are being poisoned by the mercury used to refine the gold.  The DRC’s long-delayed Inga III mega-dam project has just been pushed further down the road with disputes among the major contractors about the dam’s design.

research
Research interlude: here’s some interesting data from Joy Owango

Health:  A new study in Liberia finds that motorcycles are still more efficient than drones for transporting medical supplies.  In Zambia, rates of stroke are rising as the population ages, but there are only five neurologists being trained to deal with this.  Meet the researchers who are coordinating the African fight against coronavirus at the Institut Pasteur in Senegal. This Nigeria researcher is working to develop anti-cancer drugs from indigenous African plants.

Gender: Meet 14 inspiring women in science from across Africa.  What can African governments do to reduce the burden of unpaid care work for women and girls?  Women who run for political office in Uganda can increasingly expect to face online harassment from men.  In Tanzania, women often don’t ask to use contraception because they feel that their husbands won’t approve.  Climate change might increase the risk of premature births in countries like the Gambia, where many women are subsistence farmers who work outside all day and can’t avoid increased temperatures.

colonization
BRB, ROFL, SMH (via Suhayl)

Globalization:  The Oxford English Dictionary is adding dozens of words from Nigerian English in recognition of the language’s global use.  Here’s how American consulting firms helped Angola’s Isabel dos Santos try to legitimize the money her family had corruptly acquired.  Meet the Soviet-era architects who shaped the visual landscapes of Accra and Lagos.  Read about the 10 critical issues which will shape China-Africa relations in 2020.  Here’s why the Gambian Minister of Justice sued Myanmar at the ICC to force the country to stop persecuting the Rohingya.

Culture: Check out KumbuKumbu, the first online archive of LGBT+ life in Kenya.  What are the top 10 things to know about getting young Kenyans engaged in politics?  This was a lovely essay about polychronic time-keeping and food in South Africa.  Meet the first professor with a PhD in African indigenous astronomy.  I can’t wait to watch the Netflix adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy!

What’s driving the locust crisis in East Africa?

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Mapping the spread of locusts, via The Independent

East Africa is currently dealing with giant swarms of locusts, which will descend on an area and eat huge amounts of vegetation before moving on to the next.  This poses an enormous risk to subsistence farmers in the region, only partially mitigated by the fact that it’s the dry season and the main crops aren’t growing yet.  According to Cyril Piou at The Conversation,

As a rough estimate, a swarm of one billion insects covers approximately 20km² and will eat 2000 metric tons of vegetation each day. In the past few weeks, parts of Kenya have received swarms that cover more than 100km², so their feeding will have been devastating.

Where are the locusts coming from?

The current invasion of desert locust originated along the Red Sea, in Yemen and Oman, during the 2018 to 2019 winter. The rains, brought by the October 2018 cyclone Luban, produced areas full of vegetation where the locusts could feed, breed and [seek additional food].

From January 2019, small swarms spread in the Arab Peninsula, along the Red Sea and even reached Iran and Pakistan. Other swarms stayed in the Arab Peninsula where they reproduced and multiplied.

In June, the locusts crossed the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden, which is just a few hours of flight for the locusts, and started to spread into the Horn of Africa. They invaded the North of Somalia and Ethiopia where floods in October and November created good conditions for desert locust to continue to multiply. The large swarms that have invaded Kenya since December are a result of this.

It’s possible to use ground surveys and satellite data to find the locusts when they’re young, before they start swarming, and kill them with targeted applications of pesticides.  Once they’ve begun to swarm, the only control option is spraying pesticides across the entire affected area, which is much worse for the ecosystem.

This is ultimately a crisis of state capacity.  Yemen and Somalia are particularly poorly placed to undertake preventative work.  Northern Kenya receives a small fraction of state funding compared to the central regions, and the government’s response to the 2019 drought and famine in the region was slow and entirely lacking in transparency.  There’s not much reason to hope for a more proactive response to locusts.

Is competition reviving the electricity sector in the DRC?

Inga-1 Hydroelectric Dam
The Inga I dam, which provides a significant portion of the DRC’s electricity (via Wikipedia)

The power sector in the DRC is almost entirely moribund, with only 13% of the population having any access to electricity.  This is despite the fact that the enormous Inga Falls could theoretically produce enough power to meet the needs of all of southern Africa.  Plans for the Grand Inga dam which could meet this goal have been stalled for years due to political instability.

In eastern DRC, however, small steps are being taken towards better electricity supply thank to the liberalization of the power sector.  As this Global Press Journal article shows, the state-owned electricity company, SNEL, had largely failed to maintain its network.  However, a new entrance into the sector, the private company La Société Congolaise de Distribution d’Eau et d’Electricité (SOCODEE), began operating in 2018.

Some residents of Goma said they’ve seen rapid improvements:

Along with small-business owners like Neema Hassan, industrial consumers also benefit from the competitive market. For example, Nyiragongo Cement used to suffer power outages throughout the day.  However, uninterrupted electricity has improved profits, says Maxime Kakule, purchasing agent at Nyiragongo Cement. “Ever since we turned to SOCODEE, the price of a bag of cement has dropped. A bag that once cost up to $11 currently sells for $9. So, it really has a positive impact for everyone’s benefit,” Kakule says.

Families also say the availability of electricity makes life easier.  Jean Baptiste Mupenzi, a father of six, says access to electricity every day is a positive development.  “Today, my family and I can sit down together around a TV every night, and the kids can do their homework without any hindrance,” he says.

However, the total installed capacity between SNEL and SOCODEE is still too low to meet the needs of all residents in Goma.  Beyond this, I’m also quite curious about how SOCODEE is generating their power — are they just buying existing supply off of SNEL and then building a better transmission network?

Vote for the Mawazo Institute for “Best Kenyan NGO on Gender Equality”

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We’re happy to share that the Mawazo Institute has been nominated for the National Diversity and Inclusion Awards and Recognition by the Daima Trust!  We’ve been recognized as one of the best NGOs on gender equality in Kenya.

Could you please take a few seconds to vote for us to win the award?  Voting is open until February 28.  And while you’re at it, check out the long list of other inspiring Kenyan NGOs which have been recognized!

Access to consumer goods in rural Ethiopia

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From the original post: “The figures display the lowess graphs of shares of items available in the village relative to the associated market town. Heavier, bulkier items, such as processed food, drink, and hardware, see a sharper fall in availability by travel time.”

Everyone intuitively understands that it’s hard to get access to the latest or fanciest consumer products in remote rural areas.  Over at VoxDev, Jan Willem Gunning, Pramila Krishnan, Andualem T Mengistu, and Peng Zhang share some recent research where they’ve quantified this in Ethiopia.  As they note,

We find that remoteness sharply reduces the variety of consumer goods available. For an average village, a fall of an hour in travel time is associated with an increase of about nine items or 18 brands of these items.

Ethiopia is a particularly apt location for this study.

The country is landlocked and internal trade costs are strongly affected by its particular physical geography. It has a mean elevation of over 1000 metres and the bulk of the population lives on the high plateau, a terrain wrinkled with steep hills and mountains.

As a result, Ethiopia has one of the lowest road densities in the world, despite substantial investment in new roads over the last decade. In addition, the low urbanisation rates (at 17% compared to a sub-Saharan average of 33%) imply that households face markets distant from them. This particularly affects their access to manufactured goods.