Category Archives: Kenya

Counterfeit Seed: The Contrarian’s Take

I’m fascinated by Seed Counterfeiting as a potential answer to the old puzzle of why there hasn’t been a Green Revolution in Africa. As an explanation, it has a lot going for it: simple, parsimonious, straightforward and backed by a mountain of anecdote. Yet, at this point, the evidence really is that: just anecdote. Which leaves us open to an intriguing possibility: what if – and I have my devil’s advocate cap squarely on as I pose this question – it’s all a mirage? A kind of rural legend?

What’s undoubted is that lots and lots of people believe seed counterfeiting is rife in East Africa. Stories are easy to come by of farmers buying seeds that come in Certified Seed bags, planting them, and getting very low germination rates or just  poor harvests.  The conventional wisdom in a whole band of Eastern and Southern Africa stretching from Kenya to Zimbabwe has long attributed this to malicious counterfeiting: fraud, if we’re to call it what it is.

But fraud implies malicious intent, and we really don’t have very good evidence for malicious intent. At least not yet.

An alternative hypothesis is out there, though it doesn’t get very much play: maybe the reason so much seed is of poor quality has to do more with incompetence than fraud.

The seed companies in the region are badly undercapitalized. They underinvest in research and development. They fall prey to all the same dysfunctions that all the other institutions in East Africa also fall prey too. What if the problem has more to do with the way these small seed companies safeguard the integrity of their germplasm and handle quality assurance than with any malicious faking in a back alley somewhere?

One problem is the slow rate of new hybrid variety introductions: in Uganda, you get perhaps 3 new maize varieties introduced per year, and some of the top selling varieties have been around for decades. Maintaining the genetic integrity of the parent lines and the foundation lines isn’t straightforward in an undercapitalized industry. Genetic drift ain’t just a river in Egypt, and it’s not unthinkable that the genetic variability farmers report in some of the certified seed they plant stems from this: real companies selling seed that is no longer hybrid without realizing it.

As for non-germination, plenty of handling issues could account for this. Seed is finicky: it needs to be stored right and kept right to stay viable. In the West, seed is kept in cold storage along the distribution chain. How many cold storage facilities for seed have you seen in Africa?

I’ve spoken to thoughtful people who take these concerns seriously, to the point of doubting whether counterfeiting is a significant part of the problem at all. It’s a minority view, but one that injects a needed measure of skepticism. In the end, the prevalence of the belief that malice is to blame for poor seed performance may turn out to tell us more about the absence of social capital and the generalized distrust in market exchange than about the prevalence of malicious counterfeiting.

What’s shocking is that research hasn’t put this question to bed. At least not yet. IFPRI has a study out in the field now in Uganda, for USAID, that should put this question to rest at least in that country. A World Bank study has just been commissioned that ought to be able to answer the question in Kenya, too.

These studies can’t come too soon. I do hope they’re conducted with a genuinely open mind to this possibility.

Because I sure think malicious counterfeiting is a major bar to agricultural productivity growth in East Africa. But that’s not good enough. I want to know.

How the ICC Gift-Wrapped Kenya and Delivered it to Beijing’s Doorstep

In my more Machiavellian moments, I almost think China’s Foreign Ministry must have paid off somebody in The Hague to get Uhuru Kenyatta indicted for crimes against humanity.

I don’t mean that literally, of course. Yet if, like me, you subscribe to the Cui Bono School of International Relations, you almost have to wonder. Certainly, no one has gained more from the now President Kenyatta’s indictment than China.

Here’s what that ODI report has to say about this:

In August 2013, President Kenyatta made state visits to Russia and China. The government profiled the visits as the Jubilee government’s initiative to grow new markets for Kenya’s exports of coffee, tea and fresh produce. The visit to China was to seek new trade agreements and investment opportunities. Kenyatta’s opening to the East came almost a month after the US President had shunned Kenya, the birthplace of his father, and visited the neighbouring Tanzania instead. Earlier in May 2013, Kenyatta had visited London for a Somalia conference, but failed to get what the media called ‘a photo opportunity’ with the British prime minister. These two events were generally seen as humiliating and those around the president quickly crafted a new agenda to intensify contacts with the East.

The ‘Look East’ initiative that then happened was a continuation of what the Kibaki and the coalition government had already established. The visit to China in particular resulted in the government signing a number of agreements worth about 5 billion USD in investments in several sectors, including the building of a new standard-gauge railway line from Mombasa to Malaba on the border with Uganda as well as energy projects. While the ‘Look East’ initiative has a political motive, as a response to how the West has treated the president because of the cases at the ICC, it is also aimed at generating economic opportunities

So, assuming Uhuru’s indictment wasn’t plotted in Beijing, you can only conclude that it has backfired catastrophically. In the first place, because by painting him as a victim of foreign meddling, the indictment actually helped the guy get elected, meaning it closed the door on any prospect that he will one day pay for whatever he did in 2007/8 with jail time. What the indictment did achieve, on the other hand, is to basically put a bow on East Africa’s biggest economy and deliver it to China’s front door.

Let’s just review: back in December 2007, the wheels came off of Kenya’s elite pact. A close, contested election led to a spasm of communal violence, as leaders in the Limited Access Order scrambled to make a grab for as much of the rent-stream as possible. Hundreds of people were killed in violence that shocked liberal internationalist sensibilities, but that was broadly seen as “part of the way things work here” by many Kenyans.

To be clear, that in no way means Kenyans liked or approved of the post-election violence – who would? It’s just to say that recourse to violence when your ethnic group’s access to power is threatened is not perceived as illegitimate in East Africa to anything like the extent it is in the West. So not-a-big-deal was this in Kenya that Kenyatta actually got elected, fair and square, with over 6 million votes, even after his ICC indictment had been published. Some would argue that the indictment was a net positive to him in the campaign, allowing him to take on the mantle of Kenyan nationalism in opposition to a neoimperialist West.

Few people in the West seem to appreciate quite how wrong indicting a guy whose name literally means “Kenya’s Freedom”, and also happened to be the literal son of the father of the nation, would rub proud, patriotic Kenyans.

Worse, almost no one seems to have thought through the way the indictment, and Kenyatta’s subsequent ostracism from polite international society would play directly into the hands China’s ambitious African strategy.

That last observation calls for a tiny detour: A lot of Westerners seem to be under a basic misunderstanding about China’s strategy in Africa. People think China’s studious avoidance of human rights and good governance talk there is driven by values: China doesn’t care about these things back home, so it doesn’t press them abroad. Surely there’s something to that, but perhaps less than people figure. The major reason China never talks about these things is strategic: silence on governance and human rights is the one thing they can offer that the West can’t.

In some ways, China is playing a relatively weak hand as it tries to extend its reach into Africa. It doesn’t have as much capital as the west, or as much engineering expertise or technological sophistication, its people don’t speak English or French as well, it doesn’t have anything like Western military capacities, and it doesn’t have the historical ties Western countries have with their former colonies. China feels hobbled by all of this. Like it needs an Ace-in-the-Hole to overcome all these disadvantages.

Simply shutting up about governance or human rights is that Ace in the Hole. From Beijing’s point of view, it’s all up side. For one thing, it’s free. Not just financially, because it also doesn’t demand any additional scarce technical or human or administrative resources. It’s very literally costless. And it allows China to score killer deals in Africa that the Western powers unwittingly rule themselves out of through their lecturing.

The Chinese really can’t believe their luck. And the West seems oblivious to this whole dynamic. It still has the model in its head where capital equals Western Capital and where lecturing the continent has no consequences.

But why on earth would Uhuru Kenyatta put himself through the indignity of sitting there as he’s called a war criminal, for doing things his constituents don’t think are outside the rules of the game, by a bunch of effete European peaceniks, when he can just look east and get all the investment and technical cooperation he needs from people who intuitively grasp the rules of the game in a Limited Access Order in ways western partners just can’t?

Seriously, why would he?

He wouldn’t. And he doesn’t.

[This post, again, mostly pilfers its ideas from that ODI’s report on East Africa’s Political Economy. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re really missing out: it’s a treasure trove of hard-to-come-by clarity on the real power dynamics in the region.]

East Africa, Minus the BS

How often do you come across an Think Tank report that doubles up as a genuine page-turner? Doubt such a thing even exists? Well, I’m here to tell you East African Prospects by ODI’s David Booth, Brian Cooksey, Frederick Golooba-Mutebi and Karuti Kanyinga is that report.

Shockingly readable, unendingly quotable, and deeply entertaining, it’s a kind of weary Hobbesian counterpart to the standard, pollyannaish hogwash that dominates so much think tank writing about aid.

Starting from Douglass North’s analysis of Limited Access Orders, David Booth and his collaborators pick apart the political economy of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda with rare clarity and insight.

There’s a frankness to the writing that’s like a balm. Take this bit of straight talk from the introduction:

Comparative history suggests that, as a group, the EAC countries will retain for some time yet most of the features of what North et al. (2009; 2013) call a limited access order (LAO). That is to say, the political and economic power of elite groups will remain closely entwined. Markets will not be highly competitive or inclusive. Capitalism will begin to take hold but in the form of ‘crony capitalism’ in which non-market relationships play a crucial role. The generation and allocation of economic rents will play an important role in limiting political violence and maintaining the fundamental agreements underlying the rules of a patronage-based political game. This will limit the use of rents to finance the learning processes and provide the market coordination required to turn fast economic growth into real economic transformation. It will also prevent politics and policy-making from becoming primarily a battle of ideas based on contending programmes or ideologies.

The feeling you’re left with is that a grizzled old East Africa hand, somebody who’s been around the block two dozen times and knows exactly how things go down, has decided to take you under his wing and is giving you the straight dope over beers.

What Booth and his colleagues have done is turn the Gates Foundation’s formulation on its head: rather than Impatient Optimists, what we have here is the Patient Pessimists’ view.

Booth et al. are pessimists, but not fatalists. It’s an important distinction to grasp. The work of dispelling the facile fantasies of the Gates/Sachs set is the first step in their journey, not the final word. If they lay some unpleasant realities squarely on the table it’s so you’ll have a clearer grasp of what is achievable, how, and on what time-scale. The realities are somewhat sobering, but sobriety seems like a much needed corrective to the cycle of over-promising and under-delivering that so much of the aid world seems stuck in.

For now, I’ll make it easy on you: if you’re even a little bit interested in the region, you have to read it. The good news is, it’s great fun to read.