I♥︎CARDA: Why Low-Tech Biotech Matters

God I love this video. In part, it’s great to see a development organization investing in proper production values for a Boring Development initiative – though the 154 view count on YouTube suggests it may be just a bit too boring to do the trick.

Mostly, though, because the yellow rust resistant wheat story gets to the heart of what the Aid Enterprise should be about: leveraging the knowledge-intensive capabilities that really are in short supply in developing countries to generate interventions that show up right in the poorest people’s bottom line: their income.

But I also like it because it demystifies “biotech” in a development context. Because people have strong – and often negative – reactions to the idea that biotech is a key to development. The tendency is to immediately think of GM-crops. Suddenly, it’s “controversial” and you find yourself in the middle of an ideologically fraught debate.

But GM is a distraction. Often, the most valuable biotech in a development context is kinda low-tech.

Continue reading I♥︎CARDA: Why Low-Tech Biotech Matters

The Brutal Math of the One Acre Farm

As facts go, the facts of the small African farm are grim, and seldom grasped. You need to start here, though, because 70% of the world’s poorest people live on very small farms.

Their poverty is nothing but straightforward: if you’re farming the size of farm the poorest farm, with the kind of technology the poorest have access to and getting the yields that pass for normal in the poorest countries, you just don’t produce enough calories to feed  even two adults –

[A note on sources is at the end.]

A household working one acre at South Sudanese yields just can’t feed itself. Notice, we’re talking calories here. So this is before we even start thinking about protein, or micronutrients, to say nothing of the thousand other things people need to survive (cookware, salt, oil, housing, clothes, etc. etc. etc.) It doesn’t get more elemental than this.

The second column in that chart shows what happens if you take that same very poor household and endow it with three simple things: high-yield hybrid seed, a ridiculously small amount of fertilizer, and the advice on how to use them properly.

It turns out to be shockingly easy to boost small farm yields 3 and 4-fold, just by doing that. Suddenly, there are enough calories to go around, perhaps a bit to sell. Some actual cash income. A minimum of hope.

Continue reading The Brutal Math of the One Acre Farm

Day One

It’s been quite first day for Campaign for Boring Development, aided in no small part by the AP’s Joshua Goodman, who wrote a very flattering story about my departure from my old blog.

One of Venezuela’s most-prominent opposition bloggers, whose English-language musings are a must-read for foreign journalists, academics and political junkies, is leaving his beat as a chronicler of the country’s socialist revolution.


I’m amazed that CfBD reached 1,400 page-views in its first 12 hours: it took Caracas Chronicles three years to reach that level! Then again, we didn’t have Twitter and Facebook back in 2002. Boy have things changed.

Rob Corddry, Josephine Okot and the Trouble with the Tiers Mondisme

In honor of tonight’s sporting extravaganza, I thought I should link to this brilliant Daily Show sketch from a few years ago. Rob Corddry is sent out to review that year’s Superbowl ads and ends up collapsing emotionally and spiritually when faced with the dregs of consumerist excess he finds there.

Just have a look (it’s funny, too, in a dark kind of way.)

[Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan].

The telling bit comes at 4:45. As Corddryn hits rock bottom, he turns to Stewart and tells him he’s been “thinking of moving to Africa, really trying to help people.” It’s a brilliant piece, and one that, in the process of sending up Superbowl Ads sort of stumbles into insight onto the mind of a lot of development professionals.

Realistically, don’t most people get into the development game, on some level, out of a deep, gut-level revulsion with the consumerist excess in rich countries? This Hippie Development Mindset – what Pascal Bruckner memorably took apart as “tiers mondisme” – is a kind of latent fact: you won’t find it openly discussed on the agency websites, or clearly acknowledged in the policy statements. It comes out after hours, beer in hand, in more intimate and confessional settings. It seems to me pretty widespread – lurking just beneath the surface of the hardboiled stories veterans tell to establish their field cred. It sits there silently, shaping the implicit understanding of what causes what that the development world relies on subconsciously.

And just once in a while it explodes into conflict with the implicit understanding of aid “beneficiaries” in ways that are just plain glorious.

Take Josephine Okot’s recent trip out to London. The founder and CEO of Victoria Seeds, Uganda’s leading seed company, Okot must be about as far removed from the Tiers Mondist Mindset as you can get. A hard-charging, loud, aggressive African businesswoman determined to grow her company, Okot would probably feel more at home – characterologically – among the alpha-male business types in the City of London than in the tiers mondist redoubt of the Overseas Development Institute.

Watch her simply flabbergast her Guardianista audience by telling them straight out that if they want to help the poorest farmers, they need to grow the companies that make the things the poorest farmers need to overcome poverty:

Continue reading Rob Corddry, Josephine Okot and the Trouble with the Tiers Mondisme

The Development Worker from Planet Zorgon

Imagine, tomorrow, a race of technologically super-advanced aliens from Planet Zorgon lands. But instead of battleships, like in the movies, they send a squadron of interstellar development workers determined to help “the most vulnerable beings in our arm of the galaxy.”

The next day, they turn up at your house and are appalled at your living conditions. With a self-satisfied smile, they insist on training you how to use a miniature 29th century Medical Tricorder. Erm….gee, thanks mister.

What exactly would be wrong with that?

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M-Pesa: A Development Intervention with a Marketing Budget

Here’s the kind of image you’ll virtually never see in a fundraising drive: an African business aggressively marketing a wildly successful African innovation to eager African customers. Safaricom’s MPesa is a Development Intervention, but not as you know it.

The story is well known by now. The short version, in case you’ve been hiding behind a rock all these years, is that realizing that few Kenyans had bank accounts but virtually all had mobile phones, Safaricom figured out a way to turn cel phones into a simple, usable mobile payments platform.

By any standards, M-Pesa is a raging development success. Whether it’s payments, remittances, loans or Give Directly, M-Pesa leapfrogs 600 years of banking practice and has become firmly established into the day-to-day lives of most Kenyans.

In part, it works because M-Pesa is aggressively marketed. You can’t walk 10 feet down a kenyan street without seeing that logo. It’s now mainstreamed into the everyday fabric of Kenyan life, with M-Pesa agents blanketing the country like Starbucks does U.S. cities. And yeah, it makes Safaricom a ton of money.

For M-Pesa, profitability is sustainability. M-Pesa’s admirers don’t have to worry that adoption will collapse once “programme support” is withdrawn, because programme support is never going to be withdrawn. Programme makes too damn much money for that.

And as Safaricom knows, an aggressive marketing operation is what makes it all stick, driving the network economies that make the project a success.

There’s one aspect of Social Enterprise you seldom hear about. But maybe you should. I bet if Improved Cookstoves were branded and marketed with the relentlessness with which Safaricom pushes M-Pesa their take-up and utilization stats wouldn’t be so dismal.

Continue reading M-Pesa: A Development Intervention with a Marketing Budget

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