The first half of 2008 has seen worldwide food prices rise by percentages not seen in the last half a century. Anectodal claims relate that at one point the price of rice rose 25% in the span of two hours in the same market on the same day! A combination of factors have led to this scenario. Top of the list is the rising cost of fuel which underpins all kinds of production. Other culprits are almost all closely related to this one factor. These include the even more dramatic rise of fertilizer prices and other farm inputs.

While noting that the scarcity of traditional fuel is mostly to blame, it’s ironical that the noble search for an alternative energy source – biofuels – should prove so detrimental to poor folks’ survival as tonnes of grains go towards manufacture of biofuels at the expense of food. It’s a dilemma.

Other factors often cited as cause of food insecurity are rapid urbanization and erratic weather. But i digress. The protectionism of domestic markets by the rich countries are just as much to blame. Subsidies and unfavourable market practices discourage farming in poor countries. So does lack of credit access. Creation of sustainable agriculture in Africa depends on revision of policies in the Northern hemisphere.

It is against this backdrop that FAO held its 25th regional conference for Africa in Nairobi this past week. But like most other UN conventions, this talkshop will probably yield only talk and no action. The ultimate responsibility squarely lies with leaders who have to find ways to feed their populations or risk revolutions. A hungry man is an angry man. When opening the conference, Kenya’s agriculture minister mentioned that 46% of Africans are hungry! That’s a hell lot of angry people! A good number of countries, including Kenya, have already witnessed riots stemming from the sharp increase in food prices. Similar and sometimes worse riots have taken place elsewhere in the world; from neighboring Somalia to far off lands like Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivore, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, Senegal, Uzbekistan… and counting. So while the bourgeoisie stay cushioned from the harsh realities (and suggest “let them eat cake” like Marie Antoinette of France did over two centuries ago when her subjects demonstrated for lack of bread) they should know that they’ve been put on notice.

It’s regretable that Africa has moved from being a net exporter of food in the 1980s to unhealthily relying on food imports now. Part of the solution now is to invest more in agriculture. Most African countries allocate not more than a paltry 4% of their annual budgets to agriculture, putting it way behind healthcare and education. A lot more investment needs to be done in modern technologies, including but not limited to GM. Improvement in infrastructure is also paramount.

It is a fact that we are not about to see reversal in the price trends for the next few years. No amount of handouts will help us this time round. Long term measures are what we need. Unless our leaders realise this and act accordingly, they face the same fate as Marie Antoinette – the guillotine.

New mobile technologies are unexpectedly turning out to be what the doctor recommended to tackle the digital divide. An increasing number of ‘entry level’ phone users are slowly embracing the convinience of the web on their phones. Cybercafes will soon be obsolete as more people (not necessarily tech savvy) learn to maximise the use of their phones.

Majority of Kenyans with internet access use the frustratingly slow narrowband services as their main route. The promised fibreoptic cable project has failed to take off due to political powerplays among the regional countries. Now its completion date has been pushed forward-again- to next year, a shame for people who are playing catch-up with the rest of the world.

Luckily, mobile technologies have come to our rescue. The Kenyan mobile phone network provider, Safaricom has recently introduced 3G technology in the form of the W-CDMA protocol. Early adopters will be able to use their 3G enabled handsets as fast modem bearers to connect their laptops to corporate networks, which is the main business case for 3G as it allows data transfer at  impressive speeds (7.2Mbps). 3G Smartphones are also coming with their own decent browsers supported by fairly stable operating systems. Symbian Operating System is the most popular and is featured mostly on Nokia and Sonyericsson handsets. It’s distant second competition, Windows Mobile is more common on American made handhelds but it’s stifled by it’s closed nature. Contrarywise, Symbian OS is opensource.

Kenya now becomes the second country in the region to provide 3G (why, oh why!). Safaricom launched its trial 3G in Nairobi last year. It became fully operational only last month. Rollout to other regions out of Nairobi is expected in the course of this month. Its likely to have a big impact on business as 3G allows for improved digital multimedia experience with broadband mobile communications able to carry voice, video graphics and other information. 

As the internet becomes the primary source of communication, information and entertainment, more and more people are going to become interested in surfing ‘on the go’. New internet trends like Web 2.0 already work perfectly on mobile gadgets. Users can bookmark widgets and customise RSS feeds on their handsets. IM and Social networking is seamless on 3G enabled phones. As more Web 2.0 services such as Wikis and ‘Twittering’ get mainstream, penetration of web via handsets increases. It’s increasingly common to see status updates on facebook profiles done from mobile phones. Soon, no one will need a PC except as a peripheral device for use only occassionally. This is not just a Kenyan trend, it’s worldwide.

Meanwhile, developers are busy churning out more applications both for productivity and fun.

With 3.3 billion people projected to have mobile phones worldwide (that is web-ready, by extension) by 2010, this is perhaps the area the next web giants should be looking at. The mobile web conqueror will be the next Google. No doubt.

Yes We Can!

June 4, 2008

This is undoubtedly the dawn of the new world order. A great moment. The entire world has felt the vibe. The Americans (and the world at large) wanted a leader with new ideas for the unique challenges we are facing. With Barrack as leader of the free world, we are all in safe hands. It’s there in his character.

It’s a pity Hillary Clinton does not want to gracefully surrender and help mend the rift created by the bitter rivalry she has had with Obama. Without a doubt, it’s understandably difficult to come to terms with her loss. She started the race as the clear frontrunner. The nomination was hers to lose. She had the immense machinery and network support mostly inherited from her much loved former president husband. But none of that could stop an idea whose time had come. She’s lost clean and square. It’s time to move over and give Barrack Obama space to start aiming his barbs at McCain.

With the Democratic nomination all but his, Barrack will hopefully choose a running mate with whom they can work well together, taking into account the tricky balancing of demographics. A large percentage of misguided blue collar whites do not feel his appeal. He could work out a sum that’ll take that into account. A running mate with wider acceptance among the older white folk might work like magic. There is a time when picking Hillary would have made them the perfect team… but they they went too far downhill. They are at a point of no return. They can’t work together.

But now as we celebrate having one of ‘our own’ as leader of the free world, let us take this moment to evaluate where we normally get it wrong. We know that if Barrack had grown up in Kenya, he probaby wouldn’t have made it very far (although we could have hailed his ‘potential’). We ought to recognize talent and reward it accordingly. Merit should reign if we ever wish to come out of the doldrums we are in. We in Africa should start evaluating who we elect as our leaders… As the Obama experience rekindles the American Dream, let it give the rest of us a lesson about HOPE.

Thanks for that vital lesson wuod Alego Kogelo!