3 Suggestions for Ending Starvation in Africa

There are 2 main general approaches towards solving the problem of starvation in Africa. One consists of an immediate response to crises which have reached such a peak as to attract the attention of the rest of the world, while the other involves endeavouring to find an entry point to the vicious circle of poverty in order to break it.

The first suggestion is an unashamedly frontline relief for the effects of starvation. It is the provision to starving children of a stand-alone, ready-to-eat food which combines all the basic essentials for nourishment without the necessity of cooking, refrigeration, or mixing with water which, in many locations, would be polluted. The archetypal product of this type is Plumpynut, a concoction of peanut butter, powdered milk and powdered sugar, enriched with vitamins and minerals, which has the consistency of a paste and is supplied vacuum-packed in foil. It tastes like peanut butter but at the same time is sweet so readily appeals to children even when they have lost their appetites through deficiency-originated anorexia. Peanut allergy is almost unheard-of in Africa so is not a drawback for the product.

Plumpynut, sometimes written with an apostrophe – Plumpy’nut – was invented by a French company called Nutriset who have patented it, but argue that this is to protect the product’s quality and prevent imitations which would not have the same precise mix of ingredients which their nutritionists carefully formulated to be a miracle-cure for malnutrition. In any case, the patent is not global and the company has, significantly, helped several African countries to set up their own factories to produce it. Doctors without Borders (Médecins sans frontières) wax lyrical about the product, which can bring a child back virtually from the brink of death in a matter of 3 weeks. A day’s supply for one child costs about 1 US dollar.

The second suggestion attacks starvation closer to its roots. It involves applying ingenuity in the use of existing resources to boost agricultural productivity. One of the problems of providing education for young Africans from rural areas is that they use their new-found knowledge and abilities to escape from their old environment, either migrating to the West or becoming white-collar workers in big African cities – the Bright Lights Syndrome. If, instead, they returned to apply their expertise to the systems they grew up with, they could make all the difference in the world to their countries’ economies.

A pioneer whose own achievements support this argument is Dr Glyvyns Chinkhuntha, an accountant with no formal agricultural training, who created a model farm called Freedom Gardens in his native Malawi using organic fertilizer and a home-made, gravity-driven irrigation system. In a country which boasts the third largest lake in Africa and yet where less than 2% of farming land is irrigated, his irrigation system is a marvel of easy construction (he used just hoes and shovels) and simple maintenance and so could be readily imitated. Water is drawn from the nearby river but not much is needed because each plot is sunk two feet below ground level so that the roots of the plants are closer to the water table, and also rain soaks in rather than draining away. The organic fertilizer, made of half-decayed plant matter, enables the soil to hold onto its moisture.

Dr Chinkhuntha, whose son Daniel is continuing his iconic work, believed that Africa should have greater independence from Western donors and be allowed to foster the persevering, innovative spirit which, he claimed, developed America. He was also opposed to any kind of loan. According to him, loans distract people from thinking how to develop resources, making them worry instead about how they will meet repayments.

Freedom Gardens is a practical, home-grown and relatively small enterprise that has had an enormous ripple effect. Other enterprises, conceived with more ambitious aims in mind, have also had as their mainspring the belief that education can defeat the vicious circle of poverty and starvation in Africa. One such is the African Development Network (ADN) which likewise began its operations in Malawi. It is the example chosen to illustrate the third suggested solution.

The African Development Network, which assists development in the 3 key areas of Water, Appropriate Technology, and Enterprise Development, acts according to the belief that knowledge is power, and has the declared philosophy that ‘If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish you feed him for a lifetime.’

ADN is non-profit-making and non-aligned. It supports local and national poverty reduction programmes, and advises educational establishments within Africa on how to establish relevant courses in economic development and train practitioners in the field. It is particularly involved, in Malawi, with gravity-fed piped water systems, similar in concept to the irrigation system of Dr Chinkhuntha, and is exploring the possibilities of solar and wind energy. It has ambitions to initiate programmes in other countries, recognising, however, that they are bound to differ according to social and economic peculiarities and government priorities.

The Network comprises a group of like-minded professionals who believe that it is Africans themselves who have the genuine potential to bring about a change in their own continent’s fortunes. This change must be made not through hand-outs, but by means of a detailed understanding of the problems and the mechanisms which perpetuate them, and an intelligent application of locally sustainable solutions.

The African Development Network is an example of the kind of enterprise which can be established by energetic, right-thinking reformers. By itself it is not a complete answer to the problem of starvation in Africa any more than Plumpynut or the farming methods of Freedom Gardens. However, all of them represent a promising departure from some of the short-sighted and flawed solutions which have compounded issues in the past.

Education Quality and the Cycle of Poverty in South Africa

Since before apartheid, the narrative of South Africa has been a tale of two countries. There’s the third-world country, made up of a well-educated populace whose growing industries carry the economy of South Africa, and whose standards of living rival those of any other developed region. And then there’s the third-world country. Beset by poverty and a long history of injustice, this side of South Africa struggles to meet even the most basic needs of food, shelter, and water. The divisions between South Africa’s first and third worlds exist at every strata of the country’s society: race, language, employment, and – most critically, as we are learning – education.

It’s a safe assumption that children from poor backgrounds receive a lower quality education than children from more affluent backgrounds. Researchers and policy analysts have come to this conclusion over and over again, and the pattern makes sense: poor communities simply have fewer resources to devote to maintaining high quality teachers, providing access to textbooks, and implementing programs that promote positive parent involvement. What’s not always so obvious, though, is how low quality education reinforces the divisions between rich and poor and deepens the trap of poverty. Nowhere is this more true than in South Africa, where divisions and inequalities run so deep.

A new report from Stellenbosch University, South Africa’s most reputable and highest ranking school (and another example of the country’s first-world infrastructure), recently found that as early as third grade, students in the top 20-percent of income levels are already far outperforming all other children. What does this mean in terms of perpetual poverty? Children from poor communities continue to receive a low-quality education, and continue to under-perform their wealthier counterparts, all the way up to the time when they finally leave school. At that point, they’re less qualified to be hired for well-paying jobs, and more likely to be unemployed and remain in poverty. The cycle of poverty continues.

Schools in poor communities in South Africa receive a high level of public funding, so it seems that this redistributive approach should put poor schools on par with affluent ones. However, schools in wealthier communities have the advantage of being able to charge high school fees to their students. As a result, schools in affluent communities are simply better off financially – and this means lower student to teacher ratios, the ability to maintain better teachers, more books for students, and more extracurricular activities.

Parental support, cultural norms, and the value that communities place on education is important, too, so looking only at a school’s financial status will never paint a whole picture. Nevertheless, the same report found that when students from poor communities enrolled in schools in more privileged areas, these students performed better than students of the same socioeconomic and cultural background who remained in their neighborhood school.

This is where the Khanyisela Scholarship comes in. While we can’t change the living situation of the orphaned children at St. Vincent’s Home, or change those parts of their lives that are so broken, or change the resources available in their neighborhood schools, we can change where they can go to school. We can give them the support and financial means to attend a better school and receive a higher quality education. We can give them a path out of poverty.

Africa Leadership Academy (ALA) – Will It Really Produce the Next Generation of African Leaders?

The African leadership academy (ALA), is a private coeducational college preparatory school situated in South Africa. It admitted its first batch of students in September 2008. The inaugural class graduated in summer of 2010. Though the academy admitted its first set of students in 2008, the idea for the academy was first conceptualized in 2003.

The founders of the academy are Mr. Fred Swaniker, Mr. Chris Bradford and Dr. Acha Leke. The dean of the college is Mr. Christopher Khaemba, one of the legends of education in Africa. He was headhunted from the Alliance high school, arguably one of the best schools in Africa. He had a stellar record at the school and during his tenure, the school managed to send between twenty to thirty students to Ivy League universities every year. Seven Rhodes scholars have also been his students. So much was his commitment to students that in April 2006, he had to travel to Harvard to enquire why the university had not admitted a student from Alliance that year. It occurred that in the previous year, a student, Herson Mutiso, had been offered admission to both MIT and Harvard and he had settled for MIT. This then prompted Mr. Khaemba to reassure the admission officials that Alliance students still preferred the university to any other university in the world. In addition, he has received a written commendation of a distinguished teachers award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), four times; having been nominated by his former students who attended MIT.

Dr. Acha Leke, one of the founders, was the first black valedictorian at Georgia Tech University. He went on to obtain PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford University. Mr. Chris Bradford and Mr. Fred Swaniker are also graduates of Stanford.

ALA admits students from all over Africa and a few from outside Africa. The college also says that it will link all the students with world class universities across the world.

Leadership has been a central issue in Africa. Many pundits point that the number one reason for the underdevelopment of the continent is a lack of effective leadership. The founders hope that the school will help fill this gap. However; the school also needs to guard against appearing an elitist institution. Some critics also point out that in deed many of the leaders in the continent today have been educated in some of the world’s finest universities yet there is nothing to show for it. While their classmates left college to go and develop their countries and regions, Africans educated in the elite institutions returned home and while some attempted to develop their regions, others became subsumed into the same old system.

Only time will tell whether the institution is really the answer to the leadership woes in the continent.