Air Pollution: a Health and Economic Disaster Waiting to Happen

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Pollution was the running theme during the United Nations Environment Assembly 3, back in early December at the United Nations Environment Programme grounds in Nairobi. Photo|GEOFFREY KAMADI.

By Geoffrey Kamadi

Taking an early morning jog in the streets of Nairobi has recently opened my eyes to the very real dangers posed by the deteriorating air quality in the city. I have come to notice that the phlegm coughed out in the shower following my early morning ritual is becoming darker and darker with an increasing amount of dust particles.

Then my eyes will smart and the voice grow hoarse for a good many minutes well after my early morning run. And it is not like I am out there for the entire day. My jogging session lasts just over one-and-a-quarter hours, taken for only three days a week, never mind the fact that it is done at 5am, when fewer cars and people are in the streets.

Then it occurs to me: what about those individuals lining busy roads hawking or vending stuff exposed to very thick traffic for hours on end, for five or more days every week? After all, I am only out for a very brief period of time early on in the day.

 A Major Concern

What’s happening to the air quality in Kenya, mainly due to the increasing number of vehicles on our roads, is becoming a major concern.

The situation could not be more pressing given that the country is yet to begin monitoring the particulate matter, or PM( microscopic solid or liquid particles suspended in the air,) in the air.

Particles smaller than 10 micrometres in diameter (the human hair is 70 micrometres in diameter) can get into the lungs and some may even find their way into the blood stream, becoming a health hazard.

What this means is that the country appears less prepared to forestall health and economic dangers that come with increased air pollution.

The Economic Survey of 2017 Report indicate that respiratory diseases of which air pollution is a major contributor, is now the leading cause of morbidity. According to this report, diseases of the respiratory system accounted for 39 per cent of all diseases reported in 2016.

It is also estimated that 48,300 Kenyans die annually due to complications attributed to air pollution. Over eight million Kenyans living in major cities and towns, are also exposed to harmful emissions from motorised vehicles, industries and use of traditional fuels.

A recent study by the University of Nairobi, shows that the economic loss related to illnesses and deaths in Kenya per year resulting from air pollution is 115 million shillings ($ 1.15million). And the UN Economic Commission of Africa has estimated that the cost of air pollution in a number of African cities can be as high as 2.7 per cent of GDP.

Other available research shows that an increase in air pollution exacerbates the risk of developing disease. There are other studies that strongly link diabetes with air pollution.

Even so, the country remains ill prepared to deal with the situation. Indeed, among the African countries listed by the WHO in 2013 that monitor particulate matter, Kenya is not one of them. These countries include Algeria, Botswana, Ghana, Madagascar, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

When all is said and done however, the issue is not accorded the seriousness it so deserves by the media. It therefore follows that the need to highlight the dangers associated with increased particulate matter that Kenyans are constantly being exposed to could never be more urgent.

This is especially the case given that the average number of vehicles imported in Kenya is 200,000 per year. This number is set to double in the next six years.

What this means is that outdoor pollution by these vehicles is set to increase dramatically, with a corresponding rise in health problems. And this is beside the traffic jam menace experienced by Kenyans.

Traffic jams cost Nairobi City County approximately 30-50 million shillings ($ 0.300-0.5 million) daily in fuel consumption, manpower time wasted and cancelled business appointments.

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Dong Jin, an Associate Director of IBM Research in China, making a presentation about how technology is being used to tackle the serious problem of air pollution in Beijing, at a break-away session of the United Nations Environment Assembly 3, in December. Photo| GEOFFREY KAMADI

Steps Being Taken:

The government of Kenya, through The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources is putting measures in place to deal with this challenge. For instance the Air Quality Regulations of 2014 and the Climate Change Act was gazatted in 2016.

In addition, the Ministry has initiated a process of developing a national air quality management strategy and Action Plan by putting in place an inter-agency committee with different roles and responsibilities in air quality management.

At another level, measures to address air quality in the Third Medium Plan of the Vision 2030 have been proposed. The Plan will endeavour to move the economy to achieve a 10 per cent growth rate target by 2022.

All these effort requires coordinated action by all involved. After all, Article 42 of Kenya’s constitution stipulates the right to a clean environment for everybody.

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Innovation: No Two Ways about It When It Comes To Climate Change, Water Issues

Perhaps nowhere in Kenya do manifestations of climate change and water issues play out most deliberately than in the northern part of the country. And in most cases, the outcome of such phenomena is regrettably tragic.

Destruction to property and loss of life due to the resulting resource-based clashes is oftentimes the outcome. And in one way or another, these issues are tied to the River Ewaso Nyiro ecosystem.

Taking up 37 per cent of the country’s area, the Ewaso Nyiro Basin certainly cannot be ignored. This is especially the case given that all of the more than 700km of its river – emanating from the Mt. Kenya and the Aberdare Ranges and into the Lorian Swamp where it drains, before resurfacing in Somalia,  supports more than 3.5million people, impacting 10 counties in Kenya.

It therefore follows that the need to rehabilitate and conserve this ecosystem cannot be overstated. Opening up of its riparian land to agriculture, illegal water abstraction and unchecked sand harvesting have perpetuated the detrimental environmental impact on this indispensable resource.

Sand harvesting inside River Ewaso Nyiro.

Sand harvesting inside River Ewaso Nyiro. Unchecked sand harvesting is one of the factors threatening the river’s ecosystem. Photo | GEOFFREY KAMADI.

What to do?

Arguably, the people who stand to suffer most from the destruction to this ecosystem are the indigenous inhabitants who, to a great extent, lead a pastoral way of life. They can be found on the downstream stretch of the river.

Adapting to changing weather patterns is a way out of a situation that appears to be getting desperate as time goes by. This means embracing a settled existence in order to cope with the new climatic realities.

And so, many of these communities are being introduced to simple livelihood alternatives such as beekeeping, given that livestock rearing is becoming too challenging. This is exactly what is happening with Twala Women Group from Olpolei and Munishoi group ranches in Laikipia North, and to good effect too.

The Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation (IMPACT), working with the Catholic Organisation for Relief and Development Aid (CORDAID) – are helping these communities with skills necessarily to adapt to a changing climate.  The former, is an organisation that works with indigenous, marginalised groups – especially pastoralists – in areas of land rights and historical land injustices. It is the implementing partner of projects which CORDAID, a Dutch development organisation, provides funds for.

The biggest challenge with beekeeping is having to deal with the honey badger. The animal destroys beehives to get to the honey.

Rosemary Nenini, the group’s manager, explains that the animal destroyed 80 hives previously donated to them by other organisations. However, the 25 new hives given to them by IMPACT come with very simple innovations, designed to keep the animal at bay.

“By wrapping the tree trunk with something as basic as iron sheeting, therefore preventing the animal from clawing its way up the tree to the beehive, can make all the difference,” explains David Silakan, the Programme Coordinator at IMPACT.

But even when the honey badger somehow manages to get to the branches under which the beehives are suspended, it cannot hold on but fall down, without causing any damage.

Whereas a simple innovation like this might not seem much, it could make or break the success of an intervention being introduced in a region accustomed to livestock keeping. The community might just give up.

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The new beehives are a deterrent against the honey badger. Photo | GEOFFREY KAMADI.

Ecologue

On the other hand, the Centre for Training and Integrated Research for Arid and Semi-Arid Landscape Development (CETRAD) began implementing what they call, the “interfacing of the river.” In other words, gadgets are placed along its water course to monitor discharge flow.

CETRAD, which is an institution formed between the Kenya and Swiss governments, was able to do this in conjunction with the Water Resource Users Associations (WRUAs) – community groups, authorised to manage water resources under the Water Act of 2002.

Ecologue is one of the gadgets being used in this manner. What it does is transmit real time discharge information from the river to the WRUA’s office, which is acted upon accordingly.

“We have software installed capable of sending information from the river into the office,” explains Emma Odera, a community development officer at CETRAD.

This information is relayed in the form of an easy-to-interpret graph, which shows whether the discharge is going up or down.

“We train these associations on how to interpret this data, so they are to get real time data,” says Odera.

A SIM card inserted in the gadget is able to relay this information every 15 minutes to a modem with a SIM card back in the office. And the community is able to interpret the data thus presented.

If the water is flowing in large volumes, the community will be informed to abstract more to prevent wastage. Otherwise, if the graph shows a decline in water discharge then appropriate measures are taken. This may involve initiating a water rationing programme, to ensure water is flowing downstream.

Following the installation of this gadget in 2013, conflict between different communities over water has gone down, according to Odera.

Incentivising Ecosystem Protection

Incentivising environmental protection is increasingly graining traction as one of the ways in which sustainable exploitation of ecosystems can be attained. What this means is that communities are compensated to protect the environment. Wetlands International for example, has championed what they call the biorights approach, which was implemented in Uganda.

Under this concept, small credits are given to the community, encouraging them to desist from practices that might be harmful to the environment, while promoting conservation and restoration of ecosystems.

And in Naivasha, Imarisha – a community based organisation – has pioneered a similar approach. It is the first public private partnership initiative paying the community to protect the Aberdares ecosystem.

Indigenous Knowledge Losing to Climate Change

Persistent dry conditions in northern Kenya are increasingly creating conditions that render the livestock-dependent livelihoods untenable over the long haul.

Whereas this is a well-documented fact, there is an insidious, less obvious, yet as important aspect of people’s lives here, which continue to be affected by adverse climatic changes.

Handed down to generations over millennia, indigenous knowledge has been central to the survival of people and livestock in a region that continues to grapple with multiple environmental challenges. But now, this is being threatened as well.

Acacia Tortillis

A case in point is the knowledge about the utilisation of a tree species going by the Samburu name of Ltepes, otherwise known scientifically as the acacia tortillis. Besides its well-known medicinal properties (the roots are used to ease bloating) the tree has been used by the Samburu community to tide them over the difficult drought period, until the next wet season, when pasture regenerates.

The highly nutritious pods from the tree are fed to goats and sheep. However, according to traditional lore, the pods are only fed to livestock after falling to the ground.

“They are not supposed to be harvested, thereby ensuring the sustainable utilisation of this resource,” explains Professor Otienoh Ogugeh, the Director at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Environmental Law (CASELAP), University of Nairobi.

And the pods would drop to the ground at just the right time during the dry spell, which meant that the people relied on predictable time cycles when this would happen.

However, the frequency by which weather patterns are changing is compelling the community to do away with this century-old practice. They are now harvesting the pods for their livestock, well before the right time as dictated by the vagaries of weather and well-worn traditional practices.

“What this means is that the pods will run out quickly, something which will ultimately lead to the disappearance of this knowledge,” says Ogugeh, who has vast working knowledge in the region. He was instrumental in starting a programme to sensitise the community on the importance of landscape conservation, known as Community Fellows.

Invasive Plant Species

At another level, since the pods are a popular food item for elephants from the Mathews Range in Laikipia County, the frequent dry spells can only exacerbate the wildlife-human conflict.

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The woody, indigenous Acacia reficiens plant is a notoriously invasive species in Samburu. Photo|GEOFFREY KAMADI

Matters are not helped by invasive plant species that continue to take up precious grazing fields. The indigenous, woody Acacia reficiens species for example, has become particularly pervasive in the region, practically turning the land useless to carry out livestock farming. The plant itself is absolutely unbeneficial, given that it cannot even be converted into charcoal, leave alone little else. And then there is the fleshy and thorny cactus opuntia. These plant species have made keeping livestock particularly challenging.

Dengue Fever, Malaria Upsurge a Real Threat at the Coast

Genuine concerns are beginning to emerge over a potential rise in malaria cases and a threat of dengue fever outbreak at the Kenyan coast. What is puzzling to research scientists is that even though the malaria prevalence is not going up, it is not declining either. This is not a good sign, because the danger of a sudden upsurge of disease is quite real and could lead to severe episodes.

Fight against malaria has been largely successful in this malaria endemic region so far. Disease prevalence has declined steeply from 80 per cent in the early 2000, to 8 per cent today. Even this current rate is an uptick from 4 per cent in the last five years, a development largely attributed to a lack of adequate resources required to push this trend further downwards.

Scientists are now looking at possible explanations behind this phenomenon. They are trying to understand what exactly is sustaining the disease, in what is otherwise known as “residual transmission,” according to Dr. Joseph Mwangangi, an entomologist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Wellcome Trust Programme, Kilifi.

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Dr. Joseph Mwangangi, an entomologist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Wellcome Trust Programme, Kilifi, in his office during the interview. Photo| GEOFFREY KAMADI.

The reason why malaria cannot be completely eliminated, he explains, is because there is something preventing it from being cleared.

Socio-Cultural Activities

At the heart of the researchers’ efforts is looking at the behavioural, socio-cultural and economic activities of the people here. This is important, because these activities might be exposing them to mosquito bites, thereby predisposing them to infection and increasing the risk of spreading malaria.

To begin with, people tend to spend more time outdoors in the evening, given the high temperatures at the coast. Also, mourners will hold night vigils outside a bereaved family’s home, during funeral arrangements. This is customary practice in many African cultures, not just at the coast but across the country too.

Research scientists are also looking into the role of bodaboda (motorcycle taxi) operators, whose contribution to sustaining disease transmission certainly cannot be ignored, given that they work all night long.

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The mosquito-transmitted dengue fever is becoming a major health concern at the Kenyan coast. Photo| GEOFFREY KAMADI.

Interventions

Deployment of insecticide treated nets and the application of insecticides to the walls and surfaces inside dwellings where mosquitos rest (also known as insecticide residual spraying or IRS in short), so that mosquitos are killed when they come into contact with the chemical, have done well to reduce malaria.

This of course has gone hand in hand with such intervention strategies as the intermittent preventive treatment for pregnant women and prompt diagnosis and effective treatment of all malaria cases.

But now scientists are looking for ways to move beyond insecticide treated nets, and for good reason too.

“Mosquitos are devising ways of circumventing the intervention,” says Dr. Mwangangi.

In other words, the vector is changing behavior, when it comes to insecticide treated nets and IRS. They are avoiding going into houses, choosing instead to seek a blood meal outdoors, or else wait to bite just before an individual retires to bed.

“We are realizing one thing: that this kind of response from the malaria vector might be the one responsible for having some parasites being sustained,” explains Dr. Mwangangi.

Also, since many people are sleeping under insecticide treated nets, it means that their immune against malaria is not so robust. So, in the wake of an upsurge of disease, they may be inclined to suffer severe episodes.

And of course there is the added concern of insecticide resistance, exhibited more and more by the mosquito, which, among other challenges is all the more reason why scientists are looking for alternative intervention strategies.

Dengue Fever

Perhaps of more immediate concern, is the fear of a dengue fever outbreak at the coast. This is especially the case given that all indications point to an increase of disease on a regularity that’s becoming ever so frequent.

“It is manifesting itself every February, March and April in coastal Kenya. We are having it as a major problem,” explains Dr. Mwangangi.

Dengue is a mosquito-borne viral disease, spread by the female of the species: Aedes aegyti and Aedes albopictus. According to the World Health Organisation, it causes flu-like illness, and occasionally develops into a potentially lethal complication called severe dengue.

The disease has no specific treatment. However, the WHO says early detection and access to proper medical care lowers fatality rates to below 1 per cent.

Water Not Necessary

Unlike the malaria-spreading mosquitos, the dengue vector does not need to lay eggs in water directly in order for the life cycle of a new generation to begin. Dr. Mwangangi explains that they just need any wet surface to lay their eggs, which form a shell enabling them to survive dry spells. And when they eventually come into contact with water, they become vibrant again.

Added to this survival tactic, another hardy characteristic about the dengue vector is that it passes the infection on to its progeny (unlike the malaria vector), in what is known as transovarian transmission. So, it builds infection very fast.

“However, what we are now doing is collect and screen mosquitos for a wide range of viruses,” explains Dr. Mwangangi. Besides screening for dengue fever, they are also screening for zika, chikungunya, onyongnyong, West Nile Fever and Rift Valley Fever.

 

Dissenting Voices is Good For Science

When I was invited to an event that would be discussing some type of climate science technology, which on the face of it was a novel idea, my curiosity was at once aroused.

I have never heard of the so-called solar radiation management geoengineering (big terminology, that) or SRM in short. That is, not until I received an invitation from the African Academy of Sciences to attend the forum.

Perhaps what piqued my curiosity even more was after sharing a potential story idea from the invitation with my climate editor at Thomson Reuters Foundation.

She very sensibly sent me links and stories that have been done elsewhere regarding this not so uninteresting subject, for the purposes of helping me grasp the whole idea of what these experts would be talking about.

I was in for a very invigorating scientific discussion. And I was not in the least disappointed. It turned out to be as stimulating as I hoped it would be.

 

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Andy Parker, project director of the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI), making a presentation on SRM geoengineering technology. Photo| GEOFFREY KAMADI

The Concept

The concept behind SRM entails blocking some amount of sunlight from reaching the earth, thereby bringing about a cooling effect. It mimics the volcanic eruption, whereby the suspended volcanic ash and other particles or aerosols such as sulphur dioxide, blocks and reflects some sunlight back into space.

This, and another form of “geoengineering” which involves the sucking of the already emitted carbon from the atmosphere, are climate engineering technologies that scientists are currently looking into, as probable methods of tackling global warming.

It sure sounds like some deep, complicated science, with all the hallmarks of a sci-fi novel written all over it. Should it be proven to work however, there are practical reasons why Africans need be engaged.

The hydrological cycle is bound to be affected, according to Asfawossen Asrat, Professor of Geology, School of Earth Sciences, Addis Ababa University.

The lowering of temperatures will mean less evaporation and transpiration, thereby affecting the precipitation process, meaning that the amount of rainfall will be interfered with.

This is a big deal, considering the fact that most farmers in this region are small-scale, who nearly always depend on rain-fed agriculture.

Sceptism Persists

Issues of intellectual property rights cropped up as were those about whether Africa was prepared for such a technological eventuality, in the first place.

Others even went as far as raising doubts of the technology’s potential benefit to the continent, suspicious that Africa could be used simply as a testing ground and a pawn.

“Africa has become the testing ground for some of these things and that’s why we are treating this with caution,” said Dr. Sam Ogallah, project manager of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), a civil society group.

Perhaps the most vocal opponent of the SRM discussions was Professor Shem Wandiga, of the Department of Chemistry, University of Nairobi – a brilliant mind, by all accounts. He is also the managing trustee of the Centre for Science and Technology Innovations, a UNESCO associated centre.

He went on to cite a failed cloud seeding project undertaken by the government in the 70s and 80s in the Kericho area of Kenya’s Rift Valley, 264km (164miles) west of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

Basically, cloud seeding is a scientific weather modification technique that promotes precipitation, by use of certain salts.

Apparently, the area was prone to a lot of thunderstorms, which were destroying crops. The idea was to seed clouds with potassium iodide thereby breakup the frequency and intensity of these thunderstorms. It never succeeded.

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L to R: Dr. Sam Ogallah, project manager PACJA, Professor Shem Wandiga of the Department of Chemistry, University of Nairobi, Asfawossen Asrat Professor of Geology, School of Earth Sciences, Addis Ababa University, during a panel discussion on SRM geoengineering. Photo| GEOFFREY KAMADI

Dissenting Voices

I walked up to Professor Wandiga over lunch to see whether he will be staying on for the afternoon session. I needed to have a word with him, over a story I’m researching on, regarding the implications of the Americans’ decision to back out of the Paris Accord.

However, what he told me was disappointing, to say the least. He doubted whether he will be staying on, because some people were not comfortable with his views, which they deemed disruptive.

I could not understand it. After all, this was just a discussion to gauge the opinions of different people. And in any case, SRM is nothing more than a theoretical proposal at this stage.

So, whatever observations scientists have been able to make so far, have been through scientific modelling, which is to say that there is nothing empirical and therefore definitive about the technology in practical terms.

What Wandiga told me appeared to contradict what Andy Parker, the project director of the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) had said in his opening remarks, that “if you are feeling genuinely uncomfortable with the subject matter (of SRM) then you are really in good company.”

Well, even though this did not exactly rise up to the level of muzzling dissenting voices, it nonetheless conjured up in my mind the GM technology debate in Kenya.

There are people who are hell bent to shut down any discussion around GM, regardless of what the science says.

But unbeknown to them is the fact that scientist are now showing that genetic modification is actually taking place naturally, without human interference.

Naturally Transgenic

This at least is the observation made by scientists in a recent study. They discovered the presence of genes from a soil bacteria incorporated in the sweet potato genome (all the inheritable traits of an organism), in much the same way GM crops are designed.An organism containing genes from another unrelated organism is called transgenic.

“Our discovery in sweet potato came at the same time we discovered the same in humans and other organisms including crops like banana,” Marc Ghislain, of the International Potato Center (CIP) told me.

In other words, as Ghislain explains, the human genome is now known to contain at least 33 genes from microbes, the banana genome from viruses, and the sweet potato from bacteria.

Same Water Project, Two Communities, Contrasting Fortunes

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Noolepata Mirrisho, a grandmother who regularly uses the water point provided by the Esenkelei Community Water Project. Photo| Geoffrey Kamadi.

Community ownership of a given project that aligns suitably with a people’s lore and norms remains key for uptake, scaling up and making a difference.

And just as important – if not more so – its success or otherwise hinges on whether the community can attach commercial value to a project. What this means is that the people have a stake and therefore something to lose. Otherwise, why bother at all?

Hence the need to sensitize and train the community to acquire skills for making such projects into financially viable and therefore self-sustaining ventures.

Obviously this goes hand in hand with the people’s commitment to making it succeed in the first place.

Case in Point

This can well be demonstrated by a water project in two communities in Kenya. One is in Kwale County near the Kenyan coast and the other is in Kajiado County, a couple dozen kilometres south of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

The Poul Due Jensen Foundation (PDJ) – a Danish organisation – donates funds to NGOs and partners to implement water projects around the world. Water Mission Kenya, is the implementing organisation under this arrangement in Kenya.

However, results from the two counties where the project is under way could not be more different.

The Kidimu Community Safe Water Project inside Kidimu Primary School in Kwale has adopted a more organised, commercial approach and their effort is a resounding success.

The project sells water to schools, an army barrack and small businesses as well as to individual water vendors and homesteads.

It serves a catchment area of approximately 300 households, besides supplying water to the school where it is located, with a pupil number approaching 400. It also sells water to the Kenya Wildlife Service as well as to the police administration in the area.

In addition, the project is selling water to a dispensary under construction in the area. But they are moving ahead with plans of bottling their water and selling it on a large scale to supermarkets.

Mohamed Feisal, the chairman of the water project in Kwale explains that they are particularly swamped with demand during the months of December through to April, when conditions are dry.

“We experience very long queues during this period, especially with the 10,000-litre capacity water bowsers, which take up to four hours to fill,” he says.

And since borehole water is pumped by means of a solar-powered generator, Feisal explains that the only other drawback for the project is when the sky becomes overcast.

Mwongela Daniel, is a water vendor who buys water at the Kidimu Community Water Project to sell to others in Kwale County.

Mwongela Daniel, is a water vendor to buys water at the Kidimu Community Water Project to sell to others in Kwale County. Photo| Geoffrey Kamadi.

The same, however, cannot be said of the second community. Community members in Eselenkei and Emashini villages of Kajiado County are reluctant to pay for the maintenance of the water system donated to them, hence cannot generate enough income that would ensure sustainability.

The situation is exacerbated when the area receives some rainfall; community members shun designated water points, despite the fact that the water is treated.

“By the time the project was up and running, cattle had been moved elsewhere and by the time they came back it had already started raining so they were not drinking at the designated water trough,” says Jeremiah Kaete, chairman of Emashini Safe Water Committee.

The project serves 150 villagers without counting the children and 200 heads of cattle. The project charges KSH300 ($3) for Emashini Primary School and KSH 50 (half a dollar) per woman per month.

This amount is collected and saved in a bank account. They currently have KSH 8,000 ($80). The project’s bank balance in Kidimu stands at KSH 250,000 ($ 2,500). The same challenge experienced in Emashini is mirrored in Esenkelei as well.

 

A Good Sustainable Project

Jackline Jebet, Community Development Officer at Water Mission Kenya explains that the water project in Kwale is sustainable because they have an organised committee in place.

If the community follows through with what they have been taught after training, then this is a good indicator for sustainability.For instance, a committee is expected to hold monthly meetings, avail all the necessary up-to-date reports when required.

“This includes water metring and financial reports as well as minutes for meetings, which they send to us and our partners on time,” explains Jebet. She adds that the committee members should be readily available whenever meetings are called.

Successful projects go a long way towards promoting the UN goal of clean and sustainable management of water.

This in turn has a direct impact on the community’s hygiene and sanitation. It also means that children, especially girls stay longer in school thereby improving performance.

Communicating Biotechnology in Africa, Terminology Matters

Abebaw Amisganaw, Research Assistant at Holetta Agricultural Research Centre

Abebaw Amisganaw, Research Assistant at Holetta Agricultural Research Center, Ethiopia, demonstrates how  DNA is  extracted. Photo| Geoffrey Kamadi.

At a time when advances in modern biotechnology don’t appear to slow down, still, this field of science continues to evoke intense passions, disagreements and misinformation on either side of the argument.

And nowhere is this all too obvious than in the agricultural sector – not least here in Africa.

And the reason why this is the case is because “it involves products that are eaten,” according to Dr. Getachew Belay, Senior Biotechnology Advisor at COMESA, commenting at a recent biotechnology event in Addis Ababa.

The term alone is so loaded that almost certainly nothing positive comes close to being associated with it, never mind the fact that it was first used way back in 1917.

And man himself has existed with biotechnology ever since he began deliberately contaminating foods and beverages with bacteria and fungi, to make beer or bake bread for instance.

However, if you were to describe the deliberate contamination of foods as a form of biotechnology to someone in Africa, then chances are that you will have lost an opportunity to engage in a meaningful discussion.

That is, not until a “friendlier” and more familiar term is used like fermentation, which is exactly what this is.

Biotechnology simply means the study or essence of life, going by the meaning of its derivative words: bio, meaning life and logos referring to the study of or the essence of.

Hence, the need to come up with terminologies that do not appear to alienate the vast majority of people on the continent, when talking about the science.

But it’s not like no such attempt has ever been made. It’s speed to keep up with the advances in technology that is lacking according to Dr. Endale Gebre, of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR).

“There have been some efforts by universities and research institutes to try and find a local meaning,” he explains, adding that “it has to be exercised in language institutes as well, in order to communicate to the public.”

But this, he says, has not gone fast enough to keep up with the rate of technological advancement.

Technology Moves on Regardless

So, whether it is the recent field trials launch of GMO bananas resistant to the wilting disease in Uganda or the development of a biofortified, genetically modified sorghum crop with high levels of vitamin A in Kenya, it would appear that the technology is fast moving ahead.

The banana wilting disease, also known as bacterial xanthomonas wilt (BXW) caused a whopping 67 per cent crop loss in Uganda in 2007. Banana is a staple in that country.

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A genetically modified sorghum variety rich in Vitamin A, iron and zinc is under development in Kenya. Photo| Geoffrey Kamadi

On the other hand, genetically modified sorghum in Kenya, which will also have high levels of zinc and iron, could also help tackle preventable blindness in children.

Then there is the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), which, as the name suggest, utilises very little water to grow.

A number of countries are conducting research on this maize variety. They include South Africa, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique. However, South Africa is set to cultivate the crop as early as 2018, making it the first country on the continent to do so.

And now scientists are looking at what is known as genetic editing, so that the need to look for genes from elsewhere is eliminated.

Fears Abound

The fear of biotechnology and its science in Africa and indeed in the rest of the world is nothing new.

Take the adoption of BT cotton for instance. Bacillus Thuringiensis or BT in short, is a bacterium that occurs naturally in the soil. By incorporating the BT gene into certain crops, it has been shown to ward off pests in crops such as maize and cotton.

“Even when there are no risks involved, such as the BT cotton crop, there is still controversy,” says Gebre.

In The Sudan for example, where more than 95 per cent of cotton grown is BT, confusion reigned in November 2015 due to a mealybug pest problem. Belay points out that the citing of the insect was not really an infestation of epidemic proportions.

Many farmers blamed the bug problem on BT cotton, because its appearance coincided with BT cultivation.

“However, the mealybug was equally spotted in Ethiopia and Swaziland where there is no BT cotton,” he says, adding that what this meant was that the mealybug attack and BT cotton variety are unrelated. This was a relief to Sudanese farmers.

Even though the bug could be harmful to the cotton, Belay maintains that it can be managed. The BT gene does not act against the mealybug insect unlike the bollworm pest.

At another level, the cultivation of this cotton variety saw a decrease in the fibre length, in Burkina Faso, something which affected quality.

However, BT cotton increased yields by and average of 21.3 per cent and raised income by $106.14 per hectare.

And here in Kenya, university lecturers are concerned about the dwindling numbers of students willing to take up biotechnology.

They blame the apparent apathy on the negative perception created around the technology. They fear that countries neighbouring Kenya will pull ahead in developing technologies associated with biotechnology if something is not done.