Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Beyond reading, writing & empowerment: Thoughts for International Literacy Day 2010

Until I started knocking on people’s office doors to ask about what was being done to celebrate this year’s International Literacy Day in Malawi, September 8th, I hadn’t thought of how differently various people might interpret the concept “literacy”. Picking up the phone to tell a director of a ministry department about what I had come for, one secretary didn’t bat an eyelid to add “adult” to the word. It didn’t matter that I repeated the phrase “International Literacy Day” several times. And she was not the only one. Several people heard it as “International Adult Literacy Day”.

Obviously a basic meaning of “literacy” starts out as learning how to read and write, and in Malawian discourse, the type of literacy most commonly heard on the street and across the airwaves is “Adult Literacy”, Sukulu ya Kwacha. No doubt adult literacy is crucial an issue as is emerging literacy, what we teach toddlers in nurseries and Standard 1 classrooms. But literacy is an extremely broad term, and covers probably each and every area that requires specialized knowledge across the breadth of human productivity. Viewing literacy in this manner forces us to consider the importance of learning more complicated knowledge systems beyond the ability to read and write as a child or as an adult literacy learner. It is not enough to know how to read and write; one needs to develop life-long intellectual habits of reading regularly and utilizing modern technologies including computers and the Internet.

A crucial factor in developing and maintaining such intellectual habits is a thriving book industry.  There was a time in Malawi when we had what could be considered a thriving book industry, considering our development stage and years from independence at that time. When I was growing up in the then Municipality of Zomba, I had access to four excellent bookshops, and a well-stocked library, within walking distance. A Malawi Book Service bookstore easily competed with a Times Bookshop a stone-throw away from each other along the M1 road in the centre of town. At Zomba Zero the CCAP Church ran a CLAIM Bookshop not too far from the Times and MBS Bookshops, and straight down the road from Zomba Zero to Chancellor College was the MBS University Bookstore.

It was the same when I travelled to Blantyre, where I was able, in one day, to visit Times Bookshop, Central Bookshop, and a few other bookstores and libraries. Even when I travelled to rural parts of Malawi such as Mulanje, Ntcheu or Kasungu, I was still able to find well-stocked bookshops ran by the MBS, CLAIM, or Times Bookshop. Today, only the CLAIM bookshop and the National Library Branch still stand in Zomba. The Malawi Book Service and the Times Bookshop no longer exist. Central Bookshop had two shops in Blantyre and one in Lilongwe. Today two of those don’t exist anymore. When I visited Maneno Bookshop in Lilongwe in June, I saw more books from other countries, and very few from Malawi. It was the same at the lone Central Bookshop at the Chichiri Mall in Blantyre. At Maneno I saw children’s books from Kenya, and almost none from Malawi. At Central Bookshop I was told that people called to ask about the next issue of People Magazine, while stacks of Malawian magazines lay unsold.

There are reasons of political economy and recent socio-economic changes that explain problems in the book industry in Malawi. This is despite the gallant efforts of the Malawi Writers Union (MAWU) and the Book Publishers Association of Malawi (BPAM) to keep book production in the country afloat. The National Library Service has also grown in strength and outreach, as have several efforts by enterprising Malawians who establish private bookshops and open libraries in schools. The last ten years have seen the introduction of Teacher Development Centres (TDCs) that serve between ten and twenty neighboring schools, and libraries are an unfailing feature of these centres.

The most inspiring Malawian success story on the international science and technology circuit, that of William Kamkwamba, owes its origins to a TDC library. It is a pity that none of the bookstores I have visited in Blantyre, Zomba and Lilongwe recently stock Kamkwamba’s co-authored book (with Bryan Mealer) The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Kamkwamba’s story always elicits jaw-dropping silence and attention, whether here in Malawi or in the United States. There his book has become a best seller. I look forward to the day when every young Malawian and school-teacher will read the book and feel inspired by how a quest to enhance one’s literacy and knowledge wowed the world.

Part of Kamkwamba’s story was made possible through the power of the Internet, in particular Malawian and African bloggers. Digital literacy is a must for any society that wishes to enter the 21st century. Digital literacy involves knowledge of how to use computers, which can start with as simple a step as setting up an email account. It is disappointing that very few Malawian teachers have email accounts, let alone access to the Internet. This is understandable for teachers working in the remotest parts of Malawi where trading centres don’t even have electricity. But many centres that have electricity have seen entrepreneurial Malawians set up Internet cafes, with Internet charges as low as K5 ($0.03) per minute. I know of one teacher who taught in Kasungu in the early 2000s when there was no Internet café at Kasungu town. This teacher would take the bus every Saturday morning and go to Lilongwe, a 2-hour journey each way, so he could access the Internet. But I also know teachers today who reside within walking distance of free Internet access, and they have never used it.

Young Malawians, like their counterparts the world over, are taking to the Internet and 21st century technology much more rapidly than grown ups. I know of primary school pupils who have email addresses, and their teachers don’t. It is the same with other educators in the system, and in the society at large. Everyone who has a business in Malawi has a cellphone, which they proudly brand on their products, shop walls and in newspaper advertisements. It is still very rare, in 2010, to see Malawian advertisements carrying email addresses and website URLs, notwithstanding the proliferation of relatively cheap Internet access in cafes across trading centres in almost every district.

This year’s theme for the International Literacy Day is “Literacy and Women’s Empowerment.” UNESCO in Paris will on Wednesday September 8 award Literacy prizes to women’s projects that are promoting women’s empowerment through literacy. A Malawian group, Coalition of Women Farmers (COWFA), is this year receiving the 2010 Honourable Mention of the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy for its Women Land Rights Project (WOLAR).

These Malawian women have charted a new way of looking at literacy. They are challenging our stereotypes of women as helpless, hapless victims who are hopelessly disempowered. They are showing us how empowerment is not a one-way, transmission-style process, but rather a self-motivated aspiration. As Julius Nyerere once wrote, people cannot be developed. They can only develop themselves. It is the same with empowerment. Women cannot be empowered by someone else; they can only empower themselves.

A profile describing the project undertaken by the Coalition of Women Farmers observes that only four percent of Malawian women own land, yet 70 percent of Malawian subsistence farmers are women. But it is also well known that Malawian women take up the responsibility of providing food for their families. Given the food crises Malawi has experienced in the first half of this decade, and the surpluses of the last four years, the empowerment of women in land ownership is one way of establishing a social structure that could ensure that food is available to more Malawians throughout the year. Using literacy to achieve that goal reinforces the understanding that reading, writing and numeracy should not be for their own sake, but rather for greater transformation and socio-economic well-being. Literacy is part of the framework within which each of the eight Millennium Development Goals ought to be understood and integrated, if they are to be seen as more than top-down, donor-driven rhetoric. 

That is how we ought to look at literacy, and address what many Malawians see as the absence of a reading culture. We should view literacy as a process of not just knowledge consumption but production as well, embracing new technologies to facilitate grassroots participation and promote human dignity, especially that of women, children, and those with special needs. More importantly, we should use modern literacies for the promotion of social justice and uMunthu-peace.  As we Malawians like to say, kuphunzira sikutha; learning never ends.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Malawi has an app for that: Charting a developing nation’s IT future

The dominant discourse in the study of development is about how much aid developed countries give to developing countries, and very little discussion of how much wealth goes the other way: from developing countries to developed countries. To their credit, African scholars and activists, a handful of politicians, and a few global justice activists make this point, albeit infrequently, with the consequence that considerable sections of African societies, including Malawi, have come to view their entire world from the perspective of a people forever destined to be objects of Western pity. What is perhaps not emphasized enough are the nitty gritty details of how much wealth the global South transfers to the developed global North. I have written on this topic before, more from a broader developing world perspective than from a specific Malawian context. Barcamp Malawi 2010 gave this issue a Malawian face, when Malawian Information Technology (IT) experts and their counterparts from the US, Europe and elsewhere met over the weekend of July 17th and 18th, at the Sunbird Capital Hotel, in Lilongwe.

I want to start this piece by discussing this revelation about how much wealth Malawi as a country transfers to developed countries, in the form of software license fees. However much of the article is taken up by descriptions of the issues that came up at the “unconference”, where participants suggested topics to present on, share and discuss with others as a way of offering IT solutions to problems that ordinary Malawians grapple with. The term “unconference” suggests a format in which the topics for presentation and discussion come from the participants, rather than the organizers. It was a weekend very well spent in the company of computer programmers and software engineers, even though half the time I had no clue what they were talking about when they used IT jargon to discuss technical details about computer software, Internet code language and electric voltage (caution: I have most likely misrepresented some of their discussions, due to my superficial understanding of technological sophistication). Which was itself a challenge posed to the “unconference” attendees, by a female participant who called upon fellow IT experts to go easy on the jargon and think of IT as “enabling tools”, rather than technical problems to be solved in front of a computer screen. More on this toward the end.

I left the conference on the night of Sunday July 18th feeling much better educated about the role that the IT community plays in Malawi, the paralyzing indifference they encounter from government bureaucracy, and their vision for the future of IT and its applications to Malawian contexts. I develop these points in the larger framing of this article, stressing the crucial role that Malawian IT visionaries play despite the odds they face. I also make suggestions as to how the locally-grown solutions that the Malawian IT community envisions need to be taken up especially by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MOEST). There are two reasons for zeroing in on MOEST. First, they are entrusted with the responsibility of developing educational, scientific and technological systems in the country, as their full portfolio intimates.  Second, Malawi would be taking to a higher level its aspirations for a home-grown development paradigm if Malawian schools were to embrace the innovative, can-do spirit that many Malawian IT experts have espoused.

Starving amidst plenty: free open software and license fees

At this point let me go down the list of issues that came up at Barcamp Malawi 2010, starting with the problem of money spent on software license fees. During one of the breakout sessions on the last day of the meeting one participant explained how as a nation Malawi pays billions of kwacha in annual software license fees. In one example mentioned, a key government agency (name withheld) is said to spend GB£43 million a year in software license fees. That amount translates into approximately MK10 billion every year. Worse still, there are several other Malawian government and corporate entities that are spending hard earned taxpayer money and scarce forex paying for these software license fees. To illustrate this, much of the costs for running the telecentres the government is constructing across the country are going toward software licenses for proprietary software. The most recent telecentre has been opened in Mwanza, costing MK77 million, according to a July 4th article posted on The Nation newspaper’s website. The telecommunications industry itself sends out billions of kwacha every year paying these kinds of fees to developed countries.

A number of IT specialists reported how they had on separate occasions contacted relevant authorities in government and demonstrated to them free open source software that didn’t require any license fees. In each case, the government representative approached expressed skepticism and a reluctance to even consider the idea. Two female IT specialists shared their experience of how other governments in the SADC region are not only embracing computer technology, they are even switching from proprietary software, known to be extremely expensive, to free open source software, which costs nothing. Bridget Chiwaya, an IT specialist working at the Malawi Parliament, and Madalo Khoza, who recently left her position as an IT specialist at parliament to join UNFPA, cited South African, Zambian and Zimbabwean government IT systems which were all being switched to free open source software.

Max Phiri, who runs an IT company called ITS Enterprizes, cautioned on the need to distinguish between open source software and free open source software. He said not all open source software was completely free, as some corporations that develop proprietary software were also developing open source software, and charging for it.

Interesting to note in the discussion on open source software was the knowledge that only two years ago Malawi hosted an international conference on open source software development. Organized by the ICT Association of Malawi (ICTAM), the sixth International Wide Open Access ICT conference was held in Lilongwe, November 12th to 14th in 2008.  The conference, bringing to Malawi IT experts from around the world, was supposed to be officially opened by the erstwhile cabinet minister responsible for ICT development in Malawi. The delegates sat and waited for the minister, until one of the organizers picked up the phone and called to find out where the minister was. The minister was nowhere near the conference site. The organizers requested an official from a government ministry, attending the conference as a participant, to stand in for the minister and open the conference.

An even more striking piece of evidence of government’s apathy for things IT came from another participant who reminded people how just a few years ago a Speaker of the Malawi parliament (name withheld) once threw out a member of parliament for using a laptop in the house.  The irony of how highly computerized the recently constructed parliament building is will not be lost on anyone.

Malawianizing computers and Internet content

One of the trendy topics at the meeting was that of the localization of content. Charlie Maere, Director if ICT at the University of Malawi’s Kamuzu College of Nursing, made a presentation on this topic, and several other experts demonstrated projects they were working on to make more Malawian content available on the Internet, in local languages. David Hotchkiss, from Google, Inc. pointed out that there was very little Malawian content on the web. He hoped that the conference, or unconference as it were, would discuss that problem and come up with possible solutions. 

Soyapi Mumba, one of the organizers and a leading Malawian software engineer, was of the opinion that there was a lot of Malawian content around, it just wasn’t easy to access. He gave the example of the numerous radio stations that broadcast in Malawi, whose content does not appear on the Internet. He said the challenge for Malawian IT experts was to make that content accessible, on the Internet. Even if Mumba’s observation is correct, it is still the case that the majority of the content that dominates Malawian airwaves from the more than twenty radio stations and a handful TV channels in the country is never archived on the Internet. Only a handful of Malawian newspapers and magazines put their content on the Internet, a situation that does render credence to the observation that Malawi is much underrepresented on the world wide web. Increasing Malawi’s content on the Internet would be good for not only the country’s image, it would also support our schools, teachers, researchers and policymakers in Malawi and elsewhere.

Edmond Kachale, a software developer at Baobab Health, made a presentation on natural language technologies, in which he demonstrated a Chichewa Spellchecking Plugin for Firefox. Kachale has given the plugin a technical name, ChicPOS, which stands for “Chichewa Part of Speech Tagger.” The plugin does what one sees when one misspells an English word on their computer, redlining the word to alert the user of the spelling mistake. Kachale’s plugin gives the computer a function that recognizes Chichewa words and their parts of speech. Kachale has also created a Chichewa Spellchecking Plugin for openoffice.org, a free open source program that works much like Microsoft word processing and graphics applications. Kachale informed that he was part of a team that created the Chichewa Google page, available at <www.google.mw>. He said the page was serving not only Chichewa-speaking people from Malawi, but also Chinyanja speakers in Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. He provided an email address, chichewalocaliser@gmail.com, which people can write to for more information on the project.

More examples of localization of content came from a topic on game design. Steven Chanza demonstrated a Malawian computer game he had developed, which he said was called Thela, or Odi. In his demonstration he played against an imaginary opponent whom he named Malume. Chanza’s game has varying levels of difficulty, and tabulates summaries of scores and other data at the end of a session. In light of Chanza’s and Kachale’s work on Malawian computer content, the issue of content localization is an interesting one given the contradictions that characterize language policy and practice. Malawian education policy, drawn from cognitive research and expert opinion requires Malawian children to be taught in a language they speak at home. Yet the majority of private schools, where most Malawian elites and non-elites who can afford it send their children, do not allow any Malawian languages. I have recently learned of a few exceptions, Malawian private schools that offer local languages on their curriculum. A recent UNESCO report points out how Africa is the only continent on the planet where the majority of children start school in a foreign language. The consequences of these policy and practice contradictions manifest themselves in the low literacy rates, political disempowerment, and reduced rates of democratic participation seen across Africa (Why and How Africa Should Invest in African Languages and Multilingual Education, UNESCO, 2010).

Role of government in ICT

Another hotly debated topic at the IT meet was the role of government in the promotion of IT in Malawi. Austin Madinga, co-owner of the private IT company Project 4 Digital Design Studio, wondered whether government should be encouraged to take a leading role in IT development, or whether it should let the private industry take the lead in the spirit of capitalist growth.  Anthony Longwe argued for the need to strengthen government’s capability in IT matters, citing the abuse that has happened with the Malawi passport and how Malawians have been punished by countries such as Britain. Boster Sibande suggested that government’s role should be creating a conducive environment for ICT to flourish.

The question of government’s greater involvement in the IT industry in Malawi raised another issue, that of the involvement of other stakeholders. One participant noted that the media seemed to be absent from the conference, as did professionals from other non-IT fields. The few government officers who attended the conference did so at their own initiative. One of the few women in attendance was Marian Mtingwi, principal systems analyst programmer in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture. Another female participant came from the National Libraries Services. The participant, Chimwemwe Sumani, informed the audience about IT developments at the National Library Service, saying by 2011 the entire National Library Service system will be fully digitized in all its branches across the country.

The issue of power problems and possible solutions generated serious discussions. Austin Madinga wondered whether government could not ask huge projects that consume a lot of power to get off the grid and use alternative energies, to free up some power. Could this be a policy issue? On his part, Max Phiri stressed the need to explore alternative energies, given the abundance of solar and wind as sources of energy in every part of the country. He singled out the existence of an academic programme at Mzuzu University offering a degree in sustainable energy as of crucial importance. 

Malawian genius on display

Max Phiri later led a breakout discussion session on the problems and solutions to ICT development in Malawi. That discussion, which came up at various points in the course of the two days, revealed some quite exciting developments that are already occurring on that front. Alex Gondwe, deputy country director for Baobab Health described how the organization has been adapting computers and converting them into low energy consuming gadgets, from 240 volts to 12 volts. These computers are being used in clinics and health centres in rural areas, where they are powered by solar and wind energy. Max Phiri’s company, ITS Enterprises, recently donated a 15-terminal computer lab to a primary school in Mchinji. The computers all use 12 volts only, making it possible for schools not connected to the ESCOM grid to still be able to use computers.

The innovation to adapt computers and make them usable in such low energy conditions is where the concept of localization squarely meets the desire to make technology locally relevant. These are computers that are transforming the medical informatics landscape in Malawi, and as has been shown by ITS Enterprises, the same IT innovations are also applicable in Malawi’s education context. For me this was the most exciting part of Barcamp Malawi, in which Malawian genius was at full display. William Kamkwamba had been expected to attend and give a talk, but he had other commitments that prevented him. I later learned on MBC TV the following Monday that Kamkwamba had just been honoured by the Malawi Institute of Engineers, for his pioneering work in locally-sourced windmill energy technology.

MBC TV also announced on the occasion that Kamkwamba would be attending the Ivy League school Dartmouth College in the United States. Kamkwamba’s memoir of how he created a windmill from junk materials in his village, co-authored with Bryan Mealer, became a best seller in the United States of America. In the book Kamkwamba and Mealer narrate the story of how William dropped out of Form One at Kachokolo Day Secondary School in Kasungu, in January of 2002. This was at the height of the 2002 famine, and his parents had failed to raise MK1,200 for his school fees. Kamkwamba, aged 14 at the time, started visiting a library at a nearby Teacher Development Centre (TDC), where he started reading a book on how to make electricity at home. It is a beautifully written, fascinating story that raises the question of the limits of the school curriculum, and the power of a determined mind. It rises to the level of a complete introduction to physics and home-made electricity. Titled The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the book, despite its ambivalences as all books do, should be made required reading in Malawi’s teacher training colleges, secondary schools, technical and vocational colleges, and universities. It should also be read by as many Malawians as possible.

Toward the end of the two-day event more Malawian genius was on display when five teams competed in using Google App Engine to create software applications, or apps, as they have become widely known. The criteria asked for apps that were creatively designed and whose solutions targeted an important problem in Malawi. The prize was the latest Google phone, HTC Legend. That prize went to two young Malawians, Steven Chanza, aged 24, and Kondwani Hara, aged 27. Chanza and Hara created an application that they named “shareajob.” The utility for the application, they explained, is that most job postings are available only to those who can afford to buy a newspaper, or to read one in a library or view a copy bought by somebody else. Their application is meant to bring job announcements to anybody who has an Internet-enabled mobile phone. Once the app is finalized, which would be a week’s work depending on access to a computer, job advertisements will be available to anyone with a mobile phone, at no extra cost. Chanza works as a graphic designer at Anypol, an advertising agency, while Hara teaches mathematics at the University of Livingstonia.

Each one of the apps demonstrated for the contest was quite unique and exciting. Some were even funny and lighthearted. Boster Sibande, co-lead organizer of the barcamp and a top software engineer in his own right, won second prize for an app that would make it possible for Big Brother housemates to cast anonymous votes on a computer to eject other housemates. Another app developed by Sibande offers a solution to the problem of reformatting phone numbers in a mobile handset. Sibande explained that recently Malawi switched from a system of 8-digit mobile phone numbers to 11, adding 0999 or 0888 and their variations. He said for people who had hundreds of contacts in the phones, it would be a tedious process to go through each contact and reformat it to the new system. His application, known as PIM API, solves that problem by simultaneously changing all the phone numbers, automatically.

Third prize went to Austin Madinga and Lengani Kaunda, who developed an app they named “Pano”, Chichewa for “here.” Madinga’s and Kaunda’s idea is for the application to serve the social networking purpose of announcing one’s location, and also identifying particular places such as banks, petrol stations, restaurants, hospitals, etc, in a 20-kilometre radius. The two software engineers said their idea would work in a similar manner to the social networking tool known as Foursquare.

Charting the future of IT in Malawi

As Barcamp Malawi 2010 drew to a close, participants paid particular attention to what they need to do as IT experts, promoting collaboration amongst themselves and making their voice heard. They also talked of the need to involve other stakeholders and consult widely in their discussions. In the course of the today, several examples came up that highlighted issues of schooling and where IT solutions fit in. Many participants seemed eager to apply their expertise to educational issues in Malawi. One example was the one discussed in the preceding paragraphs, the donation of a computer lab that ITS Enterprise recently made to a primary school in Mchinji district.

Two aspects of the localized solutions being experimented with seemed pertinent to the one problem MOEST’s policymaking appears to be giving a lot of attention to lately. Educational thought leaders here in Malawi appear unanimous in their agreement that Malawi is not going to improve the quality of education with the current class sizes that the average Malawian teacher has to contend with. Thousands of classrooms are extremely overcrowded, and learning conditions are quite challenging. One researcher told an educational symposium recently that he could not think of another country in the world that had the class sizes and teacher pupil ratios that Malawi does. Educational researchers and policymakers point out what a miracle it is that Malawian children persist and survive the early years of schooling at all. 

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has recently inaugurated a teacher training system that utilizes what is known as Open and Distance Learning (ODL). More recently the Ministry has also embarked on a programme to put in place a structure for continuous professional development (CPD) as part of a broader effort to establish a progressive and rewarding teacher professional development system. Given the numbers of teachers needed to make a real difference in the problem of quality education and equitable access in Malawi, technological solutions will be indispensable. An important first step might be the consideration of establishing a MOEST directorate solely devoted to educational technology in Malawian schools and teacher training colleges. We don’t seem to have one at the moment for that specific purpose.

For IT to happen in Malawi, there will be need for a different approach, both from Malawian IT experts and other stakeholders. The Malawi Government needs to be assisted in appreciating the significance of adopting free open source software. The huge amounts of money the country spends on unnecessary software license fees could promote IT investments within Malawi, rather than enriching already rich countries. As three of the female participants quoted above insisted, Malawian IT experts need to engage the parliamentary committee under whose jurisdiction ICT matters fall, and present their vision for the country. There is a lot of awareness work to be done. As Madalo Khoza poignantly explained, Malawian IT experts need to talk about ICT not as a technical matter, but rather as “enabling tools.” The ICT Association of Malawi is gearing up for its 2010 annual meeting in the next few weeks, and that’s one place to start. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Vuvuzelization of world football: Ghana & the real story of SA2010

With Ghana as the only remaining African team at the ongoing 2010 World Cup, as I write, the question for many people inside and outside Africa has been about the miserable performance of the five other African representatives. The 2010 World Cup was billed as the African World Cup, and hopes were high that a good number of African teams, amongst the six, would do better than in previous World Cup tournaments. These hopes thrived notwithstanding the facts of the official FIFA rankings, in which no single African team featured in the world’s top eighteen. Running up to the start of the tournament the highest ranked African team has been Cameroon, at number 19 in the world, with Ivory Coast coming in second, at number 27th, according to Jeré Longman in the New York Times (June 5th, 2010). Among the more interesting explanations for the failure of all but one of Africa’s representatives has been the observation that with the exception of Algeria, the rest of the African teams have European and Latin American coaches. Now Algeria themselves, under an Algerian coach, Rabah Saadane, have also been eliminated in the very first round. As per the heading of a June 21st New York Times article by Christopher Clarey, Africa has hosted the Cup, but has imported the coaches.

The foreign coaches argument takes on a curious tone when we note that South Africa, the host country that has had six years to prepare, have themselves exited the tournament, also in the very first round. This has happened despite being coached by none other than Carlos Parreira, a Brazilian who coached his own country to World Cup victory in 1994, according to Piers Edwards (The New African, African Football insert, May 2010). Meanwhile, Ghana have reached the quarter finals with a foreign coach, the Serbian Milovan Rajevac. The foreign coaches argument does have merit, but the fate of African teams at the 2010 World Cup has been determined by a host of other factors, including political interference, bureaucratic indifference, and perennial diffidence.

Nigeria and Ivory Coast replaced coaches with three months to go to the 2010 kick-off. According to the New York Times’ Jeré Longman, neither coach met the full team until late May. Nigeria dismissed a local coach, Shaibu Amodu, who was being paid US$13,000 a month, and hired Swedish coach Lars Lagerback who had failed to qualify his own country Sweden into the 2010 World Cup tournament. He is being paid a handsome US$300,000 per month over a five-month period ending in July 2010, according to Osasu Obayuiwana in African Football (April 2010). As I am putting finishing touches to this article, England have exited the tournament in the second round, at the hands of Germany. The Germans have a German coach, Joachim Löw, while the English have an Italian coach, Fabio Capello, according to the South Africa 2010 World Cup blog.

In the concluding part of this article I will discuss the issue of the sheer randomness and unpredictability that many times offer upsets and turn conventional expectations upside. But the main point I want to make is about Ghana and how its football triumph goes beyond the football pitch and the 2010 World Cup. I make this point regardless of the outcome of Friday’s forthcoming quarterfinal match between Ghana and Uruguay.

The more compelling story worth telling about the global tournament in South Africa this year has two sides to it. First is the story of what Ghana’s triumph symbolizes, at the center of which symbolism is Africa’s past and future. This symbolism is embodied in the vuvuzela, the cheering trumpet. Riding on the success of Ghana is also the story of how the 2010 World Cup has thus far proved wrong most of its critics, detractors, pessimists and doubting Thomases. The vuvuzela, much like Ghana’s Black Stars, has beaten odds to become more than a cheering instrument. It has now attained the status of an African metaphor for the unacknowledged ways in which Africa determines particular discourses at the global level. There are three narratives intertwined here. First, Ghana is carrying the hopes of the continent, and the larger Pan-African world. Second, this tournament has been remarkable for the bigger presence of players of African descent in many of the teams, especially those from Europe and Latin America. Third, the phenomenon that has become the vuvuzela takes on a significance that elevates the symbolization of Ghana’s performance thus far, as well as the widespread presence of African influence in the ancestry of the players on the field.

That it has been left up to Ghana at this point to carry forward the hopes of the African continent may look inconsequential in casual circumstances. But to a serious student of Pan-Africanism and of Africa’s place in the world, it is more than a coincidence. Ghana is the de facto center of 21st century Pan-Africanist ideals, and it is unfortunate that this knowledge remains unexplored amongst the majority of ordinary Africans. This is due to the failure of Africa’s political leadership, as well as the disconnect between Africa’s intellectual elite and the African wanainchi. As I have argued elsewhere, these problems are not unsolvable. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has pointed out that there is a gap between the knowledge that African scholars produce in the academy, and the knowledge that makes up the school curriculum in many African countries (Zeleza, 1997). Even in Ghana itself, where the awareness of the country’ central place in 21st century Pan-Africanist throught exists amongst political thought leaders and intellectuals, the political discourse still poses challenges. A recent article by Sharon Hemans in the April-June issue of the BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine laments how very few Ghanaians visit the resting place of the 20th century father of Pan-Africanism, W.E.B. DuBois. When I visited the DuBois Memorial Center for Pan-African Culture in Accra in November 2009, I found only the staff who manage the place, on a Saturday afternoon. It was not much different when earlier in the day I visited the uniquely designed and aesthetically inspiring Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, also in Accra.

My hosts, themselves Pan-Africanist thinkers, enlightened me about the difficulties surrounding perceptions of the relevance of Pan-Africanist ideas in Ghana today. I know these difficulties to exist in my own country of Malawi, and in the rest of Africa. As I have written elsewhere, and as is widely known in African scholarship, Sub-Saharan Africa owes its legacy of independence to the pioneering role played by Ghana’s first president, the Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah took a personal interest in supporting Malawi’s own independence, in his prescient conviction, 60 years ahead of his time, that the independence of Ghana was meaningless, unless it was tied to the independence of the rest of Africa. It is a lesson that ought to resonate with those African countries today that are undergoing an economic renaissance: the economic progress of Malawi, Botswana, South Africa, etc, is meaningless unless it is tied to the economic progress of the rest of the continent. The disconnect that divides African intellectuals, political leaders, and the wanainchi makes it very difficult for ordinary Africans to understand the significance of this exhortation. The acrimony and bitter negativity that greets the idea of a United States of Africa (notwithstanding the uninspired unoriginality of the term) amongst ordinary Africans is testimony to this difficulty.

Yet tied to the role that Ghana is playing in this tournament is the remarkable widespread presence of players of African descent in many teams, especially European and Latin American. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has called this the “globalization of African football and the Africanization of global football” (The Zeleza Post, June 12th, 2010). For Zeleza, “the African presence in world football has actually been astonishing.” He remarks on the number of players of African descent in teams from North America and Latin America, Europe and Western Asia. Zeleza observes that the Saudi Arabian team at the last World Cup tournament in 2006 was “predominantly black.” He points out how Latin America is “home to Africa's largest diaspora,” and that both “Western Europe and Western Asia [are] also homes to millions of people of African descent.” Many of these teams, especially the United States, England, Brazil and France have several players of African descent. In particular, Brazil has the largest population of people of African descent outside the continent of Africa. And the complexion of its national team reflects this.

Writing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s World Cup blog on June 16th, the South Africa-based analyst of African football Mark Gleeson listed Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and the United States as European and North American teams with “sons of African soil in their ranks.” Gleeson attributed this to the “global village and modern migratory patterns,” adding that “most major European sides [now] represent much more their immigrant communities than they do old national stereotypes.” Particularly fascinating was Gleeson’s comment on what was going to be a historical first for two brothers to face each other in a World Cup tournament playing for opposing sides. That happened on Wednesday June 23rd when Kevin Prince Boateng of Ghana played against his blood brother Jerome Boateng of Germany. A comment on Gleeson’s story insisted that these players were not African at all, as their cultural mindset and upbringing were European and had nothing in common with Africa. Were it that easy to dismiss the concept of diaspora consciousness and the search for one’s roots and identity! In the England team that crashed 1-4 to Germany in the second round, no less than seven of the players featured were black, three of them coming in as substitutes. For France the presence of players of African descent has been even more visible going back to the last two World Cups.

It is this phenomenon then that gives us the metaphor of the vuvuzelization of world football. The vuvuzela’s adoption by football fans from various teams participating in the World Cup has been fascinating. Trevor Ncube, publisher of South Africa’s weekly newspaper Mail & Guardian tweeted on June 20th about how even at matches involving non-African teams, the vuvuzela could still be heard above the din. Fans from Europe, Asia, Oceania and Latin America have also taken to the vuvuzela. And the utility of the instrument has now gone beyond the football stands. According to an article posted on the website African Aristocrat on June 25th, Taiwan’s opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, had ordered 200 vuvuzelas for a protest rally against a trade pact between Taiwan and mainland China. The article went on to report that a trade union in Poland, Solidarity, was also considering purchasing vuvuzelas, also for use at protest rallies.

Writing in the Mail & Guardian Online’s Thought Leader blog on June 24th, Sarah Britten quoted Peter Aspden of The Financial Times as describing the vuvuzela thus: “It is a joyous, life-affirming sound, of a nation entranced in pride and celebration, and expressing it through its own culture.” The word “vuvuzela” sounds very much an African word, but there has reportedly been a dispute as to its invention. Several web sources attribute the invention of the vuvuzela to an Afrikaner businessman, Neil Van Schalkwyk, co-owner of the Masincedane Sport Company, said to own the trademark for the instrument. The BBC reported in January that a black South African religious congregation, the Shembe Church, threatened to take FIFA to court over the use of the vuvuzela. The church claimed that the vuvuzela was invented by the church’s founder, Isaiah Shembe, in the early 1900s. To this day, the church conducts an annual ceremony retracing the footsteps of Isaiah Shembe, to the sound of the vuvuzela. The South African newspaper The Sowetan reported on June 22nd that Neil Van Schalkwyk and the Shembe Church had reached a settlement in which the Masincedane Sport Company had acknowledged that the church were indeed the original inventors of the vuvuzela.

The instrument is also known to have irked quite a few people. European coaches appealed to FIFA to ban the instrument, saying it was disrupting coach-player communication on the field. The British newspaper Daily Mail Online reported about one woman said to have torn a part of her windpipe after blowing on the instrument too hard. A US Army civilian employee in Germany is said to have been driven nuts by the trumpet, and to have threatened a vuvuzela-blowing neighbor with an axe. Such is the intrigue of the vuvuzela that it has created its own narrative alongside that of the 2010 World Cup. The vuvuzela has secured for itself an important legacy at this year’s tournament, Africa’s World Cup, creating a following of its own, according to Ndesanjo Macha of Global Voices Online. Now to return to the issue of randomness and unpredictability as to who gets to win and who gets to lose in any given FIFA World Cup tournament.

Commenting on developments at an ongoing event like the World Cup tournament is like aiming at a moving target. The failure of the majority of African teams to progress beyond the preliminary round has caused much anguish to supporters and sympathizers of African football. The various explanations that have been offered carry elements of accuracy, but there’s also the inevitability of chance that is always present in football. Much of this chance is inexplicable even by FIFA rankings, and by recent World Cup triumph history. For example, the two teams which competed as finalists at the last World Cup, in 2006, Italy and France, exited the 2010 tournament in the first round. How does one explain this, especially for Italy who were the reining world champions going into the tournament?

And watching the African teams play, one is hard placed to see distinct differences between them and their European, Latin American, Oceania and Asian counterparts. Ivory Coast held Portugal to a 0-0 draw, and lost very narrowly to Brazil. South Africa drew against Mexico 1-1 in the opening game, and beat France in their last group match (albeit arguments that the French team had been dispirited by internal squabbles). Nigeria, Cameroun and Algeria all held their own against high ranked European, Asian and Latin American teams. There’s a randomness, an unpredictability to the final result in many of these games not easily explained by FIFA rankings and recent success among the traditional favourites. It’s only when one throws into the equation the tactical and bureaucratic mistakes made by countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast, that the odds add up and militate against the African representatives. This is what has to be taken into consideration and added to the soul searching about what exactly happened to the African teams at South Africa 2010. Aren’t Italy, France, England and many other teams also doing the same soul searching?

Another point worth considering is what I discussed back in 2006, about the imbalance in the number of representatives per region, and how that imbalance skewers the probability of succeeding or failing in World Cup tournaments. The continent of Europe has 51 national football associations, and this year has had 13 World Cup finals slots (15 in 2002, 14 in 2006). Africa has 52 member associations, and this year has had 6 slots, with the sixth, South Africa, being included only because they are the hosts. The Latin American continents, combining North and South America and the Caribbean have a combined total of 50 associations, and this year they have had a combined total of 8 World Cup places. With these kinds of numbers and unequal representation, is it much wonder who gets eliminated early in the process, and who proceeds to the final rounds, as has always been the tradition?

For now, the action continues for another two weeks. Histories have been made. Critics, detractors and perpetual pessimists have been proven wrong. There are legacies that will shape the coming decades, on and off the football field. Long after the 2010 World Cup tournament has ended, the sound of thousands of vuvuzelas blowing across the South African veld will remain an indelible, identifiable symbol of this historic moment. Ghana’s possible success in the coming match will be pregnant with even more significance, but the greater meaning of what the Black Stars have already achieved will have resonance beyond footballing circles. This meaning will reinforce the historical legacy that Ghana has already given the Pan-African world, connecting an emancipatory past with the aspirations of a different African future both on the continent and in the diaspora. The sound of the vuvuzela will for a long time to come be the soundtrack for the 2010 World Cup anthem, performed by Shakira, and emblazoned in the words “This time for Africa.”

Monday, June 07, 2010

Powering a Development Idea: OVOP Prospects in a Malawian Village

Until Thandika Mkandawire commented on the launching of the One Village One Product (OVOP) concept on the Malawi Internet listserv Nyasanet in November 2003, I hadn’t heard much about the idea.  So when I heard that a team from the OVOP Secretariat in Malawi’s capital city Lilongwe would be visiting my village in Bwanje, Ntcheu district, on Monday May 31st 2010, I decided to go and see for myself. I was told that the Member of Parliament for the area, Hon. Stevin Stafford Kamwendo (Ntcheu Bwanje North), was also going to be present. The meeting was supposed to start at 11am, but the OVOP team didn’t arrive at the Bwanje Primary School venue until after 2pm. Hon. Kamwendo was supposed to be in parliament back in Lilongwe by 2pm that same day, so when he didn’t show up with the OVOP team, we assumed the delay had made it impossible for him to make the trip.

Members of the Bwanje Agroprocessing Cooperative, who had submitted to the OVOP Secretariat a proposal for a tomato sauce processing plant, told their chairperson to make sure to let the OVOP team know about their displeasure at being kept waiting for more than three hours. When they arrived, the OVOP team explained that Lilongwe was once again experiencing diesel shortages, and it had taken them all morning to find diesel for their vehicle. Their team leader, whose name I wasn’t able to catch, apologized for keeping the people waiting for so long.

The OVOP team’s visit gave me an opportunity to experience an on-the-ground episode in the giant industry that development discourse has become for academics and social justice activists both in the global North and in the global South. In enabled me to not only watch at close quarters but also be a participant on the receiving end of the cyclical process of villagers’ aspirations for development, and a government bureaucracy making key decisions about whether a village will get development, or be denied. And quite serendipitously too, just two days earlier I had seen the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, address the Malawi Parliament in its glitzy new building, accompanied by his special adviser on the Millennium Development Goals, Jeffrey Sachs.

I had expected the OVOP meeting to be a preliminary stage serving the purpose of informing the Bwanje group what the proposal process looked like, what was expected on their part, and the kind of support the OVOP office was going to provide to help the group navigate that process. What I saw was a government procedure that involved quizzing villagers on their market research skills and capacity (or lack thereof) to understand local economics. I also got a glimpse into the potential mass frustration that might likely arise out of the absence of infra-structural investments needed to infuse a tinge of hope into the aspirations of villagers looking up to a government that has promised a new way of doing development. (See more pictures here) But I also saw villagers determined to take charge of their development aspirations, armed with the knowledge of how much tomato their area produces, most of which is sold at very low prices in the high season, and a lot of which also goes to waste due to the perishable nature of the crop. 

The Bwanje Valley area boasts the Lake Shore Road, a Kamuzu-era asphalt route that connects the eastern parts of Ntcheu and Dedza districts, to Salima district and the northern region, along Lake Malawi. But from Bwanje Trading Centre, the nearest source of ESCOM’s electricity is 30 kilometres each away to the south and to the north. On the southern end, the electric grid stops at the magnificent Nachitheme Secondary School, built when Sam Mpasu was the Member of Parliament for Ntcheu Bwanje South. On the northern end, the grid stops at Golomoti, on the border with Dedza district.

I will soon return to the issue of electricity supply and the massive challenges it is causing the entire development agenda that Malawi’s President Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika has set for the country. For now, let me offer a description of how the OVOP meeting at Bwanje Primary School went. I want to explore, in the background, three related issues. First is the nature of the interaction between government officials responsible for important decisions about development, and local area people whose expectations may or may not always match those of the government’s bureaucratic machine. Second is the important question surrounding the promising potential of an initiative such as OVOP, and how much support government officials entrusted with the responsibility of facilitating development offer village communities interested in developing preliminary proposals. Toward the conclusion, I will look at what development initiatives such as these entail in the context of the enormous problems of electricity supply that Malawians stoically live with on a daily basis. In particular, I want to ask how much thought the Malawi presidency has given to the possibility of alternative energy, especially wind and solar power.

Back to the Bwanje Primary School OVOP meeting, the chairperson of the Bwanje Agroprocessing Cooperative, a Mr. Chajula, had prepared a programme for the day. It included speeches from chiefs and area political representatives. The lead person on the OVOP team of three, calling himself an “adviser”, had a different idea. “How about we start with what we came for, and then we can do the formalities later?” (The leader of team introduced himself and his two colleagues, but I wasn’t able to hear any of the names. When I asked at the end of the meeting if they had business cards, they had none.)

The team went straight into business. The leader of the team said they had brought with them a questionnaire, which they would use to assess the suitability of the cooperative’s proposal, and their readiness for the project. The first question was about the product the cooperative was proposing to produce. A woman spoke first and listed three items: tomato sauce, bwemba (tamarind) fruit juice, and baobab fruit juice. The leader asked for just one item, and the woman said bwemba fruit juice. Several hands went up, asking to correct her. Consensus established, it turned out to be tomato sauce. The OVOP team leader said the rest of the questions would come from his colleague, who had the questionnaire. In actual practice however, he repeatedly stepped in and led the proceedings. The questions were mainly aimed at establishing the level of advance preparedness the cooperative had engaged in. There were questions on what kind of market research had been carried out to identify the market for the product, and its size.  What were the average quantities of tomato produced throughout the year, per person in the cooperative? What assets did the cooperative have? How much money did they have in their bank account? How frequently did they use their bank account? How had they raised the startup funds? What other business transactions had they engaged in? Which other companies also producing tomato sauce had they identified as potential competitors? Did the area have electricity? What sources of energy would the plant run on? And many other such questions.

By the third or fourth question from the questionnaire, the conversation took on a rather hard tone, from the OVOP team leader. More than soliciting information on the level of preparedness, the cooperative was also being overtly challenged and not so subtly told they had no idea what was involved in researching the feasibility of a tomato sauce processing business. The lead person challenged the cooperative’s claim to being a “cooperative.” “What process did you go through to establish yourself as a cooperative? Did you obtain the necessary government approval? You don’t just decide to call yourself a cooperative. You have to apply for a government licence, and the government must provide it, before you can start using the term. You are not a cooperative.”

The OVOP team was requested, at least twice, to use Chichewa equivalents for terms such as “assets”, “shares,” and other words which were presented in English. Apparently aware that he may have been sounding rather harsh, the lead person said he needed to ask tough questions in order not to flatter the applicants about the real work involved in doing this kind of business. He would rather tell them the trust, than lie to them only for them to be shocked later when their proposal didn’t go through.

When the team finished with the questionnaire, the OVOP team leader said it was now time for the Bwanje group to ask questions. The chairperson of the “cooperative” signaled to continue on with the formalities they had earlier suspended, suggesting the order and hierarchies in which the chiefs and local representatives would speak. The OVOP team leader stepped in and said it was important for the group to be given a chance to ask questions. The formalities could be done on a later day. In their questions, the group wanted to know what they should do with the issue of a “cooperative.” They were told to go to the relevant offices, and fill out the proper paper work, asking to be registered. The group also wanted to know how much money they needed in their bank account in order to make their proposal more realistic. The team leader told the group how much a tomato sauce processing plant cost, around MK2 million (approximately US$13,333), and said they could attempt to raise a good fraction of that amount. Without a reasonable amount of capital, the group would not be able to make it into the top ten. OVOP had received a total of 139 proposals, and they would be paying closer attention to the top ten finalists.

The group asked if there was an OVOP business that had started off and succeeded, that they could use as a model. The team leader mentioned Bwanje Valle Rice Processing Group, which was in the same Bwanje valley area, and was using the name “Bwanje” in their designation (I later learned that the business is actually located at Mtakataka, in the next district of Dedza, and uses the name “Bwanje” because the valley straddles both Dedza and Ntcheu districts). We learned from the team leader that the rice processing business was now selling its rice in the major trading centres of Malawi, and was already depositing no less than MK200, 000 (approx. US$1,333) per month as repayments for the MK1 million loan they were given to purchase the plant. They had also participated at the recent 22nd Malawi International Trade Fair in Blantyre.

Asked what support the OVOP office was able to provide to aspiring OVOP businesses, the team leader excitedly explained that they were capable of supporting a business from its early stages. “We can provide experts who know the business well and can offer advice right from the start. We look around the world for experts. Government has given us that authority. We will go to Japan, India, wherever, to find an expert to come and guide you in your operations, at no cost to you.” He went on to say OVOP buys the plant requested in a proposal, constructs the building, and does all the consultation necessary to make the business viable. OVOP also funds the process of connecting the plant to the electric grid, as long as the cost does not go beyond MK1,500,000 (Approx. US$10,000).

After all the questions had been exhausted, the chairperson attempted one more time to have the chiefs speak, in their hierarchical order. The OVOP team leader announced they had to leave. They were supposed to have started out at Mtakataka, Dedza, where another OVOP proposal had been prepared, but they had been told at the last minute that the venue had been changed. The people there were still waiting for the team. In business, said the team leader, “time is money.” There was no request to put that into Chichewa.

The Bwanje group’s chairperson said the group had prepared lunch for the visitors, and asked if the team could spare a few minutes and eat before proceeding. The team leader insisted they had to leave, much as they were indeed hungry, and hadn’t had lunch. “This is how we operate. We do not like to keep people waiting, and we skip meals if we have to.”

As the team was leaving, I ran after the team leader and asked him when the Bwanje group should expect to hear the verdict on their proposal. And in the meantime, were there things they could do to improve their chances? He responded by saying all the proposals would be analyzed and evaluated sometime between June and August, and that the group could expect to hear back from OVOP by the end of August or early September. As to what they could be doing in the meantime, they might want to continue raising funds and reducing the gap between the cost of the processing plant and the group’s own capital. That would make it more probable for the group to repay the loan, should they be awarded an OVOP grant.

After the team had left, I was curious to hear the impressions of the Bwanje group. The chairperson was fearful that members of the group might feel discouraged by the tone of the OVOP team leader. By all accounts, the leader had not hidden his perception that the Bwanje group was totally unprepared, and had not done the necessary background research. “Did they really expect village people like us to know how to conduct market research?” Asked one of the members.  The chairperson said he had been reassured by the official from the Ministry of Trade and Industry that the tough questioning from the team leader should not discourage them. There were other things that went into consideration, beyond the questionnaire.

I have no idea what other considerations will go into the decision whether to award the Bwanje group an OVOP business grant or not, but whatever happens will in large part also entail what a determined Member of Parliament can achieve or fail to achieve. The issue of electricity is likely to feature prominently into the decision making process. One reason for this will be because a processing plant like the one being proposed will not be able to work without electricity. But more importantly, the issue of electricity supply, as my father said after the Bwanje meeting, hovers ominously above the entire question of development in Malawi.

That the Bwanje Valley Rice Processing project in Dedza has taken off as a huge success is due to the fact of the electric grid being nearby, a luxury that the Ntcheu part of Bwanje valley can only dream of. During the campaign period for the May 19 elections in 2009, President Bingu wa Mutharika visited an area some 20 kilometres north of Bwanje, my father told me. The president is said to have directed that the area be connected to the electric grid. It has been more than one year since the president’s visit, but there’s no electricity anywhere near the area. On hearing the president’s directive, the local Catholic parish, Sharpevale, sold all its maize reserves and realized MK800,000 (approx. US$5,333). They used the money to purchase a maize mill that requires electricity to run, hopeful that the president’s directive would be followed up on.

Sharpevale boasts a beautifully designed and magnificently imposing day secondary school, one of several constructed in the last few years by a World Bank project. As impressive as it is, there is no electricity at the school. Thirty kilometers south of Sharpevale is Bilira Day Secondary School, one of the oldest in the district. It too has no electricity. There are health clinics, post offices, private secondary schools and government primary schools, NGOs, and several other institutions operating in the Bwanje Valley area in Ntcheu, and there is no electricity in the entire area. Ironically, huge power towers and cables run across the area, carrying electricity to other parts of the country, except for the Ntcheu part of Bwanje Valley.

Meanwhile, the OVOP initiative is blossoming across the country, with support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). It operates under the moto  “Towards Economic Empowerment of People”, and spells out its vision as “An empowered community generating wealth.” Officially launched in 2003 in the waning years of Dr. Bakili Muluzi’s presidency, after adapting the idea from Oita, Japan, the initiative has recently moved from the Ministry of Local Government & Rural Development to Trade and Industry. According to a newsletter and a flyer, the initiative had 30 projects as of March 2009.  By the end of 2009, the OVOP Secretariat had visited 60 projects, as I learned from the Bwanje visit by the OVOP team. An Antenna shop in Area 3 of the Capital City, Lilongwe, sales OVOP items from processed foods to cane furniture, to banana wine, cooking oil and gem stones, among dozens of other items. Some products are also being exported overseas, I was told by Mr. Lazarus Macheso, a shop assistant at the Antenna Shop. As of March 2009, delegations from Senegal and Rwanda had visited OVOP projects in Malawi, to learn from Malawi’s success, according to the June 2009 OVOP News, the initiative’s newsletter. And judging from explanations and descriptions offered by the OVOP team that visited Bwanje, the staff are highly trained and suitably knowledgeable about rural economics and development.

As I continue learning more about OVOP in Malawi, there are two aspects I will be interested in following closely. The first one will be the issue of development ideas whose implementation requires electricity. Perceptions around the problem of electricity supply in Malawi run the gamut from hopelessness to intractability, making one wonder whether it is not time to shift the paradigm into what is now being called green or alternative energy, ie, wind and solar power. After 46 years of independence and attempts at eletrification, how many more decades do we need to prove that the hydroelectric power experiment has ran its course? Given how President wa Mutharika has taken on some of Malawi’s most intractable problems, does the problem of energy, and the prospects of wind and solar power, register on his development agenda?

The second aspect I want to closely follow is that of ongoing experiments and attempts at finding the best approaches to economic development in the global South. Thus far the OVOP idea seems to stand out solely due to one factor. Save for the source of funds, and the Japanese origin of the idea, the initiative comes from the people themselves, who know best what local resources are available in their area. The term “local ownership” has lately become cliché, even where ownership is glaringly not local. How different is what I saw at Bwanje on May 31st? Is OVOP an initiative other development projects can learn from?