CASSAVA – Serving All Masters! BUT At What Pay Package?

During a presentation a friend and I made at Ducklington in Oxfordshire during the celebration of Africa Week 2012, we had little difficulty explaining to the kids that chocolate comes from cocoa and sugar from sugarcane, which are African cash crops. Not surprisingly,  cassava drew a lot of attention, not because it was popular among the kids but rather because we had so much to say about it but paradoxically, most of them were hearing it for the first time.

The question I could not stop asking myself was what made cassava such a household name in almost all African and Latin American countries but is barely known in most parts of the world.

I will not go through the drudgery of stating that cassava is a major source of carbohydrates, is consumed by more than 500 million people in the world; can simply be boiled and eaten on its own or with a wide variety of sauces; or that it can be used to prepare Water fufu, miondo, bobolo and nkunkum in Cameroon, eba and akpu in Nigeria, that the leaves of the crop are used to prepare the famous cassava-leaf soup of Sierra Leone; that the famous garri produced from cassava can be soaked in cold water (spiced with peanuts, sliced coconuts or palm kernels) or that garri can be poured into hot water to make a simple meal that can be eaten with an array of sauces.

Neither am I going to go through the mantra of stating that starch from cassava, when treated appropriately makes a good natural adhesive; or that in the textile industry, starches occupy an important place in such operations as warp sizing, cloth finishing and printing: or that alcohol production from cassava has an overall efficiency of 32%, or that cassava could become an industrial crop by developing cultivars with different starch compositions or more importantly that Bio-ethanol production is already making its way into world records as Brazil has already started producing bio-ethanol from cassava and many African countries are also becoming major producers of bio-ethanol.

After all the tossing, I guess you will agree it is time to get back to my initial question: What makes cassava so ‘popular’ yet never entering the hall of fame? Many may not agree but the simple answer is that it is because unlike other tropical crops that can be transported over long distance, any attempt to carry cassava across the ocean will in Mallam Sanusi’s words ‘be tantamount to transporting water’. This is because cassava disintegrates not too long after harvesting and hence cannot do with long-distance travel.

This is, therefore, the tricky part. Africans have never stopped accusing the west for plundering the continent’s natural resources. By crook or by design, one crop is such that no one can effectively exploit outside the area of cultivation, – and what is the result… it is languishing in obscurity. Nigeria for example which is the world’s largest producer of cassava is also a great importer of starch. Transformation of cassava beyond local consumable forms into exportable components is by and large left for a future yet unknown generation. The few factories that attempt to convert cassava into other marketable components are mostly located far from the areas of production.  This is the plight of cassava – so good a crop, grows in some extreme conditions, provides different forms of local consumption but a crop which completely hates travelling in its natural form and unfortunate to belong to a people who seem to hate transforming anything beyond the point of local consumption.

Yes! Cassava typifies the African plight. A continent so richly blessed but yet thinks that her successful transformation only lies beyond her shores. When this transformation fails to come, she becomes the sleeping giant. Mighty in herself yet ineffective in creating any influence beyond her shores. Full of potential, yet without the ability to market herself beyond her immediate surroundings.

This is the plight of cassava! Serving all masters but receiving pittances in the form of wages. Enough for subsistence but never enough to save for a rainy day. Enough to satisfy current wants but never thought of as a form of long-term investment. But like any other plight, there is a remedy! Cassava can get her rightful place in the world if and only if Africans begin to invest in the transformation of the crop both for longterm domestic consumption and for foreign markets. If foreign markets will not eat eba or drink garri, they will certainly need starch, ethanol, paper. adhesives, corrugated boards, gums, wallpaper,  textile, wood furniture, particle board, biofuels, dusting powders, drugs, plastic, packaging, stain remover, and moisture sequester, which are all produced from cassava.

If this is done, there is no way cassava will not receive a fair wage for her services. After all, a labourer deserves her wages!

Elites, Politics and Development

Last week, the contention was on whether politics can be pro-poor. While I am yet to come to a conclusion about that, the issue has shown itself to be a real can of worms. The bringing in of elites into the discussion ultimately raises the questions – what have elites got to do with development? And to answer this question another needs to be answered first… who are the elites? These are surely very complex questions and made more so by the fact that I had been following a debate on the Economist with the motion This House Believes That the Global Elite Serve the Masses. I could not help but marvel at the coincidence that the Economist should choose such a topic on the same week that I am grappling with understanding the role of elites in development. It however, became less of a surprise when I followed the massive arguments on both sides, which in one way or the other, pointed to the fact that elites are a massive influence on how the future of the world is to be shaped.

The proposer of the debate felt that the “modern subsidised elite… provide goods and services that the masses value. And, for all we know, the consumer surplus may exceed the subsidy. What is more, the élite pay high taxes that subsidise the consumption of the masses. In America, the bottom 50% of earners pays no federal income tax at all, while the top 10% pay 50% of the national total. In Britain, most people consume more than they earn.” Wow! I literally clapped for him… but not until I read the opposition’s remarks that “Instead… look more closely at the record of the elite in recent years… the question should not be whether such ideas are beneficial but whether the elite could have done better. In many respects their record in recent years, particularly in the West, is poor. Economic growth could arguably have been faster and technological progress more pervasive. The average growth rate in the Western economies is much slower than it was in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Caught within the ‘fly bottle” of this debate, it was not surprising that I had some difficulties at the beginning of Tom’s lecture. From his definition of elites, my mind immediately became flooded with questions… is the concept of ‘elite’ the same in the Western world as it is in Africa? Do they have similar roles to perform? Are the expectations from the masses the same? Is there any such thing as ‘global elite’?

Then I got it! There lies the main area of my confusion… the use of the word ‘global’ in the debate motion and the fact that the Moderator, Proposer and Opposition all failed to capture what they meant by ‘global’. Their arguments failed to reflect the universal nature of the proposition. Maybe by luck or by design, this realisation made it relatively simpler for me to follow the discussions during the seminar. I had arrived at certain conclusions though:

First, there is a marked difference between the African elite and that of the West. This is not only from the perspective that the African elite “…tend to be especially powerful. (And) often command a particularly large slice of the national income, and the influence that goes with it.” (Hossain and Moore, 2002) But most especially that their histories are very different. While it would seem the problem of elite’s participation in the political and/or economic development of the western countries could be seen as an issue that is beginning to decline, the situation of the African elite is different in that their roles were defined by the very process of their creation – to be one that exploits rather than help the masses. Fanon clearly stated that the mission of these national bourgeoisie “has nothing to do with transforming the nation” as it is content with playing “the role of the western bourgeoisie’s business agent” and serving as the local instrument of neo-colonialism. Nkrumah, one of those who was quick to spot this a long time ago pointed out that the African elites (bourgeoisies) were a far more serious problem  than colonialism for while colonialism had been slavery from without, neo-colonialism was slavery from within, and as such more dangerous. (Nkrumah, 1965, 50) Jean-Paul Sartre, who calls them the “manufactured native elite”, cogently explains that

The European elite undertook to manufacture native elite. They picked out promising adolescents, branded them as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of western culture; they stuffed their mouth full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth. (Sartre; Preface  to Fanon; p. ix)

These native elites did not limit themselves to high-sounding phrases but in many other ways mortgaged the economies of their countries in a bid to maintain their privileges. This is because the African elites or bourgeoisie:

…lacks something essential to a bourgeoisie: Money. The bourgeoisie of an underdeveloped country is a bourgeoisie in spirit only….consequently, it remains at the beginning and for a long time afterwards a bourgeoisie of the civil service…..it will always reveal itself incapable of giving birth to an authentic bourgeoisie society with all the economic and industrial consequences which this entails.

Until there is a good and accountable partnership between the government and the people with whom sovereignty resides and through some process of direct dialogue and initiative, a few individuals will continue to present their ideologies and selfish interests as national creed, thereby eroding the powers of the people[i]


[i] Francis O.C Njoku; Development and African Philosophy, p.182

Introduction: Theories of Political Development

Unbelievable… is a word commonly used when there is every reason to believe (and very little or no reason to doubt). I now realise this with a higher degree of force as I begin to write on this blog. This is something that I would not in my dreams have thought possible a couple of years ago. If you have travelled the road I have, then you will be in a good position to understand what I am saying.

I wouldn’t say it is the most difficult road, but I am sure it has not been easy. When I look back over the years and see many who had the same dreams I had (and still have) of impacting the world in a very positive way, but stumbled along the way because of the very structures they had hoped to change, I cannot but ask questions about many things… for to ask questions is but natural to any rational being. As Aristotle rightly put it “Si philosophandum est, philosophandum est; si non est philosophandum, philosophandum est, nemper ad ostendendum quia non philosophandum est; ergo, philosophandum est”. (If we must philosophise then we must philosophise:  if we wish not to philosophise then we must philosophise. Never can it be thought that we should not philosophise for on account of this we must philosophise)

If politics is ‘the central and dominant variable determining…developmental success or failure’ then I cannot help but remember the same Aristotle’s argument that “If the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature… Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.” This argument, so beautifully crafted in that book called ‘The Politics’ makes me realise that I cannot escape from being political without causing serious injury to myself  because it will involve denying the quintessence of my being – which of course is an ontological impossibility.

For if you happen  grow up  in a society where the people have been so impoverished, dehumanised and reduced to near total dependence on the production and shipment of necessary goods from foreign, distant and greedy lands and when its own products remain unmarketable and devalued, when that quality of life is normalised, then, philosophandum est. When there is so much to do to catch up with the rest of the world and yet nothing much is being done, when the job of a developing or underdeveloped continent is barely begun and the work force is idle and jobless – with work to do and people to do it and still nothing done – then philosophandum est. When some sections of the world are enjoying the benefits of convergence and all one sees is fragmentation and decay, then, philosophandum est. When the failure of organisation and governance resulting from the overthrow of primordial societal structures is imminent and chaos and anarchy stare at people in the face, then philosophandum est. When the only popularity a people get is about civil war, corruption, struggles for secession, sit-tight ‘democracies’, election and post-election violence, and when it seems this is fast becoming a way of life, then, philosphandum est. When a people have been traumatised by alien occupation, an alien occupation of their minds, more than exploitation of their natural resources, when their self confidence is so thoroughly undermined and their identity devalued, then philosophandum est.

Within the next ten weeks I am going to be processing so much information using the winepress of critical judgment and expressing them here. I hope that by the end of ten weeks I will either understand more about Development Politics or be more confused – which would not be a bad idea though – since it will also be sign that I am learning.

This has been the first week, and it is an introduction to development politics. (Or should I say to 21st century Development politics or better still Post World War II Development Politics?) I seem to be confused already!!! Maybe I did not know exactly what to expect. It was a wonderful starting point though since the lecture acted as a resume for several theories that I had initially encountered in Critical Approaches to Development. It was a good feeling to have the opportunity to reflect again on certain aspects of Modernisation, Dependency, Neo-liberal and Post-development theories.

The emphasis on the link between development and p0litics is not lost to me. I was really elated at the notion that Political development is at the heart of social science and political philosophy. Unfortunately, my joy was short-lived as I began to question what ‘political development’ actually is and tried to grasp this in relation to the different theories I have recently learned. As I tried to overcome this difficulty in the course of the week by searching for what sages have said on the subject, I realised to my chagrin that they also had a problem – lack of epistemic interdependence – for “It seems apparent that the implicit theorising by economists about political development and of political scientists about economic development should be replaced by more explicit attempts to develop an integrated theory of political and economic development…”1 Could this be the solution to the problem of fragmentation and parcelling-out of knowledge? I am sure I will move a step forward towards getting answers to some of this as I struggle to grapple with understanding why they had to be separated in the first place. Exploring and understanding the ‘Primacy of Politics’ for development in the coming week will be crucial to my understanding how development can also shape politics.