Midnight Thought on the Arc of the Sun (6 April 08)

Excerpted from Burning the Midnight Oil for the Arc of the Sun (6 April 08),

in the Burning the Midnight Oil blog-within-a-blog, hosted by kos,

though to the best of my knowledge he doesn’t know it.

The Coming Revolution in Africa, is how G. Pascal Zachary titles his piece for the Wilson Quarterly (Winter 2008, Vol. XXXII, no. 1, pp. 50-66.{1}) …

… and yes, it takes a journalist to see the coming Revolution clearly, since so much of the so-called “development” profession has a conflict of interest. As Pascal notes well into his piece:

Even as a steady diet of stories about “urgent” food crises in Africa dominated public discussion, these successes became impossible to ignore. In 2004, the International Food and Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) published a series of papers titled “Successes in African Agriculture”. The papers both reflected and provoked a revolution in thinking about African farming. They also ended a long conspiracy of silence among aid agencies and professional Africanists. For decades the “food mafia,” led by the World Food program and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, had refused to acknowledge any good news about African farming out of fear that evidence of bright spots would reduce the flow of charitable donations to the UN’s massive “famine” bureaucracy, designed to feed the hungry.

See, the idea was that Africa would become the next Southeast Asia, or China, taking over their place at the bottom of the manufacturing food chain while using the income generated to buy food from “cheap” producers like the US, Australia, Argentina, etc.

The only problems with the idea are:

  •   No large nation has developed a robust domestic manufacturing economy without first undergoing an agricultural revolution;
  •    There is no indication that China, Southeast Asia, or India and the rest of South Asia are interested in surrendering their dominant positions at the bottom rungs of the ladder of industrial manufacturing even as they make determined efforts to also climb up to higher rungs on the ladder
  •    There is no indications of any success between the Sahara and the boundaries of South Africa in developing a robust domestic manufacturing industry; and
  •    the “cheapness” of the current low cost food producers is a combination of government subsidy and cheap oil in oil-fed agricultural systems, both of which are coming under pressure, the first from the shift toward subsidizing agriculture through biofuel programs and the second because the global oil production peak seems to now be in our rear view mirror.

IOW, its only problems is that it flies in the face of reality on every single point that it is possible to fly in the face of reality.

So what happened? Well, the reality is that in this time of rising incomes in India and China, and rising agricultural prices in the US and the EU, people started to notice that there were opportunities to go to Africa, make offers directly to local producers, and get agricultural commodities at a cost that made the whole process worthwhile.

A key point that Pascal Zachary makes regards the reliance of African agriculture on small producers:

International buyers of major African crops from Europe, Asia and the United States have told me repeatedly that small farmers in Africa, relying on their own land and family labor and using few costly inputs such as chemical fertilizers, are more efficient producers than plantations. Counterintuitively, Africa’s attractiveness to global food buyers is growing precisely because its agriculture is dominated by small farmers. And there are plently of them.

This is an important point … though the “counterintuitively” speaks to a different intuition than mine … and it is double important given Peak Oil. African small producer agriculture is almost everywhere a positive Energy Return On Investment (EROI) activity, because the main energy input is a person with a hoe, and the product sold is the normally the surplus remaining after the producer has been fed out of the output.

Be Careful of Wishful Thinking

Now, it is still possible to turn that positive EROI into a negative EROI overall, by dumping more energy into the commodity once it leaves the producer’s plot of land. Indeed, as soon as Pascal Zachary turns from reporting to policy making, reality is left behind again, as one of the items in the “wish list for Africa’s farmers” is, “Agricultural Airpower” …

Just as the mobile phone bypassed the vastly expensive challenge of upgrading dysfunctional African land-line systems, a big push into rural-based aviation, aimed at moving crops from the bush to African cities and beyond, would leapfrog the problem of bad roads.

Biofuel powered ambulance

This point is, of course, certifiably insane. The problem of bad roads can be solved with rail and, where suitable, river barge for inter-district transport, as it was before, and cycle-powered transport, which cause much fewer problems in maintaining dirt and gravel roads, for intra-district transport. The combination promises a reduction in the energy cost in getting crops to markets and goods to rural small town producers. It is an extremely 20th century idea in general to just throw energy at the problem … and undermining the big strategic advantages of African agriculture is so typically 20th century, that if this had been tried and fallen apart during a foreign currency crises, Pascal Zachary would have been reporting on it as another “typical” 1980’s and 1990’s failure in African development policy.

That is, there is a Wish List full of 20th century Wishful Thinking, sitting side by including detailed reporting from Pascal Zachary gives a strong indication of how badly things can go awry when applying 20th century thinking when its blind assumptions simply do not apply.

So as with anything … take Pascal Zachary’s reporting with a grain of salt. As soon as it loses contact with the reality on the ground and starts to head into the policy realm, it lapses into a substantial amount of conventional wisdom every bit as divorced from reality as the flawed conventional wisdom regarding African development that it dissects with surgical precision.

Looking Ahead to a 21st Century Partnership

This is a critical point when looking ahead to the strategic position of an Energy Independent United States. We have all too often only seen Africa in the Discovery Channel and in heart gripping appeals to help with famine and crises. We have to turn the channel.

The 21st century may well be the Asian Century. However, if African agricultural development remains on track, the 22nd century could well be the African Century. And if we find a way to sidestep our own past habits of only looking to Africa as a source of mineral wealth and as a Geopolitical playground, and offer to Africa a Balanced Trade Deal that is good for both sides, then seeing the 22nd Century mature into an African Century would be very, very good news for our old Republic.



{1. This is the pre-cursor to the hyperlink, called the “source reference”. Just like a hyperlink, it is text in a special format that allows another text to be quickly and conveniently accessed. There are advanced programs that make use of text in this format, but the program with the easiest to use user interface is called, “go to a library, and ask a librarian”.}

Midnight Oil – Dead Heart (Unplugged)

We don’t serve your country

Don’t serve your king

Know your custom don’t speak your tongue

White man came took everyone

We don’t serve your country

Don’t serve your king

White man listen to the songs we sing

White man came took everything

We carry in our hearts the true country

And that cannot be stolen

We follow in the steps of our ancestry

And that cannot be broken

We don’t need protection

Don’t need your land

Keep your promise on where we stand

We will listen we’ll understand


  1. … I would appreciate it if tips came in the form of jumping through the link to the Big Orange, and dropping in a comment there. It will make it look like there are people in the world who care about things beyond the PA primary and whether Tweedle Change or Tweedle Experience will come out of it with momentum.

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