Paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty

Zanzibar is perhaps the Garden of Eden. The land is virgin with plenty of naturally growing fruit trees and a beautiful climate for agriculture.

It is a paradise for growing rice in the midst of poverty and despair. But the small-scale rice fields are no longer green and the farmers will not harvest much. Food security is at risk.

The culprit perhaps is the seed quality that is undermining optimal use of the scarce resources and partly the reason why many are desperately poor.

This problem cuts across Africa where we have plenty of resources yet we continue to be poor. How can there be so much poverty with so much knowledge around?

I am slowly beginning to speculate what the answer could be. My many years of teaching have taught me there is a consistent pattern in students’ performance that may explain the public’s failure to deal with our sustainability.


My observations fit into what statisticians refer to as the normal distribution curve where some students are excellent, while others are good, fair and bad.

Any observation will fall between any two real limits or real numbers, as the curve approaches zero on either side. Normal distributions are extremely important in statistics and are often used in the natural and social sciences for real-valued random variables whose distributions are not known.

The normal distribution in agriculture is such that not everybody we consider a farmer is one. There are some who are great farmers and will do anything to improve productivity. There are others who need to be pushed to become good farmers.

Others will take many years to fully grasp agricultural activities while there are those who will never understand the basics – basically idlers sitting on a critical resource.

The challenge then is how to identify the real farmers who have the knowledge and commitment to farm. This is the group that should have access to most land resources.

In developed countries, less than five per cent of the population are farmers yet they feed everybody and still have a surplus to export. This compares unfavourably with Africa where 80 per cent claim to be farmers but only feed a fraction of the population.

Wikimedia tells us that the world’s first historically verifiable revolution in agriculture started about 12,000 years ago.

Through early biotechnology, the earliest farmers selected and bred the best suited crops with the highest yields to produce enough food to support a growing population.

As fields became increasingly larger and difficult to maintain, it was discovered that specific organisms and their by-products could effectively fertilise, restore nitrogen, and control pests.

Throughout the history of agriculture, farmers have inadvertently altered the genetics of their crops through introducing them to new environments and breeding them with other plants – one of the first forms of biotechnology.

Today, biotechnology is improving agricultural output and could be a trillion dollar business in Africa if we raised our curiosity a notch higher.

In spite of this knowledge available for over 12,000 years, and with thousands of graduates, we have not leveraged on the technology to bring Africa into the global stage of agriculture.

We have not been able to pass the message effectively across to farmers for greater productivity and sustainability.

We are risk averse, hoping someone will do that for us some day. But unlike agriculture, more than 85 per cent of Africans have embraced mobile technology that is less than 20 years old, despite the inherent risks.

Due to the foresight of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the founding president of Tanzania, Zanzibar still has better land tenure policies than most African countries, including Kenya. It can easily be a model island for African countries to emulate.

With a population of 1.3 million, the island can shelter its inhabitants in a well-organised housing project and provide for the majority from its abundant natural resources.

The government can convert majority of its peasant farmers into employees of large- scale commercial activities run by committed and knowledgeable farmers to produce not just for their consumption but for export, too.

But they may need public private partnerships to convert their rotting fruits into exportable juices and leverage on technology to create a global market for its spices.

They could also commercially exploit their fish resources. Nelson Mandela once said, “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination”.

Let us fight poverty with these God-given instruments.

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.